Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Dungeons of Dredmor

Recently I finally got around to trying out Dungeons of Dredmor,and having finished the game last night I thought I would talk about my immediate thoughts. If you aren't familiar with the game, it is essentially a roguelike with what I suppose you would call a modern twist. The focus of the game is on creating a highly customizable character with which to plunder 10 floors of a randomly generated dungeon. Moreover, this is something the game wants you to do so again and again. Even the first time you start the game, you get a bit of narrative saying something along the lines of "evil is back, let's kill it again". This attitude isn't uncommon in roguelike games, they are typically built around the idea of high risk gameplay where death is both likely and punishing. I'll talk a whole lot about that later though.

So I started my game on normal difficulty, and decided to turn perma-death off. Again, more on that jazz later. For now I want to talk about what I liked about the game (wait! does that mean perma-death is bad!? SUSPENSE!). If I'm quite honest, my first impression of the game was to immediately become addicted. Well, at least after I played through the somewhat poorly put together tutorial that tells you all the things you could figure out on your own, but none of the important things. Anyways, the game offers some pretty compelling dungeon raiding gameplay with plenty of oldschool RPG customization, strategizing and other fancy buzzwords that make my brain tingle with glee. Admittedly it isn't a super smooth experience, animations seem a bit stilted at times, and you are often faced with short periods of just waiting while the game auto-saves, a trap fires off at an enemy in another room, etc.

Ultimately though, I had fun figuring out which of my chosen skills I wanted to focus on, how to pick equipment that complements those skills etc. Exploring the surprisingly huge dungeon and facing all the randomly generated challenges is pretty fun, and the game makes good use of space. Combat feels pretty dynamic in that when you get to the deeper levels things like positioning, status effects, area effects and so on are extremely important. It actually feels a lot like a SRPG in which you control a single character. However the whole dungeon crawling, highly randomized aspect of the game also makes it feel a lot like a turn based Diablo. On top of the compelling SRPG meets Diablo madness, the game is also completely off the wall silly. Just look at the game's icon. Your character's eyebrows are enormous. The enemies refer to you as "the eyebrowed one". You have stats called things like Sagacity and attacks that deal "Existential" elemental damage. When I started the game I focused on my perception skill, and as a result gained the benefit of not only having 5 eyes, but the ability to shoot lasers from said eyes. Long story short, I really appreciate the game's humor.

Now with all that said, the longer I played the game the more I took issue with it. Dungeons of Dredmor presents a somewhat interesting case study on game mechanics I think. Basically every issue I take with the game comes back to the concept of how the game handles death. As I mentioned earlier, the concept for the game is that it is super hard, punishing, and you are encouraged to play with the intent of experimenting, dying, finding what works, then getting just a little farther the next time around. Before I talk too much more on the topic, I feel I should point out that this type of gameplay doesn't really tend to appeal to me. Typically I'm not attracted to a game where I know when I'm playing it, that everything I'm doing is going to go away because I'm just going to die. For instance, I love FTL to death (no pun intended) and yet can't bring myself to play it. I struggle a lot knowing that I am going to lose all of my progress, when I could be putting that time and effort into some other game or project and actually be getting somewhere. I recognize that the idea is to get better as a player, but that doesn't stop my psychotic brain from working the way it does.

Anyways, now that we have established that I am biased against this type of gameplay, let's talk about why Dungeons of Dredmor suffers because of it. First and foremost, to me it feels like the game uses it as an excuse. For instance when I started my character I chose the Blood Magic (which restores MP when you kill stuff) and Magic Training skills. Problem is, I was assuming you would learn magic as you go, not that your spells were tied to your skill choices. Good thing I was restoring all this MP that I have absolutely no use for. Oh well, I know for next time. I spent almost the entire game hoarding crafting materials thinking that I would be able to build something awesome. Then I realized I didn't have the crafting proficiency required to build any of the awesome stuff. How do you increase your crafting proficiency? I had to look it up online. Turns out you have to take crafting skills at the start of the game, and then improve those skills as you level up. In other words I couldn't really craft anything other than Ground Meat. Oh well, I know for next time. On one hand this kind of thing lends credence to the idea of playing the game through several times and pinpointing what should and should not be done. To me though, it feels like the game failed to give me vital information and used the die/restart cycle as an excuse.

The game has a similar feel when it comes to the matter of difficulty, too. I picked the normal difficulty, and for most of the game it was pretty easy. In a few situations though I died extremely quickly, and it felt cheap. I suppose the lesson is to identify and avoid putting yourself in those situations, because most the time once you are in trouble, you're already dead. Oh well, I know for next time. Really though, cheap deaths are always cheap deaths. They never feel good to the player, especially when it means starting back at square one. This isn't even talking about the final boss, Lord Dredmor. I realize as the master of a game designed to kill you, he has to be hard. He isn't though. Sure he can kill you in 1-2 attacks if you didn't know how to prepare and get screwed by the random number generator. Sure, he has so much health and defense that it took me something like 90 minutes to kill him. That doesn't make him hard though. It just means you have to spend a really long time getting a few shots in, then running away to re-position/heal. The only difficulty there is figuring out how to do these things without getting annihilated, and this leads me to the final point of contention for me.

Dungeons of Dredmor is not a game that supports it's own gameplay style well. What I mean by that is that it doesn't feel like a game that is well suited to dying and restarting endlessly, like say Super Meat Boy. The reason I say this is, death is only really likely in a small number of situations that feel somewhat cheap. More to the point, if my playthrough is any indication, it takes about 15-20 hours to get to final floor of the dungeon. Now I don't know about you but if I were to play 15 hours and then get almost instantly killed by Lord Dredmor, my reaction would not be to grit my teeth and start over again with a better strategy. My reaction would be to never play the game again. In fact, that more or less my reaction even though I killed the jerk. I think if the game was closer to 5 hours for a full playthrough it would be a lot better on the whole. There are a whole slew of different character builds I am interesting in trying out, but the fact of the matter is I'm not willing to spend the time messing about to see if they actually work well. Not to mention the fact that starting over again is nowhere near the deterrent if you can more rapidly get to the point you were previously at. I simply feel that a game that is so focused on repeat play through should be a bit more bite-sized.

The final thing I want to discuss is the approach to building a game that has this permadeath features. There are plenty of games these days that offer a high-risk experience. If you were to look at say Diablo III's hardcore mode or XCOM's Ironman mode, there is a trend here. They are modes. Now admittedly these are full price releases while Dungeons of Dredmor is a $5 indie title. None the less, the point is not so much that the games I just mentioned have their "permadeath" as an optional mode, so much as there is a way to play said games that doesn't involve starting over again as a mechanic. If I want to play through Diablo III I can do so without worries. If I want to play through Dungeons of Dredmor I can turn off permadeath, but the game doesn't feel like it supports my choice. It's exceptionally clear that the game is still designed around the concept of permadeath, and not having that on is a concession to keep someone like me playing longer than 5 minutes more than it is a supported play style.

I guess what I'm getting at here is simply that Dungeons of Dredmor is not a game that really works if you aren't looking for a game that is going to kill you and start you back at square one frequently. If that is what your looking for, in all honesty you probably won't have any of the complaints I do. Truth be told, that is the kind of stuff that roguelikes have traditionally been based around anyways. Even considering that though, I think the game relies far too heavily on it's die/restart mechanic in place of having good game design, rather than in addition to it.

No comments:

Post a Comment