I spent a good portion of my gaming life claiming to hate roguelikes. In my mind, I connected things like hardcore mode in Diablo and Dark Mode in the Witcher 2 with my limited experience with games like Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja on the original DS. I don’t have the spare time to dedicate to constantly losing my progress, and the notion of a game that actively set me back to zero with each death seemed completely counter to my RPG-loving sensibilities, which would have me amassing power and wealth and overwhelming handsomeness over 60 hours. Yet, as a player who finds most of my joy in challenging gameplay and careful management of finite resources, I always got the sense that I should be enjoying the genre. The exceptional Rogue Legacy and its “roguelite” style seemed to gel with me perfectly: a game in which death was a major setback and thus something to be avoided, but not one in which dying meant every hour spent thus far was burned, leaving you with only wisdom gained to carry on in the next life. Somewhere along the line between Rogue Legacy and Dungeonmans, though, some hidden part in my brain must have clicked. The latter game, one I fully admit to having interest in purely because of its 32-bit Hitoshi Sakimoto-inspired soundtrack courtesy of OCReMix legend/composer Andrew “zircon” Aversa, has made me a full-fledged fan of this sub-section of the roguelike genre.
Part of the key here is that Dungeonmans, like Rogue Legacy before it and the recently-released-to-Early-Access Darkest Dungeon, doesn’t make death a total loss. At the outset, you establish the Dungeonmans Academy, a well-intentioned but underequipped university of all things heroism. As your Dungeonmans explore the various dungeons, caves, towers, and graveyards of the world, they come across alchemy equipment, books of lore, magical shards, relic gear, and other manner of items that confer both immediate and long-term benefits to your character and your academy. As an example, the stat-boosting Proof of Stremf dropped by boss enemies offers two points to the current hero, but each collected also provides an additional starting point for future Mans.
Dying means that your hero (in my case, one of the long-running Taelus/Lady Taelus line) bites it for good. In Dark Souls fashion, coming across their grave and smiting the foe that killed them can net you back some of that character’s experience and even some of their gear, if it was powerful enough to become legend among the students of the Academy. There’s a fun sense of meta-narrative to be experienced, coming across statues of your past Dungeonmans erected in towns on which they had an impact or finding a piece of their equipment christened with their name in honor of all the heroic deeds done with it.
The game offers a fair selection of starting classes, but you’re free to distribute skill points in any class’ tree, allowing for some powerful build options. There’s a learning curve, but it’s worthwhile for you the player to try out lots of classes, slowly gaining a sense of the capabilities each skill tree offers, and, even more fun, how they can be combined for greatest effect. Finding especially potent combinations can even lead to unlocking Master’s Programs, specialized supertrees that become available for all future generations of heroes once discovered. Further lending to the sense that you’re building an academy of heroism, especially skilled and high-leveled heroes will see their ghosts take up residence in a classroom, offering to train future heroes and grant them mastery of an entire skill tree right from the outset. For a game with such a simple initial appearance, there’s a huge amount of depth to the systems that make up Dungeonmans — more than would be practical to explain and for which the joy of discovery makes ignorance the best state in which to jump in.
Simplicity is also the name of the game when it comes to looks. There’s relatively little animation, with tons of static sprites bobbing and wobbling around the screen but otherwise remaining totally still. That makes it a whole lot more impressive that there’s so much charm in the game’s visuals. There’s an amusing character to the way your hero bounces from tile to tile, battling imps, highwaymans, and even the fearsome and legendary triger, which is, as the name would imply, a stack of three tigers. That character carries over to the writing, which is packed full of amusing references, clever names, and hilarious boss/hero exchanges. Enemies also have a number of sound effects associated with them, and I’m hard-pressed to get the screeched “bloody hells” and “wankah!” uttered by bandits as you smite them out of my head.
The music, which I won’t go over in too much detail here in anticipation of my upcoming review of the soundtrack, is uniformly excellent and manages to give the game a strong sense of place, somehow working in conjunction with the graphics to evoke fond memories spent playing PS1-era games. Inspired heavily by Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII, there’s a regal, battle march-esque quality to each song that manages to convey a sense of the prestige your characters, noble purpose in mind, bring into combat.
While my time as a whole was positive, I did find quite a few glitches and bugs throughout the game. Occasionally, maps would generate in such a way that I wouldn’t be able to get somewhere I needed to be. The targeting cursor would occasionally lapse into insanity and warp across the screen, causing me to waste an action. On more than one occasion, the grave of a fallen Dungeonmans would disappear into a dungeon, but be impossible to locate, forcing me to leave behind valuable experience and legendary gear. A few boss rooms, upon completion, wouldn’t spawn a teleporter out of the dungeon; fortunately, I carried lots of teleport scrolls, but if I hadn’t, I don’t know how I would have escaped. The game saw patches throughout the weeks I spent playing it, so I’m fairly confident many bugs will be squashed as time passes, but it’s still something to be aware of going into the game.
I had such a good time with Dungeonmans that I found myself bumping games off of my top 5 list for 2014 in order to make room for its last-minute inclusion. It’s a game with style and charm, one that does a lot with relatively little technical wizardry. I spent countless evenings playing until, bleary-eyed, I quite literally forced myself to go to bed. The addictive quality of “one more dungeon” married with the great skill system, funny humor, and massive number of places, things, and beasts to discover works incredibly well with the sense of danger: that, at any moment, a nightmare triger could smite you for all time, leaving only whispered tales of your legend to future graduates of the Dungeonmans Academy. Well, that and all the cool stuff you donated, Indiana Jones-style.
Dungeonmans has solidified my love of roguelikes with its charming personality, accessible but addictive gameplay, and shocking amount of depth. Perhaps true roguelike fans might scoff at the persistent, RPG-style elements between each hero’s inevitable demise, but for those of us who like a little danger and tension with our leveling and gearing, this game is hard to top.