"...for those seeking balanced and complex game design, look no further."
Roguelikes contain certain characteristics unique within the gaming industry. A growing niche with a passionate cult following, these games tend toward frequent deaths, oodles of content (that's a technical term), procedurally generated instances (obnoxiously technical term), and secrets. Most roguelikes are a lifetime affair to master, with Nethack and DoomRL serving as sterling, ASCII examples. Any adventurer daring enough to tackle these behemoths are likely to invest several hundred hours, if not over a thousand, exploring what these finely crafted games have to offer. Desktop Dungeons is a roguelike-lite, and will likely only take over a hundred to two-hundred hours to complete.
Like most roguelikes, story takes a backseat to polished game design and the unimaginably balanced wealth of options available to players. Here, players are tasked with the development of a settlement in which they can gain riches by employing adventurers. As the region grows with newcomers and various businesses, an ominous foe makes its presence known, demanding that the player cease expansion and vanquish the nearby evils. Of course, the only way to continue playing is to ignore this advice and continue pillaging caves and swamps, which results in more threatening letters. Plot!
I have to be honest, though: at the time of this review, I haven't completed the game. With forty-eight hours to my name, I believe I have experienced enough to determine its quality, as it has shown consistency in challenge, constant new content, and pure, unbridled joy. The focus of Desktop Dungeons's gameplay lies in the catacombs players must explore. Although every dungeon is completely random and different, its contents include a level range of enemies from 1 to 10, with 10 being the boss and oftentimes the goal of a particular quest. Enemies 1 through 9 are there purely to level up the adventurer, who always starts at level 1. Starting with only nine blocks revealed, players move to discover goodies and goonies. Before tackling a similarly leveled foe — or higher leveled one — items found or bought at random item shops offer much needed bonuses. Stat modifiers also lay hidden across each dungeon, as well as potions and eventually deities that players can worship who each have their own set of demands, rewards, and punishments for playing a certain way.
Although constantly discovering new content is one of Desktop Dungeons's grandest sources of enjoyment, the real thrill comes in adjusting to adverse situations, sitting and pondering how a seemingly impossible situation can be turned around, and successfully executing one's plan. I had moments in which I jumped out of my chair, pounded my fist into the air, and screamed, "Baby!" as I refused to give up and realized how a complex series of actions could turn the dark night into day. While dungeons vary in difficulty, players can use easier dungeons as opportunities to test new builds, as falling into a pattern is all too tempting. Indeed, I had debated the merits of my strategy versus a friend's strategy, only to realize that this fantastic game is so incredibly deep that I had actually assumed that a set of classes, races, spells, and deities were inferior to my own preferences — and had been completely wrong.
In later dungeons, players are tasked with completing quests under adverse circumstances, which means that inefficient combinations of races and classes must be used or that the boss for that dungeon specifically counters the required class. Herein lies the challenge. Initially, math majors and veterans of roguelikes will find the simple calculation required to topple foes incredibly simple, but when complex abilities, equipment, and deities come together later in the game, number-crunching can be incredibly taxing. Puzzles offered by the game help educate players how to be as efficient as possible, requiring a mastery of certain gameplay mechanics in order to proceed. While some puzzles are quite easy, others are staggering in their mind-numbing difficulty — but that just makes victory all the sweeter.
The furnishings Desktop Dungeons offers serve as adequate garnish, but they hardly match the game's design. Although pleasant, the music is subtle and dull at times. After playing the game for quite a while, I decided to mute the tunes and play my own in the background. Graphically, what you see is what you get. Desktop Dungeons' imaginative art is comical and downright creepy at times, but this is hardly state of the art, and without any animation, heralding it for its visuals is almost as challenging as some of the puzzles offered. Roguelikes rarely struggle in terms of control, and Desktop Dungeons is no exception. With the basic controls boiling down to simple point-and-click, the only aspect of its design I can really critique is in navigating the encyclopedia. At times, getting to the desired page can be taxing as reaching the correct deity's page, for example, may require several clicks, though this is nitpicking at its finest.
I really can't recommend Desktop Dungeons enough. For those who thrive on cognition, strategy, challenge, and a wealth of options (and content), what it offers towers over most commercial titles. Desktop Dungeons may not satisfy those seeking a gripping narrative or vibrant world, but for those seeking balanced and complex game design, look no further.