Saturday 13 September 2014

The Dungeoning (PC/Linux/Mac)

Roguelikes are the hot thing these days, so much so now that as even a die-hard, long term fan for the genre, I'm beginning to roll my eyes when I see the term being thrown around. Especially when it's used loosely - "contains roguelike elements" (as in, not a roguelike) or some such. Don't think I'm a purist, but there's no doubt that these days it's being slapped on decidedly non-roguelike games in an effort to cash in on the genre's newfound popularity. Thankfully, The Dungeoning is not one of those titles.

While not a pure roguelike by any means, Nick Donnelly's The Dungeoning is hardcore enough to make my list of personal favorites. It immediately breaks 'the rules' by presenting itself as a low-resolution pixel-art platformer, with the player controlling their hardy little knight via gamepad (the best method) or keyboard. There's not much in the way of surprises here, save for a few unique elements such as the aiming feature for projectile weapons (which allows players to aim in all directions somewhat easily to tag hard-to-reach baddies) and the 'pogo' attack (think Legend of Zelda II).

As such, our little knight trudges forth into a foreboding looking dungeon in search of... well, we don't really know, except for to find some magical object or something. Does it matter? No, it's a roguelike-like. No, it doesn't. Just kill stuff, level up and head forever downwards into the catacombs!

The gameplay itself is rather enjoyable. The knight moves about the play area swiftly and with a dash of physics, meaning that a sword strike propels him/her slightly forward, and falls can lead to high damage or death. Navigation, sword-slashing and shield defending all feel natural and fun. Using projectile weapons can be a bit more frustrating, especially in the spur of the moment, as one has to cycle through weapons with a 'forward' and 'back' type system. Jumping around is a hoot, mainly due to the fact that the knight has a handy wall-jump à la Ninja Gaiden. Coins and small healing berries can be collected with the occasional chest revealing some higher quality loot such as new weapons or armour - just don't expect the constant slot-machine, dopamine-releasing feedback of something like Diablo III. Items are scarce and precious in this world.

This means that when your metal-clad avatar discovers something cool, it feels truly special and useful. The wands are particularly slick, leaving sharp-looking sparkly trails in the wake of their projectiles (aided in appearance, no doubt, by the nicely done dynamic lighting system, adding a lot to the look and feel of the game). The graphics are polished and the visual design is well-executed, especially the aforementioned lighting effects.

Where The Dungeoning reveals its true character is after the first level or two, where the brutal difficulty - and inevitable perma-death - makes itself known. The levels are random, of course, as are the loot and monsters. However, it's sort of Spelunky-esque in that each situation demands attention, and could be tackled in a variety of ways. Does the player wall-jump and pogo attack the monster on the far ledge? This could lead to a quick death if not performed with finesse, but the alternative - sniping them with precious arrows - could leave the player low on ammo, resulting in a sticky situation later on. It's this type of gameplay that makes games like this truly addictive and entertaining; this is no simple hack and slash affair. Stop paying attention for a second, you just might bite the dust. And bite the dust I did, time and time again. I haven't yet made it past level 5, where the dungeon appearance changes and the monsters seem to quadruple in deadliness, but I can't wait to improve my skills and delve even deeper.

Aside from a few niggling issues with the controls and menus, The Dungeoning is a lovingly made game with tons of gameplay possibilities, delicious difficulty, entertaining platforming, excellent visuals and audio, and secrets to discover. I'd encourage anyone looking for some frustrating-yet-ultimately-rewarding dungeon hacking to give this one a try, especially given the reasonable price. Those seeking a more casual, lighthearted game (and lesser challenge) might be less impressed.

Buy the game here (direct from the developer's website).
4 out of 5

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