Dungeon of the Endless (PC)

By Walter Hare

Published on Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dungeon of the Endless is a rather insane mix of genres. The merger of a basic sort of RTS/TBS hybrid with tower defense and roguelike elements, it comes off at first as clunky and unfocused. But as I put more and more time into it, I was compelled by the subtlety of the strategy, the precarious nature of advancement, and the utter bullshit that is the difficulty level of the game. Even after putting in a fairly good chunk of time, I still have yet to beat it once on the default difficulty…  yet I still want to, and will continue to try… and likely fail.

The basic setup has you moving two to four heroes units from floor to floor, each of which is composed of randomly assorted rooms separated by doors. Your ultimate objective is to move a crystal, the act of which generates an endless onslaught of enemies, to the exit once you have discovered it, progressing through twelve floors. Opening a door represents a ‘turn’ in terms of the game’s strategy, which is when you generate the resources you need for building modules, researching and leveling up heroes (industry, science and food, respectively). This is also the point where enemies have a chance to spawn, and will do so in any room that is not powered by the fourth resource, dust. Dust cannot be generated directly (or at least not in the same manner as the primary resources), and rooms must be powered sequentially from the starting point on each floor.

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Tower defense elements come in when you explore each floor enough that your heroes are insufficient for stopping all of the enemies from rushing and destroying your crystal. Each room has a chance to contain slots for a major module and a certain number of minor modules. Major modules include your primary resource generators as well as a number of tactical boosts for your heroes, and minor modules are more likeable to traditional towers in a defense style game, attacking enemies as they pass by or adding buffs/debuffs as appropriate. On top of all this, research locations (for new module types), shops and recruitable NPC’s will appear randomly throughout each floor.

So, clearly, there’s a lot going on here. It’s an eclectic mix, and one that doesn’t immediately make sense. Traditionally, a big part of tower defense has been the precise engineering of each wave of enemies. The combination of units that comprise each wave is meant to challenge your tower setup and break it in interesting and specific ways. In dealing with semi-random room configurations and semi-random resource allocations, as well as randomized enemy numbers and composition with each turn, Dungeon of the Endless at times has a severe case of what I like to call “FTL syndrome.”

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Basically, to people who aren’t good enough at the brilliant spaceship roguelike, its randomized elements seem to diminish the game’s skill factor, and is often accused of being luck driven. However, to anyone who’s played enough FTL to know better, these complaints come from a place of ignorance regarding the overarching strategy. Admittedly, there are certain parts of the game which are impossible to overcome without certain levels of knowledge, and knowing the chances for certain things to occur is essential, so time investment becomes a necessity, and once in a blue moon you will be royally screwed no matter what. On balance though a good player will win more than they lose.

Dungeon of the Endless makes me have this feeling, and I tend to be pretty alright at these sorts of games. This is especially the case when I am lacking dust, a resource which is essential for creating a stable base for generating the other resources, which is necessary for creating defensive lines and for keeping enemy numbers in check. More critically, it is the one resource that is least directly acquirable, relying primarily on random drops and some generative methods that usually aren’t accessible until decently late into any given run.

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This means that it doesn’t matter how good your decision making is when you don’t have the essential ability to construct modules and create resources. Heroes tend to be strong but are insufficient for fighting off large groups of enemies, particularly if you haven’t been fortunate enough to get enough equipment or food drop to level them up appropriately. And with no real details given on the strength and capabilities of the monsters beyond a very basic narrative description in the opening menu section, judging the capacity of enemy waves is a nightmare for the first dozen hours of play. On the strategic level, such dire situations are often indications that you actually screwed up five or ten minutes ago and are only now seeing the consequences, but it’s still a situation that leaves you feeling completely impotent in the face of the game’s systems.

But all of this only makes learning the game all the more satisfying, as you refine your methods and build a better understanding of the game’s complexities. Perfecting your runs, finding the right hero combinations (you can control up to four) and figuring out the right balance of resource generation, exploration and expenditure is where the game really shines, if you can overcome the ever-looming feeling of bullshit that emanates from your crushing losses. Once you figure out how to balance all of these variables, it becomes incredibly satisfying to crush through floor after floor with your precisely engineered hero and module lineup. You’re constantly forced to tread on the razor’s edge, and every victory is a hard fought one.

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Considering how painful playing can be at times, it’s fortunate that the game looks and sounds quite nice. Dungeon of the Endless does pixelated shadowing and light a lot better than I’ve seen before, and while some of the models may lack a certain level of detail the quality of the animation makes up for that. And the music sounds like such a mash of Binding of Isaac and FTL/ that I thought it was a collaborative effort between Danny Baranowsky and Ben Prunty. While it may not have the most original sound, it’s so well made that I love it nonetheless

Heroes in the game also have a decent bit of character, though their attempts at humor end up being a mixed bag. The funniest bits of the game tend to be the oddball biographies that each character has, rather than the dialogue they spout when they open doors or on the stat screen in between floors. The latter is potentially the best part of the narrative, as certain heroes will have special interactions dialogue interactions as they ride the elevator from floor to floor. These will explain deeper relationships between specific characters and flesh out their biographies on the selection screen.

I’m still disappointed in the heroes, however, for a few reasons. First, I feel the narrative elements of the heroes could have been expanded far beyond what they have now. I’ve tried any number of dozens of combinations and only found a few of the special interactions. Admittedly this isn’t a huge problem, it just would have been cool for me, a story junkie, to see more of it.

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More practically, the heroes tend to function somewhat homogeneously. Very few of the active/passive abilities are unique to any one hero, and most of them operate almost identically to at least two or three other heroes. There are of course differences in their stats and in their leveling paths, but in the end I would have preferred fewer characters with more marked differences than the fairly large cast.

Dungeon of the Endless is hard as hell, and sometimes it feels unfairly so, but it’s got so much meat to it that I can’t put it down, even in the depths of my terrible anger (it’s worth mentioning that just prior to this writing I lost a fairly optimistic looking run very suddenly). The potential for diverse strategy from the interaction of the dozens of modules, heroes and resources makes each run feel truly unique, and with over twenty hours in the game I find myself continuously learning new things. For me this represents the most important function of the roguelike/permadeath game style; constantly changing the player’s perception of the game and showing them something ever so slightly different.

-wh

 

http://store.steampowered.com/app/249050/
http://g2g.amplitude-studios.com/Games/Dungeon-of-the-Endless
Dungeon of the Endless on Green Man Gaming

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