If you’re one of those people who thinks games have gotten too “casual” these days or you’re just looking for something meaty and stupendously challenging, Dungeon of the Endless would like a word with you before it puts you into a corner and makes you cry for bit. If you haven’t smashed your PC with a sack of hammers, you’ll pick yourself up out of that teary heap, stomp back to your computer and try again with gritted teeth and fresh resolve. Amplitude Studios’ brilliantly designed and gorgeously old-school experience mixes a bunch of genres, takes the developer’s famed 4X gameplay and makes it even more appealing than before. Of course, the game’s masterful design and monstrous difficulty will mean that everyone who plays will suffer load of losses as they attempt to keep their crystal and/or their party in one piece before they can reach that exit. But this one’s a game where you learn from each defeat and each victory deserves a celebration before you move on for more potential pain…
Although you’re dropped right into the thick of things after a short and great opening cinema, there’s a deeper overall story at work. However, you’ll need to have played through the game’s random maps multiple times and met a bunch of other playable characters to see the big picture. Don’t let the initial Very Easy and Easy difficulty choices fool you one bit. DotE will be brutal on novice players and pretty darn harsh on everyone else as it drops some nice but nasty surprises on your initial two-person (which can grow up to four) party. While the game uses rogue-like mechanics as a hook, it’s got a lot more depth to work with from other genres that you’ll soon see makes it magnificently addictive.
In a nutshell, your escape pod crashes deep on a strange planet and you’re tasked with finding your way out of a series of maze-like levels packed with random monsters, treasure, a few helpful new characters you can recruit and even an occasional shopkeeper. That escape pod has a powerful energy crystal that needs to be protected at all costs, as it’s used to generate energy needed to power stuff you create as part of your survival plans. If it’s destroyed by the dungeon’s denizens or you lose all your party members, it’s game over. You’ll need to think about every door you open, which resources you invest in and which rooms to leave alone as you chart a path to that elevator to the next floor.
I thought I’d given up completely on tower defense games because I’ve played too many variations over the years to care about the genre. But DotE managed to make me dive back in both feet first and not come up for air for hours on end. The game also mixes in some RPG and RTS elements and despite the “pay attention or else!” learning curve and often seemingly random nature of your party’s demises, is a lot more accessible than you’d think. Yes, it’s an oddball paradox, but this is one of those games that will lure you in with its beautiful pixel art (with modern lighting techniques!) and keep you playing even though the initial frustration factor can often be quite high.
How high? well, I didn’t make it past the first floor on my first attempt because I thought I was playing a different game and didn’t realize running around opening doors without a plan was a really poor idea. After restarting, it took me a mere three attempts to make it to the seventh of a dozen floors and on that seventh floor, I think I went through about 11 more attempts, losses and restarts from the beginning to make it to the eighth floor. The tutorial just covers the basics, so you’ll need to try and fail as you go, making mental notes (or taking actual notes) and progressing with even more care while constantly take new chances. The game mixes things up so much hat you’re always on your toes and adding new tactics to your repertoire. Lining your explored paths with turrets and other offensive and defensive bits, then breaking them down, shutting down powered rooms to save energy and repositioning those aids once you think you’ve found the path to the exit room (or have found it) soon becomes a reflexive second nature key to survival.
While you don’t need to open EVERY door, doing so can be doubly rewarding on a few fronts, yet quadruply dangerous once you make it to the exit. As that crystal can’t be moved until the exit is unlocked, it’s a total sitting duck if it’s left unprotected. As you play, you’ll need to level up your characters, outfit them with better gear and plan out who’s going to hoof that crystal to the exit under heavy enemy assault once that door is opened. The level of tension during the game is balanced by the ability to pause the action and issue commands that will hopefully keep that crystal in one piece and at least one (but optimally, every) party member alive. The fall back in your seat satisfaction of making it to every new floor is worth pouring one out and relaxing for a bit, but you definitely want to play this one sober and wide-eyed.
On the presentation front, DotE is brilliant in every aspect. All that beta and Early Access testing on Steam has helped Amplitude craft a gorgeous, lean and mean game overall. The keyboard/mouse controls are solid, text is easy to read and for the most part, the menus are a breeze to navigate. I did have a tiny issue in realizing how the Backpack worked, but that’s because I didn’t do more reading and it’s not covered in the tutorial as far as I saw. Other than that, once I had a few bouts of failure and a bunch of restarts, each later loss was less painful and only made me determined to make that next retry the best one. Yep, I still came up short thanks to some nigh-invincible monster, multiple doors at the exit point opening, me accidentally panicking and sending my team the wrong way (hey, I was tired!) and a few other mishaps. But it was never the game’s fault or bad programming that caused my losses.
What more can I say other than if you’re not downloading this game at this point, you’re just stalling for time. Drop everything and carve out some quality time for this instant classic and a Game of the Year 2014 contender. In a year packed with AAA titles trying too hard to blow each other up with bigger and badder explosions and super-realistic visuals, Amplitude Studios has made a game that’s more absorbing, definitely more difficult and absolutely more visually and mentally stimulating than those titles and then some. Get it, prepare to be amazed, annoyed (in the best possible manner) and thrilled on a rotating basis.