Desktop Dungeons review
The hero stepped up to the boss. He sized the monster up. He carefully inspected his chances, checked his own buffs and potion collection, and buggered off home.
Desktop Dungeons was designed a year ago as a simple short web game, with the look of a cutesy roguelike. After extensive rejigging, it’s been recreated as a more polished but equally compelling paid-for browser-only game. The art has been redrawn, so the creatures and heroes are now all gurning handdrawn faces. While it’s still very simple, Desktop’s cartoony style comes across better than the recent Dungeons of Dredmor.
Each ten-minute-long level starts with your hero alone in a singlescreen labyrinth. As you click to move him, he uncovers more tiles, Minesweeper-style, and regains health and mana (also recoverable through a very limited number of potions). So part of the game’s puzzle element is to not explore the dungeon too quickly, as the fog of war is effectively a secondary health bar. If the hero dies, the game has the same attitude to its heroes as Majesty: they are simply a limitless resource to be exploited by the Kingdom Administrator – you.
Your aim in each dungeon is to kill the end boss – much harder said than done, as he’s a high level monstrosity. Heroes can reliably kill enemies of their level or below, but that doesn’t pull in much experience. They get bonus experience for killing high level enemies, so the bigger puzzle of each level is in gambling your limited resources to level your hero up to kill the boss, without dying en route.
You’re aided in this by a clever little system that lets you know what the outcome of your next attack will be (although it doesn’t always take special powers into account).
Kill the boss and you can take his trophy (worth lots of gold) and escape the dungeon.
Each of the randomly-generated dungeons is balanced so that there’s always a levelling path open to you, though you might need to think it through. Some tricks are explained in the excellent tutorial, others you’ll need to work out for yourself, such as only attacking poisonous or manadraining creatures just before you level up, or using the Warlord class’s death protection spell to stay alive.
Once you’ve established a town on the surface, you get to explore dungeons in the local hinterland with a hero chosen from the races and classes available to you. As you upgrade the town buildings to unlock more classes and races, you also unlock a wider variety of monsters, seemingly balanced against a related class.
The brevity results in some balance issues. I found myself in a loop, where the difficulty of missions had risen to the point that I was forced to grind the easier ones for the money necessary to attempt the harder ones. A game rule that diminishes the returns from a given boss-trophy means that repeated failure can spiral downwards. You’re never in the situation where you can’t do a mission, but you will often be without the more expensive unlocks that make the mission easy. If they introduced micropayments, I’d definitely pay for a shortcut.
With that strange, enthused humour that’s become the norm in indie games (for example, all the spells have pidgin english names, such as Cydstepp), the main problem with this wonderfully netbook-friendly game is that you can’t play it on the move. Hence the name, I guess.
Bite-sized, colourful chunks of randomly generated adventure. It’s the perfect casual roguelike experience.