A few hours in
Okay, so I set the difficulty to Very Easy.
Dignity aside, losing over and over again without any sense of progression just isn’t much fun. And it took me a few senseless deaths to figure out that I was reading the situation wrong. The difficulty names, as far I can tell, are just distractions. Like FTL‘s Easy and Normal difficulties, the normative association of Dungeon of the Endless’ Very Easy and Easy needs to be discarded: the choice you’re actually making is the one between The Game’s Randomness Factor Influences Your Success Rate A Little, and The Game’s Randomness Factor Influences Your Success Rate A Lot. Consequently, once I switched over to Very Easy, I found that the same tactics I’d been using before were proving much more effective.
I played through a few more runs of Dungeon of the Endless, at this point. I won one game on Very Easy, and then another one! Then I went back to Easy, and lost that game on the second floor. So now I’m back on Very Easy! Possibly forever.
Which is not to imply that I’ll be playing Dungeon of the Endless ‘forever’, mind.
The reality is that my Dungeon of the Endless experience so far has been… I want to say ‘mediocre’. Mixed, maybe, more like. The larger concept is very interesting, the mix between turn-based and real-time elements works better than I’d have expected, it does some fun things with small-scope storytelling, and the graphics are pretty neat. But at the same time, it has a very long throughput time for games and for individual rounds, particularly for a game so clearly built on score-chasing and repetition. And with the strong moment-to-moment influence of randomness, even on Very Easy, it’s entirely possible to be ‘cheated’ out of a good run at the drop of a hat. Lord knows that’s happened to me once or twice.
As always, let me explain.
I very much like the unconventional nature of what Dungeon of the Endless is trying to be. You know how I’d describe this game, in mechanical terms? As a real-time turn-based strategy roguelike. Yeah, wrap your head around that jumble of words.
Dungeon of the Endless is ‘real-time’, in the sense that a lot of its processes are always going. You can control your heroes and send them from room to room at any time. Building modules is also always possible, with construction playing out on an independent clock. And even combat is active and direct. It’s clear that there’s a cooldown-based attack timer system running in the background, but from the player’s perspective, everything is always happening right now.
At the same time, Dungeon of the Endless clearly has turn-based trappings. As alluded to, and in a very Munchkin-esque setup, you ‘move a turn’ by opening one of the dungeon’s doors. ‘Doors’ are Dungeon of the Endless’ currency of turn time, clearly visible on any system related to this. And there are many: resources are added, research advances, cooldowns refresh, dungeon-wide buff ‘steles’ tick down, and it’s not entirely impossible monsters will invade.
I suppose you could see Dungeon of the Endless as a real-time dungeon exploration game with a discrete state refresher. Every time you open a door, the dungeon state is updated. Not immediately, because monsters give a few seconds of advance warning before they stream in. But close enough. And every time you update the dungeon state, the game then sits back with folded arms and asks you a question. The same question, every time. “What are you going to do with this info?”
Obviously, any monsters are something of a first priority. As I’ve mentioned, on any door-turn, monsters can spawn from any open and unpowered rooms. In practice, the game doles this out in ‘waves’: you either get many many monsters on any given turn, or nothing at all. And if you do get a visit from the Monster Fairy…
On paper, Dungeon of the Endless has a significant variety of different and interesting monsters. In practice… most of them start to blur together, after a while? I haven’t quite determined what influences which monsters can spawn when. I think the floor level is a factor? Even on the same floor, though, not every wave has every monster. But because of this uncertainty, coupled with the large total set of monsters and the rather blurry graphical style, it can be difficult to in any way recognize most of the filler creatures.
In practice, then, waves tend to split themselves into several categories. Most monsters either try to attack your heroes, or they move towards your crystal, stopping to fight any hero they encounter. Only the monsters that really break this mold are noticeable. For instance, the crystalline golems will stop to smash any major module they run into. The floating pyramid head guys shoot up any minor modules they find. And you’ll learn to ‘love’ the floating diamond crystals, who ignore anything and everything in favour of attacking your crystal directly.
Regardless or whether or not a monster wave is triggered, every new room also holds the potential for other cool decision-making. Almost all rooms have minor module building slots, but major module slots are more rare; finding one often means considering whether or not to build a resource generator there. Some rooms hold treasure chests with equipment, or ancient machines or stasis tubes to ‘buy’ open. Or new heroes to recruit. Or a merchant, who will buy and sell items on one randomly selected resource. Yes, even Science. Some merchants are just hungry for knowledge.
And if you’re really lucky, you’ll find Dust! The magical yellow energy source that allows you to power more rooms.
Dungeon of the Endless’ biggest risk-reward tradeoff comes from making the most of not just the stuff that you find on your travels, but of the exploration itself. Initially, you have no choice but to explore: the goal of every new floor is to find the exit, so as to finally leave the underground facility your ship has crash-landed into. But once you find the exit, exploration very sharply becomes a resource. You can keep going… every room has potential prizes, loot and heroes and Dust, and every door opened is another batch of resources gained and another notch on whatever it is you’re researching. But simultaneously, every door opened is also a chance for the game to throw another wave of monsters at you. And these monster waves are not trivial: your production modules or your guns might be wrecked, your crystal might be damaged, and especially if you’re fighting on multiple fronts, it’s not entirely unlikely one of your heroes might die.
And perhaps more importantly: every opened door becomes a new potential monster-spawning room.
Particularly on the later floors, the interplay between rooms and Dust most strongly determines how you play. The amount of Dust you’re likely to find slowly tapers off as you get higher. So more and more, dungeon rooms become less ‘light-filled hallways of fun and profit’, and more ‘dark corners of death and anguish’. And with the dungeons also getting larger and larger…
Preparation for dealing with the inevitable monster attacks increasingly becomes a challenge and a priority. For instance, on this early level, it’s incredibly easy to ‘prepare’ for what’s coming. Only the rooms to the left are open and unpowered. Dropping a few turrets in the large center room (which has many module slots, since that correlates with size) should either kill any spawning monster wave, or delay them for long enough so that the heroes can dash back and take care of business.
In contrast, you can see the issue with this later level. The first exploration path I took was a dead end. And since it’s a good idea to keep the rooms you’re actively exploring somewhat lit, I didn’t have enough Dust to bright up that whole pointless hallway all the time. Consequently, every new door I opened held the risk of a sneaky back attack on my crystal. And no amount of unsupported gun turrets can stop four rooms of determined monsters for too long.
In practice, what I found myself doing more and more often was select one room and one hero as a ‘chokepoint’. Some heroes can ‘operate’ major modules, adding their Wit stat bonus to resource output if you leave them in that room. Putting heroes like this in a large room with many turrets can be an effective defensive barrier. Other heroes, in the meantime, can flit around during each wave, covering unexpected angles of attack and chasing down runners. It’s a pretty effective technique, as far as I can tell.
But then again, I never actually beat the Easy mode. So take my tactical advice with a pinch of salt, I guess.
As you can probably tell, I dig the basic idea of Dungeon of the Endless’ trade-off gameplay. Enough to write a thousand words of explanation and praise about it. And in an ideal world, that’s also where I’d stop about it. But…
The randomness impact of Dungeon of the Endless is really very strong. Particularly in the later levels — this is becoming a refrain at this point — you are so often at the ‘mercy’ of the dungeon elements. If you don’t find enough Dust, you can’t power the rooms you need for resources and defense. If your dungeon layout is screwy, you’ll often have to fight at two or three fronts at once. If you don’t find any heroes, or any good equipment… And the list goes on.
The issue isn’t even so much that the randomness can snap-kill you, but that it can whittle you down. For instance: if enemies attack your crystal, the damage is measured in Dust that you lose. Lose enough Dust, and you lose the ability to power some rooms. Which means you’ll get more enemies. Which means more hits to your crystal. Which means… Similarly, running out of Food and Industry can slowly grind you down. And there’s very little you can do about this.
Of course, for a roguelike, randomness is the name of the game. That in and by of itself isn’t what I’m complaining about. But particularly in Dungeon of the Endless, it sometimes feels like there’s very little connect between the levels that you play. You keep your heroes, of course, and you also keep the stockpiles of Food, Industry, and Science you’ve built up. But no Dust, though. And since Dust is the core resource that determines enemy attack severity… there’s not all that much you can do to soften the blow of a bad level roll.
And if you flare out on a bad level, you lose a lot of time and progress.
The thing to understand is that Dungeon of the Endless is rather a slow game. Not only is floor-exploration a fairly cautious affair, but your heroes are just not that fast. And with dungeon sizes being what they are… Exploring early floors takes several minutes already, five or so, and that only gets worse as you advance. With all the running back-and-forth involved in wave defense, I think the higher floors can easily run you fifteen, twenty minutes apiece.
And there’s twelve of those suckers overall.
This, I think, is the biggest difference between Dungeon of the Endless, and most other roguelikes. I can get killed in The Binding Of Isaac or Spelunky because of a bad roll just as easily as in this game. But in those games, even dying late into it, I’m looking at half an hour or so of time spent with no payoff. In Dungeon of the Endless, dying on floor 10 can represent a two, three hour approach. Down the drain.
Of course, looking at things this way is very much putting the destination over the journey. There is more fun to playing Dungeon of the Endless than simply ‘getting to the end’. I really dig the graphical design, both of the monsters and characters and of the levels itself. I’m particularly fond of how the modules you build become visually more fancy if you upgrade them. I’m also particularly fond just of the module selection: after a little bit of research, you fast get a whole set of toys to tackle incoming enemy waves with. The actual combat isn’t all there, given that it’s just automatic hero-fighting with the occasional activated ability, but the planning can be fun.
And I found I enjoyed Dungeon of the Endless’ micro-storytelling a lot. While there’s not really anything resembling a clear ‘main story’, the accompanying texts in the hero descriptions and in the Album are neat dollops of flavour. And my personal favourite storytelling bit is that if you bring certain combinations of heroes along, they’ll chat with one another on the elevator. The four-man TF2 crew, for instance, chat about how they got in this (differently) weird place. And if you grab the starting heroes Gork and Sara, they’ll slowly reveal that ‘Butcher’ Gork is responsible for a famous slaughter on the planet Sara is from. And that it took a lot of restraint for Sara, the famous bounty hunter, to bring Gork onto the prison ship you apparently start out from alive. Over the course of several floor, you watch the tension rise and ratchet, as Sara promises Gork he’s only still alive because of his utility, and Gork taunts Sara with his role in the massacre.
Until at one point Gork goes just a little too far, and Sara kills him in a cutscene.
But however interesting the point-to-point gameplay, the way Dungeon of the Endless is set up makes it very clear that it is actually getting to the end that matters. The feeling is omnipresent. And because of that, failing to get there — ‘particularly on the later floors’, drink — feels like… well, failure.
And fresh from my latest such failure, the idea of sinking another three hours into an attempt… an attempt that might well doom itself because of poor Dust distribution, unlucky level layouts, or my heroes murdering each other flat-out… It’s not an idea that appeals terribly much.
I’ll be straight, here, at the end of this long and only slightly rambling review. I had a good amount of fun with Dungeon of the Endless. I dig the graphical style, the unique interaction of its gameplay systems, the subdued style of its storytelling, the richness of monsters, characters, and items, and even the not-so-subtle connection to Amplitude’s own Endless Legend.
And I haven’t even mentioned yet how high Dungeon of the Endless’ replayability appears to be! The dozens of heroes are a good start, even though I don’t see most of them as being too different. But the different spaceships you unlock also present interesting modulations on the basic ruleset. The medical pod replaces most items with drugs, the armory pod starts you off with four heroes but little construction materials, the bathroom pod is basically ‘hard mode’…
That said, fun had, I also don’t feel too much of a compulsion to go back to Dungeon of the Endless, after this. I’ve seen most of the graphics, unlocked most of the heroes. I want to get more of the stories, but it’s guesswork and a half to find out which heroes together trigger them. And while the actual point-to-point gameplay is decent enough, there’s probably a reason for the fact that I find myself aching to save and quit after only two floors.
Dungeon of the Endless is about twelve bucks on Steam. Or twenty bucks with all the DLC bells and whistles attached. Do I recommend it? I’m going to say… yes, if the idea of dungeon defense against overwhelming pixel hordes appeals to you. And it helps if you’re a score-chaser, too. Just be aware that for all but hardcore completionists, the collection and exploration appeal will eventually take a backseat to slogging through just one more floor. Just one more. One more exit to find. And maybe it’s behind this door… or this door… or this door…
…or this door… or this door… or this door… Open doors with Jarenth on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?