Dungeon of the Endless Impressions: Defend and conquer
There’s a certain brilliance to the indie strategy of exploiting the rogue-like genre. Unlike your typical horde of brown and grey shooters, it’s difficult for randomly generated goodness to get old; it’s random after all. It follows, then, that being random alone isn’t going to cut it with so many contenders running around. Dungeon of the Endless has a high bar to meet by its final release, currently set for “sometime in 2014,” according to the game’s Steam page. However, even in early, early, damn early Alpha, it’s clear that this is a dungeon-crawler to keep an eye on.
Dungeon of the Endless is sitting comfortably at the intersection of tower defense, dungeoneering and good old fashioned top-down RPG action, all of which have been given a hefty dose of rogue-like randomization. You begin with a crew of two heroes—who could be anything from belligerent meatheads to wisecracking robots to references to Metroid—and, yes, a dungeon to explore. But this isn’t your everyday dungeon party; you’ve also got a power crystal sitting in your crash-landed ship that, believe it or not, changes the entire structure of the game.
Zero points for subtlety, but I commend the reference nonetheless.
This is where tower defense elements come into play. With each door you open, there’s a chance of waves of monsters to appear, all eager for their chance to take a whack at your precious crystal. The deeper you plunge, the more powerful and plentiful the monsters become, requiring greater caution and planning on your part. This gives every door a palpable sense of risk and reward and reinforces the importance of organizing conservatively.
However, there’s more to defend than just your crystal—and the reasons behind defending it aren’t all that simple either. This isn’t a black and white situation of “if an enemy gets by, you lose”; you’re crystal is just your best friend, and you don’t want monster hand-prints all over it. Why is it your best friend? Because it’s what powers your resources, surveillance ability, and offensive capabilities, that’s why!
Resources are split between Food, Industry, and Science (currently not implemented). Food is used to heal your heroes mid-combat (since they get a full heal after each wave is defeated) and to level your heroes up, which increases their attack, defense, movement speed and wit. Industry is used to create small and major modules, otherwise known as towers. The standard array is available: some towers attack minions, some slow them, others buff your heroes, etc. Large modules on the other hand exist only to provide more of a specified resource, which is gained upon opening a door. Your current stock and the number you’ll gain with each door opened are displayed at all times, which is useful when planning out upgrades.
Here’s the linchpin: All of your units only work if the entire room is powered, and each room requires 10 points of power from your crystal. Your crystal won’t be destroyed outright if minions reach it; it’ll just take rapid damage, meaning your rooms and resources will shut down. You can also spend your power at merchants (don’t ask me about the logistics behind that) to buy weapons and equipment for your crew, which creates a balancing act between gear and raw materials that’s reminiscent of Dark Souls.
It's not Manus, Father of the Abyss, I admit, but it's still tough.
Deciding which rooms to power comes down to the modules therein (e.g. whether you can gain resources from it), how defensible the area is or isn’t, and how valuable a location it is (enemies won’t spawn in powered rooms, and you’ll want to eliminate blind spots wherever possible). This adds another layer of strategy to the tower defense aspects of the game and rewards planned exploration.
Planned is the key word here, because you won’t get far running around willy-nilly. You can control each member of your crew individually, spreading them around your network of rooms or consolidating them to fend off a concentrated force. What’s more, the game includes an active pause feature which lets you freeze time (think Baldur’s Gate), issue commands and construct towers before letting the onslaught continue. There’s never a dull moment in this system; even if enemies aren’t actively coming, you need to worry about hero positioning with regards to how best fend off the next wave.
This is all carried by a refreshingly snappy control system—something top-down RPGs often struggle with. The nature of the game supports the overhead layout of the dungeons, and the ability to instantly zoom to a specific hero by double-tapping their assigned key (1-4) eliminates the lion’s share of slow-scrolling. You’ll still likely spend the majority of the game WASD-ing your camera around, but keeping track of your dungeon is never a chore.
Word of advice: Fast heroes are best heroes
Unfortunately, the thrill of strategy ends with what is, ironically, the most important moment in a dungeon: leaving. In order to advance to the next dungeon, you must have one of your heroes carry the crystal to the exit without dying while the level’s toughest wave of monsters targets him. This is significantly easier than it sounds; the entire process is trivialized by powering a route straight from the crystal’s original position to the exit. Monsters won’t spawn in your path, and will barely touch your courier. To make matters easier, upon entering the room with the exit, no matter how large it may be, your party becomes invulnerable due to a victory cutscene. Ultimately, the final task is a major flop in the wake of an otherwise tense dungeoning experience, and completely lacks that final boss satisfaction. Luckily, developer Amplitude has already made claims of upgrading this “final ending sequence” in coming patches.
Word of advice #2: Liquidate your power at a merchant before ending the round
The nuts and bolts of Dungeon of the Endless are tough to argue with, especially for an Alpha-stage game. The modernized retro aesthetic brings an impressive array of sprites and menus to the table, and the dynamic lighting and high-quality particle effects help give each new room and tower a bite of visual flare. Equally enjoyable is the game’s soundtrack—a classic mix of electronic and 8-bit beats. However, there is one glaring flaw in the old-school graphics—one that also poked my sides while playing Papers, Please. Because we’re working with objectively pixelated character models, it can be difficult to differentiate between enemies and, often, heroes. This becomes a serious issue when, say, only a select few enemy types attack modules, while others rush heroes down and still others head directly for your crystal. Particularly during late-game waves, this can lead to some inevitable errors and unnecessary damage to your resources.
Amplitude has openly stated that Dungeon of the Endless is currently very incomplete. Nine of the game’s 12 levels are absent, as well as monster variety, potential multiplayer, and key mechanics like Tech Trees (presumably used to further customize heroes or towers), the aforementioned resource Science and even character skills as a whole. Even so, the game is an absolute joy to run through, and a solid platform for a full game. Dungeon of the Endless offers a compelling mix of strategy and random that shouldn’t be ignored.