Hewing closely to a well-established action RPG tradition, bit Dungeon owes a lot to the past. With aural and graphical nods to early console gaming and a top-down, room-by-room dungeon-crawling style reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda, its artistic lineage will be immediately apparent to anyone who grew up with an NES in their home. The gameplay, however, looks more to roguelikes than the Zelda series for inspiration, with permadeath and a modus operandi that plays like Diablo stripped down to just its core elements.
The story doesn’t really matter, but I’ll mention it anyway. The short of it goes that you wake up in a room with nothing but a sword and the knowledge that your wife was kidnapped by demons. That’s about all you get in the way of character development or narrative. If you’re the type to equate quality in an RPG with drama and boxes of dialogue you might want to look elsewhere. The throwback gameplay fills this narrative void the only way it knows how. You know the drill: see monster, kill monster, get loot, kill bigger monster, get better loot, and so on ad insaniam.
Though bit Dungeon doesn’t add a whole lot of variety to the killing part of the above equation, there’s just enough tactical engagement here to keep the game from getting stale too quickly. The controls are so basic that only one finger is ever needed to play. Tap around the screen to move, tap a monster to attack, hold down your tap to block, and hold longer to charge a power attack. There are no ranged weapons in your arsenal, just melee. Your attacks can be carried out automatically with a single tap, but you can increase the pace by quickly tapping multiple times, giving combat a button-mashing rhythm like you’re frantically trying to send Morse code. Power attacks use up a mana bar and have added magical effects, but these are limited to a single spell snagged at the beginning of each level.
The real fun of the game comes from the strategic variables and, of course, the loot. While there are no character levels to speak of, every so often you’ll get to pick up one of three power ups to permanently improve either your critical hits, damage-dealing, or total health. Aside from these, every bit of advancement comes from items. Twinking out your character is mandatory, as difficulty is ever-inclined upward (and again, permadeath). Since there’s no actual inventory aside from what you choose to wear, a do-or-die decision-making process goes into every piece of loot you come across. Complicating this, a number of special attacks (which you inflict irregularly, like criticals) can be gained only from certain magic items, and the type of weapon you wield determines whether your attacks are weighted more towards these specials or the vanilla. While the retro look has become something of cliché in mobile gaming of late, bit Dungeon’s take on 16-bit graphics distinguishes it from the dross by pulling it off really, really well. The palette is lively, the animation well-rendered, and in general everything looks and sounds polished. The 8-bit sound coheres with the overall theme nicely, and though the techno music doesn’t quite fit with the fantasy motif it still does a fine job of energizing the action. It’s also worth mentioning that every piece of equipment you don is rendered on your avatar—a detail all too often left out of games like this—and there’s enough variety that you’ll rarely get stuck with a certain look for long.
With level design, the game unfortunately relies on the formulaic. Every single level of the dungeon is shaped the same: nine rooms arranged in a 3×3 grid with a tenth room at the northernmost portion holding a boss. The game cycles through four different themes, populating the levels with five tileset-specific enemies (generic fantasy fodder i.e. skeletons, wizards, snakes, and so on) and always ending with a tileset-specific boss. The AI and abilities of these 24 enemies is varied, but predictable. To up the intrigue occasional special encounters are sprinkled throughout the levels, like boss versions of the regulars and merchants selling magic items. The doors between rooms are also arranged somewhat randomly to contribute to the facile impression of novelty, but generally speaking you’ll see all the meat-and-potatoes content by the time you reach level ten.
Therein lies the rub with this title: after awhile, the only thing really left to look forward to is better loot. I assume there’s a final stage where you find your wife, but after trudging through over 50 of the same four levels I felt less and less excited to find out. Granted, this is still a good game, and you can definitely get your two bucks worth. It’s graphically satisfying (especially for the nostalgic), and while derivative, the hack-n-slash formula is also solid, time-tested, and addictive as all hell if you’re predisposed to it. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that some necessary corners were cut to save time. The lack of a meaningful story, the shallow combat, the monotony in level design; if taken individually, it would be possible to overlook these issues, but lumped together they drag the whole thing down a peg.