The alpha release of this perma-death, dungeon defence game shows uniqueness and promise for the future
All too often, games try to capitalise on hot-right-now trends, picking elements from this and that, and ending up as unfocused hodgepodges without a true identity. It is rare to find a game that blends its influences so smoothly, which might go a long way to explain the buzz surrounding Dungeon of the Endless. Essentially a procedurally generated dungeon defence game, this is the newest offering from Amplitude Studios, developers of the 4X game Endless Space, and set in the same universe. It is available now on Steam Early Access, still in early alpha. Despite borrowing heavily from the tower defence and roguelike genres, it holds a certain assurance that makes it feel like something new entirely.
The player takes control of a ragtag group of heroes, stranded in the depths of a dungeon after their prison ship has crash-landed. You have to explore the dungeon and gather supplies, defending your power crystal from waves of monsters while also trying to create a safe path for it through floors of increasing scope and difficulty. The dungeon, as well as the group you start with, is different every time, and if you die once, that’s it. Every locked door is a danger, a mystery, and often a gamble, balancing the promise of more resources against the threat of an attack from the flanks.
Your power source is fed by gathering ‘dust’, a resource you find by killing monsters and exploring the dungeon. The more dust you have, the more rooms you can keep powered, allowing you to build machines and defences, but there must be an unbroken circuit between the crystal and the room. In other words, the room you want to power must be directly connected to the crystal by other powered rooms, and if one is knocked out, the chain breaks. I quickly discovered that this chain is the key to making it out of the floor alive. When you find the exit and try to escort the crystal there, you will be under heavy attack, and every defence along the way will help. This final push is the most tense, exciting part of each floor, and if you pull the trigger too early, it can spell game over in seconds.
The other main resources are ‘industry’, which allows you to build more, and ‘food’, used for levelling up, very important since your weak heroes are easily overwhelmed. Healing is automatic after a wave, but food also allows you to heal during combat, creating an interesting balance. In tricky spots, my finger would constantly be hovering over the heal button, but I would be reluctant to take the plunge. Every heal is an admission of defeat, a waste of food that could be better spent on important stat boosts, but at the same time it is necessary. Once your characters die, they’re gone for good.
Heroes have different strengths and weaknesses. Besides the usual attack and defence, there is speed, which becomes more important the more you explore and the more ground you have to cover. There is also technology, which allows the hero to boost productivity and repair damaged machines. This all necessitates strategic placement of your heroes, splitting duties between repair, frontline scouting, and defence. As you progress through the game, the floors get larger and have trickier pathways, making this micromanagement even more of a challenge. Some of this challenge comes from the interface, which lacks a map, a zoom feature, and even group selection of units. I often found myself losing track of individuals while frantically scrolling across the sprawling dungeons, and when one hero is left in a bad spot, it doesn’t take long for things to go south.
On this note, it should be clarified that the game is still relatively early in development. There are already plans to fix these niggling issues, and a wealth of new ideas. Another resource, ‘science’, is currently locked in the alpha, and it will presumably open up the dormant tech tree to add customisability. Heroes will have their own special skills and traits, the only one so far being machine repair. There will be bosses, special randomised events, a variety of unlockable starting ships, and plans are underway to add a multiplayer mode.
At the same time, there is certainly room for improvement. In addition to the interface issues, fans of tower defence may be disappointed by the lack of variety in the weaponry and traps, with no tech tree yet available, and blueprints not purchasable from merchants. This version features only three of twelve floors, and they are not too difficult to master. Although I suffered greatly in my early play, often dying within the first few rooms, I quickly developed a fairly basic general strategy that has rarely failed, and the game has lost some of its just-one-more-go replayable lustre.
The promise of further depth to what is already a fun and addictive game is tantalising, but perhaps it should already be there? Chris Hecker’s Spy Party, with its ethos of ‘depth first, accessibility later’, featured only crude programmer art for years, and has still developed a strong core following.
Amplitude Studios focus more on community interaction, encouraging voting and player input on their design. Whether this will lead to a deeper, more endlessly replayable game is up in the air, but from the good time I’ve had so far, I’m inclined to trust they know what they’re doing. If you would like to contribute to the future of Dungeon of the Endless, head over to Amplitude’s forums. We at Screen Robot will be following this game through development, so watch this space.