Last year, a pretty, pared-down roguelike RPG called Deep Dungeons of Doom debuted on the Ouya, to a reasonably warm welcome. This fall, thanks to the joint efforts of Brazilian developer team Miniboss and London-based Bossa Studios, the game has made it to the Android platform. Its 8-bit chic aesthetic and compulsive playability explain its immediate popularity, but it has other flattening, oversimplified qualities that may give it a short shelf life.
You control a war party consisting of a Crusader, a Witch and a Mercenary who must clear a series of evil-infested environs on your way to the eponymous dungeon. Your start screen is a chunky, pixelated map of the kingdom punctuated with shops that sell curative elixirs and useful equipment, access points for character profiles, and most importantly, battle zones. With each corrupted region that you clear, more open up, culminating with the appearance of the deepest dungeon of doom.
On entering the fray, to the tune of some funky old school arcade music and crunchy sound effects, you land in a single room where you and the resident monster duel from fixed positions. You can block with a button on the lower left, strike with the right, or use an item in your inventory display at the top right if you’ve snatched up a life-sucking cursed scroll, a healing wand, or even a rock to throw. Holding down the attack button executes a special move: the Crusader heals himself, the Witch replenishes magic points, and Mercenary delivers a powerful blow. To win, observe each enemy’s unique attack pattern and parry accordingly—satyrs strike and immediately block, hanged men are briefly vulnerable before hurling projectiles, headless horsemen strike at long intervals but if you fail to block, their attack continues on to your death, etc. Once you’ve made a kill and gathered up the gold and occasional gear contained in the treasure boxes guarded by each creature, swipe vertically to proceed to the next room. Each level is headed up by an appropriately-themed boss, like the cybernetic polar bearbot in the Icy Caves, and the possessed priest presiding over the haunted Monastery. Even though rhythm-based combat is fundamentally predictable and monotonous, the challenge of keeping your cool and controlling your reflexes is fairly entertaining.
Keep an eye on your Health and Magic bars at the top, but be especially mindful of your Agility, which determines your recoil time after attacking; each strike dims your Attack button, and you won’t be able to use it again until the button regains its glow. The starting strength of Attack, HP, Magic and Agility stats varies from character to character, and as you fight on, Dungeon Bonus screens intermittently appear to give you the chance to increase your powers. You’ll want to select increases that compensate for the weaknesses of the weapons you’ve acquired, bumping up Agility to improve the performance of your strong but slow Brass Knuckles, or adding HP to wield a devastating sword that slowly drains your health. However, these increases only last for the duration of the level, and if you die before beating the boss, you’ll lose these bonuses as well as any gold and equipment you’ve collected. Winners, however, can carry their weapons to the next level, but the stat hikes still disappear.
In spite of the bonus and gear losses, your characters do enjoy some permanent increases in their abilities. Each profile page displays a substantial grid of unlockable skills whose gold cost escalates with their potency. There are three skills available at each price tier, and seven price tiers, making your characters highly customizable. However, only one skill within a price tier can be active at a time, and like your equipment, each skill has a dark side, so make your selections strategically. The agile Mercenary can handle an attack multiplier that comes with an agility decrease, just as the Witch’s ability to recharge her own magic points recommends a defense increase that causes her magic level to drop slightly at the start of each floor. The fun of building up and reconfiguring these characters counteracts the impossibility of amassing an arsenal to some degree, and makes hitting that Revenge button after each death especially addictive.
You only have to clear ten areas before the deepest dungeon reveals itself, but the difficulty level escalates sharply toward the end of the campaign, so it’s unlikely you’ll have the chops for the final fight by the time you get there. This sends you into a slog of scraping up enough gold in lower levels to afford all of the ultimate skill upgrades. The developers have tried to preempt the onset of boredom by offering randomized challenges to meet in the meantime—you get gold for killing three corrupted priests, clearing the Coal Mines with the Crusader, or expending twenty magic points in one battle—but there are other issues that make this game feel slow and uneventful. You always have to restart from the first floor after dying, and each time you access a different level, you have to sit through that area’s introductory cut scene again. Sure, you can tap through to speed things up, but these scenes are unusually long (and loaded with eye-rolling jokes) and could definitely use a “skip” option. Once inside, nothing tells you how many floors there are per level, dampening your sense of progress and sometimes making you wonder if you’ll ever reach the boss. Additionally, you can’t see your enemy’s health bar unless you’ve paid for that skill, creating feelings of futility (and eternity) when you’re using a low-attack character against an especially tough monster.
In the short term, the simplicity of Deep Dungeons of Doom makes it intensely addictive, and its vintage arcade vibe gives it a hip charm that’s hard to resist. In the long run though, the game’s poor pacing, and the frustration of losing everything with each death, will make it seem as medieval as its premise.
Is it Hardcore?
Despite Deep Dungeon of Doom’s attractive visuals and addictive play, the developers need to do more to sync this medieval-themed game up with the modern age.