Having died no less than seven times in the past two hours, I was determined to not only complete my quest but to make it out of the dungeon alive. So I watched the message counter, closely. Thirsty? Stop for a drink. Feeling puckish? Eat what I could, be it rations, or monster-corpse-on-the-fly: dirtwerfers, clawed winged horrors and the like. Taking advantage of a trick I learned in a previous life, I leveled up quickly and safely by crafting charms and wands from obsidian and bone. And when I reached the bottom of the dungeon this time, I was a stalwart level 20, rounding corners with abandon and dusting baddies with mana bolts to the face. In less than an hour I’d gone from fodder to unstoppable. Then, as if in response to my new found hubris, he appeared. Kak Sin, the Bringer of Madness, a static, quarter-inch sprite of pure monster baddassery, and the object of my quest. I backed into a hallway and hammered his face with mana bolts. Kak didn’t blench. Reverting to my backup spell, a suicidal area-of-effect fireball, I backed up further and dropped the spell right behind ole’ Kak, and as far away from me as it seemed to go. Turns out the spell’s intensity rises with character level and that the thing maybe backfires randomly, or maybe all the time. I don’t know, but I do know that I died then. Kak brutalized my corpse. Shameless behavior to be sure, but could I really expect better? The guy’s name is Kak.
And so goes a typical session of Dungeon Ho!, a throwback to another era and one of Android’s best Roguelikes, a no-frills Android RPG that more than compensates for its drab circa 1997 graphics with good writing, functional detail and character to spare; that is, if you don’t mind about half of your gameplay delivered via descriptive text and you’re a little impressionable (see vignette above).
The game begins with a nod to Tolkien’s Thorin and Company as you’re presented with a waiver absolving the Adventurer’s Guild of any culpability in the event of your dismemberment or death, while you’re out performing quests on its behalf. Signing the writ names your character and brings you to the class selection screen, where you are presented with 10 distinct character classes. Aside from the standard fantasy fare of warrior, ranger and mage, first-time developer Sandalfoot Games throws the player a few curves with their adventurer, alchemist and artificer, the last a crafting specialist whose martial prowess depends upon constructed henchman.
What becomes immediately apparent, after selecting a class and appearing in one of half a dozen randomly chosen terrains, is that Dungeon Ho!’s graphics are strictly a brown bag affair. Gamers requiring a measure of glitz in their RPG may want to look elsewhere. Even gamers tolerant of low-end graphics may find themselves turned off by certain tile sets: The foothills tile set for example looks like the Land of Styrofoam Pellets. Others, however, like the forest and cavernous dungeon are definitely serviceable.
But with a game like Dungeon Ho! it’s not the graphics that will keep hardcore RPG players coming back for more but rather the game’s depth, challenge and writing. Consisting mostly of short descriptions of environment, incident and player actions, the writing is not remotely literary or even anything resembling a narrative, but what is there is tongue-in-cheek, fantasy hokum at its best. Just before you appear on the map, you’re given your quest, which always amounts to making a beeline to the bottom of the dungeon and retrieving either a magic item like the “Legendary Studded Leather Armor of the Noble Bear” or the severed head of “Hronk Hrorg” or “The Fearsome …Thing” (you pause when you say it) or “Kak Sin, The Bringer of Madness,” may he die screaming.
And once you start playing and dying–and make no mistake you will die—you’ll realize that you have to pay attention, to the message counter, to your lore skill, your craft skill, your inventory and spells. And this is where Dungeon Ho! sings. Most of the game’s loot is efficacious as are, with only a few exceptions, the skill sets of each of the game’s 10 characters. Discovering how said items and skills can best be used to help each of these characters survive is where a lot of the game’s fun is. When you eventually manage to survive a while, however, and the dynamic evolves into becoming an expert at DH’s brand of survival dungeoneering, the game is an absolute blast.
Not all is perfect in brown bag RPG land. The production values overall are nearly as basic as you can get with straight up 2D sprites and no animation to speak of. The sound track, on the other hand, is well-produced and appropriately moody and dramatic. The game’s biggest downfall, however, is that its random underpinnings can occasionally place the player in unwinnable situations that seem based more on a bad crapshoot than on poor decision making. Some might argue that such is the harsh nature of a roguelike RPG but there is a problem when you lose an entire game based on a single dice roll.
To be fair, this happened only a few times and more often than not I was destroyed by carelessness or as with Kak, pure hubris. What’s more, each game is relatively short, encompassing no more than a few hours if you play the smaller and medium-sized dungeons. And it is also abundantly true that a roguelike is meant to be tough, a sort of gauntlet for the adept role player. Like any challenging game, the fun of playing is in discovering the nuances of gameplay and developing strategies to address them and then putting them into motion. When that whole cocktail comes together and you overcome a trenchant and difficult challenge, it’s a thing of beauty; and Dungeon Ho!’s procedurally drawn playing fields were built for exactly this sort of rich and engaging gameplay.
It’s not for everyone. If your tastes run more towards the glamour of the Tegra 3 Zone or if you must have 3D and have it now then you should probably look elsewhere for your next RPG. But if you love a steep challenge and developing strategies by way of getting under the hood of your RPG, then you should definitely sign on for Dungeon Ho!, at only 99 cents it’s more than worth the cost of admission.