"...Dicey Dungeons' ecosystem is a bland version of a Ludosity game..."
Terry Cavanagh is likely most well-known for VVVVVV, a challenging, minimalistic platformer released in 2010. Another noteworthy title is Super Hexagon, a timing-based arcade-style game. Both titles have earned him the coveted "Overwhelmingly Positive" designation in Steam for a high percentage of positive reviews. When I found out he was releasing a turn-based RPG/roguelike hybrid, I couldn't wait to see what he could do outside of his comfort zone.
Dicey Dungeons serves as the name implies: dungeon crawling using dice in combat. If I were to compare it to titles currently in the market, I'd say it's a combination of Coin Crypt and Slay the Spire. Essentially, players can choose one of six characters with unique rules and abilities to conquer six floors of enemies. Each map plays out kind of like a board game, with enemies, empty spots, shops, treasures, etc. on each space. No rolling necessary to move, but the order in which players tackle each foe may give them early access to treasure, healing, or the exit.
Aside from strategy in approaching enemies, the battles are a hearty combination of tactics and luck, as one might expect. Depending on a character's level, they can roll anywhere from two to five or so dice. Each equipment in a character's load out uses dice differently. For instance, the simple sword will deal damage depending on what number die is placed there. Whereas, a hammer does shock damage based on what die is there, but shocks the enemy's equipment if a six is placed. Other items want lower numbered dice, as the space allocated states "Max 3" or something like that. The items range in complexity, with some granting heals, shields, dice manipulation, poison attacks, etc.
Status ailments significantly impact the course of battle, with freezing attacks changing a player's highest die to a one, while cursing grants a 50% chance to cancel a die's interaction with an item, losing both for that one round of combat. Blindness disguises a die's value, while locking a die completely prevents it from being used. Learning what enemies have access to before approaching them can alter what items a player brings to combat or which order enemies are fought in.
A good deal of strategy can truly carry one to success, but to suggest that unlucky rolls (or lucky foe rolls) can't completely alter the trajectory of the game would be disingenuous. I lost dominant runs a half hour in because I had atrocious luck while the enemy had fantastic luck. The range of luck varies wildly, of course, but having an entire run destroyed outside of the player's control can feel frustrating and defeating. Fortunately, runs don't usually exceed that half- hour timeframe, so getting back on the horse doesn't feel like too much of a chore.
If a certain character doesn't do it for you, don't worry: each of the six characters have surprisingly unique approaches to battle. The warrior is the simplest, boasting the ability to re-roll dice three times, while the thief can steal an enemy's equipment. More unique abilities lie with the inventor, who must destroy a piece of equipment at the end of every battle, granting a new, free ability to use every turn of battle in the next encounter, only to be replaced with a new ability upon destroying equipment after that battle. The witch fills out a spell book with abilities that can be placed into the field depending on the die rolled. Each spell slot can be replaced when earning a new item.
I have to applaud Cavanagh for his ability to create truly authentic characters that play entirely differently. Some have a more luck-based approach to combat, while others emphasize planning and strategy. In this way, Dicey Dungeons can feel like six different games because of how each character plays. Unfortunately, as different as the cast is, the luck component can both thrill and infuriate no matter who delves into the dungeon.
But why are we delving, anyway? The justification for the game is that each character enters this game show hosted by Lady Luck in order to win anything their heart desires. Some have aspirations to never need sleep, while others just want vast and immutable knowledge. Unfortunately for them, not only are they transformed into dice, uh, people? They are also fated to lose with the spin of the wheel each time they complete the dungeon. As such, the game show is a sort of hell-purgatory thing, and Lady Luck is clearly the villain.
The character motivations and the dilemma of being permanently stuck in the dungeon are fine, but the game doesn't take them much further than that and certainly chooses a predictable trajectory. In addition, the writing is serviceable, but lacks comedic flair. All of the enemies encountered recur in each excursion, and completing certain challenges grants players a profile card explaining an enemy's habits, likes, dislikes, motivations for entering the dungeon, etc. Rather than take advantage of the wacky, caricature-esque nature everyone exudes, Cavanagh seems to have played it straight, rarely including a clever quip or engaging world. I feel like Dicey Dungeons' ecosystem is a bland version of a Ludosity game, a developer/publisher who has created an enduring world of truly hilarious and strange inhabitants.
The music adds flavor to the world, though. As one might expect from a casino with lights all around, the menu screen immediately sets the stage with horns and percussion that demands one's attention. The visuals, however, do not match the music. While everything looks as it should and doesn't necessarily appear "bad," everything appears cheap. Of course, Cavanagh's previous games aren't really known for their complex, technically advanced visuals, but the animations and construction paper-like characters don't draw the eye. The controls are overall fine, but adding dice to cards doesn't pop and feels similarly cheap. I had one instance where I got a spell outside of the zone normally allowed, and my dice covered up the item. When I moved the dice away to read the text on the item, a die magnetized to the item, used the item, and ultimately lost me that run. In another instance, a clickable item during combat would visually press, but nothing would happen.
Dicey Dungeons certainly offers a unique experience to turn-based, deck-building titles. Unfortunately, the inclusion of dice can both excite and frustrate, as no amount of planning can prepare one for each contingency one might encounter or a poor run of luck. The unique playstyles keep the game fresh, the sheer quantity of items one might accrue add to the customization. If I've got the itch to throw dice, I can see myself dusting off Dicey Dungeons before anything else, but I think my luck's run dry for the time being.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.