Wednesday, April 06, 2011


Desktop Dungeons

The pitch for Desktop Dungeons is immediately enticing: all the fun of a dungeon crawling RPG with none of the timesink. And while I have yet to finish a dungeon in the promised ten minutes (what can I say, I play cautiously), I still really love this experience.

On its face, it looks like a really, really simple game. Everything you need to have a ten-level dungeon crawling experience has been crammed onto a single screen -- monsters, treasures, shops, altars, potions, spellbooks -- in a maze that reveals itself as you explore it. Click somewhere to move there. Click an item to grab it. Click something in your inventory to use it. Click a monster to attack it.

Nothing in the game moves except for the player character, and you can jump instantly to any point in the dungeon just by clicking there. This gives the game a really unique feel that's difficult to put into words. In a normal RPG, a lot of time is spent traveling. You wander through the maze, you spend time going back and forth to town, you have to deal with monsters you meet along the way, and so on. There's none of that in Desktop Dungeons. There's still an exploration element to it -- you only have access to the things you've revealed by walking through the maze -- but the screen is more like a menu, and anything you might want to do is always available. If you run into a monster you don't want to fight, you can ignore it until you're ready. If you're ready to fight a monster, it's right there on the screen. If you're ready to fight a higher-level monster, it's also right there on the screen; you don't have to find a staircase to take you to another level or whatever. If you want to go to a shop and buy something, that's also right there on the screen, and so on. You can see how an entire game could be played front to back in ten minutes if you were being really efficient about everything.

The website touts it as a hybrid between a roguelike and a puzzle game, and the more you play it, the more you start to see the puzzle aspect. It's largely a numbers game, and nothing is hidden from the player. You can mouse over anything on the screen and get all of the information you need about it -- how many hit points it has, how much damage it can do, what level it is, what special abilities it has, and even what will happen if you attack it. I don't die much when I'm playing Desktop Dungeons because the game will come right out and tell you, before you click on a monster, "You'll die if you do this." A lot of roguelikes and RPGs try to hide information from the player so that every action is sort of a gamble. In this game, you know everything you need to know to make your decision; the challenge is only to make the correct decision.

What sorts of decisions will you be making? Mostly it has to do with the order in which you do things. There's a significant experience point bonus for defeating monsters that are a higher level than you, but that comes with a much greater difficulty in defeating them. If you want to maximize your experience gain in order to face the dungeon boss, you'll have to be clever about fighting the most powerful monsters you can without getting overwhelmed in the process. The other thing to take into consideration is that you regain hit points and mana by revealing unexplored sections of the dungeon. This is, in fact, your most reliable source of recovery. When you run out of ground to discover, you have to fall back on more limited means of recovery, like potions. So the question becomes, will you press further and squander your limited recovery resources in the hopes of finding new monsters to slay and items to help you, or will you make do with what you've already found first?

And that's just the basics of the game. On top of that, there are all sorts of little details that bend the rules this way and that. Your character class and race give you different attributes that have a major impact on the way you play. There are altars to various deities that you can choose to worship -- doing so will grant you boons, but only if you behave according to that deity's rules. Different monsters have special abilities -- magical or physical resistance, powers that affect your regeneration ability, first strike ability, petrification, and so on. It's just like a proper roguelike -- all sorts of tricks and strategies and surprises are waiting to be discovered. This is why I don't finish a dungeon in ten minutes; I like to take my time and assess all of my options before jumping in.

And the game grows as you play it. The first time you play, you have five races, four character classes, and one game mode available to play. Every time you beat a boss, a new wrinkle is added to the game -- new items are added to the shops, or a new character class opens up, or new monsters with different special abilities start showing up, or special challenge dungeons open up. It's like having a board game with all sorts of different expansion sets -- it's simple the first time you play it, but the more you come back to it, the more there is to discover.

It's really really excellent. And it's free. And you can play it on a Windows machine or on a Mac. Download the game, then flip through the wiki for a taste of some of the strategies the game has to offer. If you're fond of board games or RPGs that rely more on strategy than grinding, it's a good bet that you'll enjoy this.


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