Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Dungeon of the Endless preview

Dungeon of the Endless is the 2nd release from Amplitude Studios, acting as a prequel for their previous game, Endless Space. While the latter may have been met by positive reviews, this new game is a venture into a completely different genre of game, swapping Turn Based Strategy for a rogue-like tower defence game. Does it hold up the same level of quality as their first title? After playing the alpha version, available through Steam's Early Access program, here are my first impressions.

The game starts with a fairly short cut scene which shows a prison ship coming under attack, with an escape pod full of prisoners hurtling down onto a planet below, crashing and exploding upon impact. And that’s all you get in terms of story. There are 7 survivors of the crash, who act as the heroes of the game. Each new game assigns you 2 of these to start with, although others can be found throughout the game to bolster the ranks to a party of up to 4, or fill in for any casualties.

Once you’ve gone through a very brief tutorial of 4 slides giving you the basic instructions to get you through the game, such as controls and the objective of finding the exit, you are thrown straight into a randomly generated dungeon. Your mission is to traverse each level, find the exit, and deliver a crystal from the beginning to the end. In your way are a large number of doors, with various surprises hiding behind each. If the crystal is destroyed, you fail. If all your party dies, you fail. 

You start in a crashed escape pod, and must work your way through a number of rooms

Each hero has their own set of traits. Some are fast and good at maintenance, others are big, slow, and strong. After a few runs through, you will learn who is good at what job, and where they fit in with your overall strategy for conquering the dungeons. There is a nice variety, with personal favourites standing out quickly. Each character can be levelled up a number of times, with an increase in stats being the reward for each level. In addition, they all have 3 item slots that can be filled with various items, with everyone requiring armour, tools, and a weapon. These can be found as you traverse the levels, or at randomly appearing merchants, who require payment of Dust.

Players of Endless Space will recognise the game’s FIDS resources, but for those who don’t, it stands for Food, Industry, Dust, and Science. Food is used to recruit new heroes, level up the ones you have, and for healing those injured in battle. Industry allows you to build defences, or build devices to increase your resource gain. Dust is required to power rooms, providing lighting to them, and allowing the use of Industry built equipment. All 3 of these are fairly scarce for a new player, and you can very easily find yourself running out at very inopportune moments. Thankfully, Food and Industry carry over between levels, so you can keep any excess you have. At the time of writing, Science is not yet implemented into the game. 

The graphics are very reminiscent of old 16-bit games, and look awesome

Opening doors is the whole basis of the game. You only gain new resources by opening doors, and you need to explore to find the exit. However with every door you open, there is a chance of running into a horde of monsters. The combat is completely computer controlled, you just move your heroes from room to room, and heal them. As such, it is fairly forgettable, and can be frustrating waiting for the enemies to walk through the dungeon into an ambush you prepared half a map away. Little can be done while there are enemies present on the map, with actions such as building being slowed down, and characters can only heal manually. They regenerate after each fight is done.

The hordes of monsters show a nice deal of variety, each acting in their own way. Some focus on eliminating human controlled characters, while some focus on destroying your defences, while a couple of enemies will head straight for your crystal, ignoring everything else. While it would be nice to be able to select a particular threat to attack, the computer controlled combat doesn’t allow this, so you need to build tower defences to counter every threat.

There is a huge learning curve to the game, and it is very easy to get overwhelmed at first. This isn’t down to complexity, it just requires a good amount of learning the game’s mechanics. For the first few attempts, it is very easy to run into a large group of enemies, and see all your characters get quickly overpowered, or your crystal destroyed. Once you’ve got a good strategy down however, the challenge seems to dissipate, with levels becoming relatively simple.

Each of the 7 heroes has different traits and abilities

The controls are very easy to learn, with most of the actions such as movement, interactions and selections being carried out simply through the mouse. The camera can again be controlled via the mouse, pushing the camera in the direction of the cursor, or through the use of the keyboard. The game can also be paused, allowing players to carry out actions such as healing or building while combat is ongoing.

The game looks very attractive graphically, resembling a slightly improved version of an old school 16-bit game. The GUI is very minimal, but also fairly frustrating. One of the most annoying parts is the inability to reorder your party. This can be very awkward while trying to move particular heroes in the heat of battle, and can lead to untimely deaths, which can ultimately lead to failure. The inventory is very basic, and would benefit from items showing a comparison with things that are currently equipped. It would also be very beneficial to be able to alter the camera height, to obtain a larger view of the map.

The game is only in early access at the moment, but it certainly has some promise. There are a number of features that are lacking, with talk of multiplayer and extra levels still to come. At the moment, a run through will realistically last no longer than an hour, but a number of attempts will be needed to complete the game. Once you’ve been through once, there is currently little incentive to do it again, but the time spent playing is enjoyable. Hopefully, with new features being added regularly, something to increase the overall longevity of the game will be brought in. It is certainly worth keeping an eye on.

by Mike Aitchison

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