‘Pixel Dungeon’ Review – Simple Name, Legendary Game
‘Pixel Dungeon’ Review – Simple Name, Legendary Game – Eons ago, a roguelike was created, and lo, all was good. The game was highly praised, and many flocked to bask in it’s simple but difficult glory. This congregation became a community, discussing the game’s many elements and even creating a wiki, raising the lowly game to great new heights. The roguelike grew over time, incorporating new mechanics and levels, but still something was amiss. This game was not to be found in lands of iOS.
‘Pixel Dungeon’ Review – Simple Name, Legendary Game
Created by Oleg Dolya, or Watabou, Pixel Dungeon is a super simplistic modern roguelike that had just that right blend of interesting mechanics to catch lightning in a bottle and addict a great many to its pixely goodness. It’s been on Android and other platforms for ages, and we finally have it on iOS. Inspired by old school style roguelike Brogue, Pixel Dungeon adds enough modernity to be approachable, but is still brutal as can be, as it should be. Remember that time Brock Lesnar german suplexed John Cena like 16 times in one match, to prove a point? That’s what this game does to you, only you aren’t John Cena, and it’s actually fun in the process.
Like I said, this game is classic in many ways. You choose between three classes (Warrior, Mage, and Rogue), later unlocking a fourth (Huntress), and set to find the Amulet of Yendor within the secret, labyrinthine structures under the city, starting with a sewer fighting rats, gnolls, and wraiths, before entering a secret, abandoned prison, an ancient dwarven metropolis, and so on. Everything is tile/grid based, and you move in turns. Every movement, every item usage, takes one or more turn phase, and the same goes for enemies. Sometimes multiple phases pass when you don’t realize it. I once ate food in the same room as an alert enemy, and they were able to land multiple strikes on me in a row before I could retaliate.
There is so much to find in these cold, dank halls. Chests, and locked doors, and yes, some chests are actually mimics (monsters that look like chests. Basically the high fantasy equivalent of a Venus flytrap for adventurers). You’ll find tall grass that blocks your view, but can hide seeds, health restoring dew drops, or even sometimes items. Seeds can be used to grow trap-like plants or brew potions, which you’ll also find many of. You can also loot piles of dead bones, which will either explode into coins, or into a wraith, which is extremely hard to hit with physical attacks. Just so you know, all the grave stones will also unleash wraiths, except there will be four of them and they’ll surround you. Unless your back is against a wall or two, hint, hint. Using a basic offensive wand spell zaps these guys with no problem.
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Every new run, each item needs to be re-identified. Potions, weapons, armor, and scrolls simply come in various colors, or with random gibberish in the case of the scrolls. The types of potions and scrolls available in each game are always the same, but they’re not always the same color/description. You can identify them by experimentation, or with scrolls of identify. Experimentation is generally the way to go, though these often have negative effects as well, such as an inconvenient case of bursting into flame. This will kill you if you aren’t near a puddle of water, so take some precautions before you test new items. The sooner you identify everything, the better you’ll be able to manage the higher difficulty floors. Try not to equip unidentified weapons, armor, or trinkets though. They can be cursed, and you might be unable to swap it out until you find a scroll that cleanses the curse. As a side note, you need a certain level of strength to use each weapon effectively, and upgrading a weapon both makes it stronger and lowers its strength requirement.
It is rather frustrating how so many specifics of the game remain unclear. For example, various enchantments on armor and weapons often don’t tell you what they do. Likewise, unless you’re using the wiki, things like potion brewing seems like a total crap-shoot, unless you took notes for every permutation of seeds. This is part of the design in a very real way, but it is still annoying. There are many convenient mechanics that try to make up for it. If you find the exit but aren’t done exploring a floor, you’ll see an arrow in your character portrait always pointing at the exit. If you don’t care for what little atmosphere there is, you can enable a higher brightness mode. Your progress is also auto-saved at all times. The soundtrack by Cube_Code is fantastic, and there’s even a smattering of funny references/memes to find. This is right up there with Cardinal Quest 2 (Free) as one of my favorite mobile roguelikes. Though it’s much less forgiving and expansive than CQ2, it’s basically the other side of the same classic vs. modern coin, and you should definitely try it out on whatever platform most suits you. More info on their site.
Pixel Dungeon is the most refined and minimalised of rogue-lites, and yet absolutely compelling and surprisingly deep. You pick one of four classes – Warrior, Mage, Rogue and Huntress (the last of which is unlocked) – and then begin moving around the top-down 2D dungeons, killing rats and crabs, gathering potions, scrolls and seeds, and descending, always descending.
The focus is on exploration, revealing each level and searching for the downward stairs. (Who are these madduns who design their dungeons with staircases in different locations for each floor? For starters, it’s enormously impractical, but it would also be exceedingly more expensive. Ridiculous.) In between there are enemies, equipment, hidden rooms (meaning you’ll always want to be hitting ‘S’ to discover doors in the walls, weighed against the time it uses up to do so), and boss fights. There are shops every five levels, there’s the always-pressing need to pick up food to stave off hunger, and there’s the constant danger of traps to avoid.
I dread to imagine how many hours I’ve spent playing the game on my phone and tablet. It will definitely be edging toward a hundred of them. I first discovered it on a flight back from GDC in 2014, thinking I’d give it a quick go, and then spending most of the ten hours in the air failing to get any further than level 4. (The game was tougher then, I swear. And it didn’t help that I was insisting on playing as the weakly mage or vulnerable rogue.) But despite this incessant failure, I never grew frustrated, and kept wanting to try again and again. I haven’t stopped wanting to since, and I’m pleased to say I’ve seen levels in the high teens before being whomped.
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Following some traditions of Rogueing, each new play resets the contents of various coloured potions, and the effects of the rune-labelled scrolls, meaning extraordinarily risky experimentation is generally required to learn the contents of your inventory. There are some rare identification fountains, and identification scrolls are a boon (but only once you’ve, well, identified them), but at a certain point there’s always the teeth-gritted click on the unknown, ending in either delight, death, or complete anticlimax as you learn you’ve wasted the ability to hover on a level without any holes in the floor.
The mobile version is always changing, with new content, new items, and tweaks to the extremely high difficulty. I’ve not been back to it in a couple of months, so new elements in the PC build might have appeared there too, but either way, the game now includes new treats like bombs, honeypots, and mimics, and horrors like item degradation. Oh come on! Like it wasn’t hard enough! You can switch the latter off, but at the cost of not winning badges and your score not being ranked.