Recovering magic amulets or defeating Balrogs, that sort of thing. Flimsy pretexts for facing almost certain death and food poisoning from eating goblin corpses to fend off starvation. Dungeon of the Endless takes a different tack. Your spaceship has crash landed 12 floors deep in a dungeon and your only hope is to lead your squad of heroes to the surface, carting your stricken vessel’s power crystal with you. The type of everyday scenario we can all relate to.
Amplitude are a developer with a penchant for tabletop gaming rules and systems so it’s no surprise that Dungeon of the Endless (DOTE from here on in) looks and feels like a dungeon crawl board game. Gameplay is a compulsive mix of turn based exploration and tower defence. Each turn you open a door revealing another room in the dungeon, generating resources and potentially triggering a wave of attacking monsters. Combat plays out in pausable real time, you rush your heroes from room to room, triggering skills and placing defensive modules in an effort to keep the hordes from reaching and destroying your crystal.
Key to your survival is “dust”, a resource found through exploration and defeating monsters. The more dust you have, the more rooms in the dungeon you can power and build defences in. Since monsters can’t spawn in powered rooms it’s vital for both exploration and planning your escape route to the next level. Dust is stored in your crystal and any damage it takes depletes your supply causing the lights to flicker out across the dungeon, powering down your defences and providing more areas for enemies to spawn. Powering the rooms around your crystal, setting up your defences and chain of production and establishing a safe perimeter is an oddly comforting activity. Watching in horror as that security crumbles around you is hugely compelling. Once the elevator to the next floor is located it’s time to reconfigure your power grid, uproot your crystal and make a thrilling dash to the exit while swarms of enemies descend on you from the darkness.
In addition to dust you can generate industry, science and food points, either through building resource modules or exploring the dungeon. Industry is vital for modules, science for levelling those modules up and food for healing and levelling your heroes. The relationships between the four resources aren’t immediately clear but given time you start to suss the subtleties of DOTEs economy. Further depth is provided by dynamics within your squad. You start with two heroes of your choice but quickly discover other stranded space travellers and natives who’ll join you. Some are team players, bolstering allies when fighting side by side. Others are loners reducing the overall effectiveness of heroes in the same room. On top of this each hero has a range of passive and active skills that skew towards different specialities; exploration, module operation, defense, support etc. Each layer of the system is paper thin but they all serve to add shades of complexity to team management.
Visually DOTE is spectacular, drawn in gloriously blocky DOS era style pixel art. Environments are suitably dank and atmospheric, high fantasy and sci-fi themes mashed together with great enthusiasm. Rooms are packed with spot effects and tiny details like cardboard tiles from a tabletop game come to life. Your heroes stride around with animations reminiscent of Treasure classic Guardian Heroes and the monsters slither, crawl and ooze with character. All this is accompanied by a moody soundtrack, one part John Carpenter to one part Mass Effect, which ratchets up in intensity when the action gets manic.
There’s a vein of daft humour too. Guns fire hails of projectile rice and equipping hipster scarves draws aggro from enemies. The text based dialogue occasionally strays too far into wackiness but I grew to appreciate the rogues’ gallery of flawed, oddball heroes and find my own personal favourites. Wrapped up in all this is a subplot of conspiracy and betrayal revealed slowly through scribbled comments in the game’s art gallery and snippets of dialogue that unearth character relationships and background lore. It’s no Dark Souls but it’s a welcome layer of intrigue that fuels the urge to play again after each traumatic defeat.
Traumatic because the difficulty level is utterly merciless. I’m not ashamed to admit that after the 20+ hours I played I failed to beat the game on “easy” mode, normal being locked until you’ve successfully navigated your way to the surface. The closest I managed was a crushing defeat on the final level. Dozens of less successful attempts saw me subjected to dramatic reversals of fortune, slow declines from level to level and heroic last stands. There’s a snidely titled “Too Easy” option for players with the strength of character to swallow their pride but I couldn’t bring myself to use it.
Where DOTE falls just short of classic status is its lack of the vast range of moment to moment interactions a traditional roguelike provides or the domino effect systems of modern titles like FTL and Spelunky. The stuff of anecdotes and unforgettable play sessions. Amplitude’s knife edge balance of team and resource management seemingly has no room for such dynamic storytelling. It excels as a game of long term strategy and short term gambles, complex interplay between your heroes and resources, countless dilemmas and tough calls. Mechanically it makes for an oddly dry take on the genre despite the high production values but still an addictive and unique one.