"Dungeons of Dredmor isn't without problems, but the good humour and addictive gameplay make it an amiable purchase."
Released earlier this year, Dungeons of Dredmor attempts to bring together the best of old-school roguelikes with updated mechanics and graphics for the modern era. Randomly generated content, dungeon-delving, and slaughtering monsters are touched up with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humour. The question is: does Dredmor succeed in this mash-up of new and old? The answer is both yes and no.
As you might expect, randomly generated floors are the name of the game in this dungeon-crawler. A basic story is provided to shed light on your subterranean explorations, but it's a simple 'go kill the bad guy before he does bad stuff' foray. It's not particularly exciting, but nor does anyone play a roguelike for an enthralling story. The dungeon features ten different floors that are re-generated each time you start a new character. So even though the individual environments for each floor will look the same, you'll have a whole new set of rooms to explore, enemies to defeat, and loot to, uh, loot.
When you first create your character you can give him (or her) a name and then pick seven skills for them to specialise in. These skills are extremely varied and range from sword, axe, and mace proficiency to blood magic, astrology, smithing, assassination and more. As you don't pick an actual class you can feel free to mix and match these skills as you please. Some of the magic, notably Viking wizardry, are especially fun to use. With more than thirty skills to choose from, there are plenty of different gameplay styles to try. Unfortunately, the balance is a little off and some skills are much less useful than others.
Your ultimate goal is to reach the tenth floor and defeat the evil Dredmor. Ten floors may not sound like much, but throw in three different difficulty levels and (optional) permadeath, and many heroes will meet an untimely end. Even the easiest difficulty is quite a challenge, especially when combined with permanent death. Turn that off, however, and you'll be able to save and reload your file at any time. For roguelike newbies, this means that one mistake won't force you to start a whole new character. Roguelike veterans, on the other hand, may see this option as a cop-out. Either way, the game can get rather repetitive once you're on your twentieth-plus attempt, especially when it crashes and you lose all your progress. The floors themselves are massive and take a considerable amount of time to explore. If you get tired of them, there's an option to make them smaller when creating your character; I generally found this to be the more enjoyable choice.
On each floor you'll encounter a wide variety of enemies from bats and blobs to crazed robots and fiery demons. The first five floors or so are a joy in this regard as each features an almost entirely new set of adversaries. Unfortunately, from that point on the palette swapping begins and only a handful of original designs are introduced. Enemies aside, the graphical design is quite pleasant. Each floor sports a different theme and the stone-walled, wooden-boarded, and metal-plated floors are varied enough to make each area feel fresh. The hero (and, as of a recent patch, the female hero) have a fun, quirky design and their massive eyebrows give them some real charm. The art is a little rough around the edges, but its unique look deters you from being too critical. The only real disappointment within the art was the lack of paperdolling. Your character always wears the same clothes regardless of what armour or weapons you equip.
When not murdering masses of enemies, your time on each floor will be spent exploring. Stairs up and down between levels are frequent and you often find a way to get down to the next floor just after arriving on one. However, the generally erratic difficulty between floors means that some grinding is required before progressing. In fact, you'll need to pretty much explore every floor completely if you hope to stand a chance on the next one. Traps are a frequent occurrence and you'll trigger and disable hundreds of them before beating the game. Certain skills allow you to see or disable them more easily, but it's generally just as viable to avoid them entirely.
The only other major occurrence on each floor is in the form of statues. The Anvil of Krong can power-up or, if you're unlucky, curse any piece of equipment you like, while statues of Dredmor can be heroically vandalised for a big experience bonus. Statues of Inconsequentia provide randomly generated side-quests that involve killing unique enemies or finding lost items. You'll look forward to finding all three on each floor and they're a great incentive to go exploring. The excitement of discovering what's around the next corner is almost enough to distract you from the dull music and 90s sound effects. …Almost.
Loot appears in a frustrating abundance and, considering most of it is worthless rubbish, it tends to just clog up your inventory. More than half of the potions, materials, drinks, weapons, and more that you pick up will be of no use to you at all. Combine this with an extraordinarily difficult to manage inventory system and you have a recipe for frustration. A significant amount of your game time will be picking up loot and then organising it. Initially, you couldn't even sell items in bulk to a shop, and you had to individually click and confirm each one. Luckily, this was remedied in a recent patch along with an easier to understand interface for crafting new weapons and armour. That said, it's still not the easiest mechanic to use.
The weapons and armour you do find, or buy, are the bread and butter of your powers. If you're lacking in powerful armaments then later floors will be nearly impossible for you to break through. If you're lucky you can find some great pieces hidden around the place, but on a bad run you just might be stuck with your gnarled mace for multiple floors. This can be a major problem when, through no fault of your own, you're simply not prepared to tackle the more difficult floors. Usually loot you find is vastly inferior to whatever you're already using. I found it a better option to sell off almost every item and buy the generally more powerful equipment from the store on each floor. However, even that isn't guaranteed. Dredmor also likes to throw a lot of numbers at you. A quick look at the character panel shows more than twenty-five numbers that relate to different resistances, defences, and powers. Mousing-over them briefly explains them, but it's a lot to constantly take in and account for. How should I know whether I'm better off with curse or ice resistance?
The controls are further hampered by odd lag that occurs on lower floors. The game is technically turn-based, which means for every attack or movement you make the enemy will also get a chance to do something. If I clicked to attack too frequently, I'd simply have to sit and wait a few turns for my character to catch up to the keyboard input. This was a particular problem when I rapidly lost health and had to watch my character finish attacking before I could use a potion or eat some food.
It took me around nine hours of experimenting to defeat Dredmor on normal difficulty. Review scoring aside, most of those hours were pretty fun. The easy difficulty may be better if you're not as confident, and turning off permadeath may be a more enjoyable experience for you. Hardcore players can go for the most difficult option, but are more likely to find a frustrating and erratic experience rather than a fairly challenging one. Dungeons of Dredmor isn't without problems, but the good humour and addictive gameplay make it an amiable purchase. It might not be to everyone's tastes, and the random generation can be frustrating, but for only a few dollars it's pretty easy to recommend.