Game Review – Dungelot: Shattered Lands

Dungelot: Shattered Lands is a rogue-like dungeon crawling puzzle game by Red Winter Software, released February 18, 2016 on Steam, and earlier that month on iOS. It was picked up for publishing by tinyBuild mid-2015, and is the third game in the series. Work in progress art can be seen in its thread on the TIGForums. Review last updated 2016/03/02.

Banner - Dungelot Shattered Lands

Aspect Ratios 16:9, 16:10, 4:3
Framerate Cap 144+
Performance Just Fine
Options Very Few
Key Rebinding No, Mouse Required
Controller Support/Rebinding No
Local Co-op No, Singleplayer

PC Port Quality

Right away it’s clear this was intended for mobile. It’s lacks detailed settings of really any kind (just music and sound effect volume and generic Unity quality settings in the launcher), but it does properly render framerates above 60. Character animations & effects, pans & zooms, mouse cursor movement, attack and various UI animations… all looked great at 120Hz. There’s no on-the-fly window size adjustment, but alt-enter toggling works just fine, as does alt-tabbing. However, the set resolution means you’ll need to restart it to adjust it even a small amount, and that if set windowed to a res lower than your display, fullscreening from there will send the display into that low resolution, stretching the game and making tabbing out slower.

The game is meant for touch inputs, but swiping only works on one screen (it’s only a digital input). Hovering over buttons doesn’t have any visual effect outside of the descriptions of your 4 skills, and such tool-tips are missing from the status effects. Right clicking is used on monsters for their info pop-ups. They recently implemented hotkeys, but the only useful one is Escape for backing up through the menus; no other keys can be used to navigate the menus even where it would seem obvious. The hotkeys while in a dungeon are all spread out and aren’t of any use because of that. 1-4, C, and I would make sense in an MMO with tons of other hotkeys and movement controls all over the board. For Dungelot, a much more logical layout for the left hand could be ASZX matching the 2×2 layout of the skills in the UI, C as it is for crafting, and D and/or Shift for opening the inventory. The crafting and inventory menus don’t close on a second press of the key, and before a recent update, for example pressing C 5 times would queue all of those inputs, open the crafting menu, which would then automatically re-open after closing it 4 more times. As of now that’s gone from the Inventory, it only queues one extra input in crafting, and Esc (which opens the volume and save/quit menu) opens and closes with each new press as one would expect. I’m fine with an interface entirely for just clicking, but if you’re going to make the effort to add hotkeys, it would be nice if they worked properly.

Dungelot - Crafting

Now, because this was meant for mobile, outside of a touch of additional art around the edges, it really doesn’t utilize the horizontal space. On 16:9, there is enough real-estate for the pop-up inventory interface to fit 4 whole times. Depending on your run, you might make consistent use of items. The inventory existing in a pop-up means that all of those actions require an additional click, on top of two clicks for every time you simply need to view your items, which covers 40% of the play grid while up. You can cancel out of spells and items by clicking the black space, but not the crafting or inventory menus, and without the hotkey, the crafting menu is a click deep. There’s enough completely unused space to fit the entire inventory, the crafting menu, the volume and save/quit/forfeit options… but instead, all that stuff is in pop-ups. What this all amounts to is that an already immensely click-heavy title, is made even more so. I understand that it’s required for mobile and it looks minimal with all that tucked away, but on PC it just lowers the speed of play and forces unnecessary player inputs every few seconds.

Gameplay

The game originally mentioned “minesweeper”, not once but twice in it’s quick description on Steam. It seems that was removed recently, and I can see why considering the similarities between that and this end at clicking a grid to reveal potentially positive or negative outcomes. And that’s a shame, because not only do I love logical, mathematically oriented games, I feel such an approach could have made the game vastly more interesting. Outside of following the simple concept that squares with the fewest uncovered squares surrounding should be uncovered first, as enemies lock said uncovered squares, there’s no strategy involved in revealing the grid. It’s just a click-fest until you’re forced to eliminate an enemy, or you find the key to open the door to the next floor.

The long-term strategy concerns efficient use of items/spells/food, using them to retain your health till the end of each dungeon. Not exploring all the tiles you can for drops, or wasting said drops inefficiently will put you in a bad spot later as all you’d have left is your standard attack which subjects to the enemies attacks,lacking food causing hunger, eating away at your armor and health. In the short term, all you have to care about is which enemies you attack, and how you do so depending which enemies are currently on the field. Each enemy variety has a general health/attack ratio (all these values increase as you progress through the regions), a physical attack or magical attack of one of a few elements with different effects, and a set of passive traits. These traits are the most interesting component as they are setup to punish you for various actions. Clicking on tiles and attacking count as “turns”, but utilizing items of any kind are “free” in that sense. However these traits can make certain enemies attack you for every item used, spell cast, or tile clicked. These traits do all sorts of things; punishing your actions in different ways, feeding off of other enemies or making them stronger, spawning additional enemies or hazards when revealed and/or killed, taking your spell uses away, etc. You can right click on any enemy to remind yourself of these effects as well as their elemental weaknesses to be exploited by certain spells and damaging items, but it’s mostly about quickly reading the enemies in play to avoid taking actions that will be punished. While there is clear visual and audio feedback for all of these events, the game doesn’t really limit the speed at which you click various things. If you misread or forget what enemies do, you might take damage multiple times in a row while trying to play quickly, though there is no mechanical incentive to do so.

Dungelot - Gameplay 01

That said with all these interactions, they don’t really effect the field in interesting ways. One attacks on tile click and is surrounded by tiles that take two clicks to clear, and another spawns a ring of poison on death, but that’s about it. I’d have love to see traits that uncover tiles, attack enemies, set traps, etc, in larger patterns across the board. In a similar fashion and bringing it back to my primary issue, is that enemy spawns are completely random. With minesweeper, nonograms, and many games in the same vein, the player is provided a set of rules and/or clues that, provided they’re crafty enough, allow them to clear the grids in an optimal fashion. There are so many ways that could have been accomplished here. Bog standard minesweeper numbering, nonogram-style numbering along two edges, consistent patterns/formations of enemies, etc. You could even get more creative, say working with flowing water/lava to trigger/effect enemies, tiles, or switches of some sort. Because the game lacks any such systems outside of outright giving you the key location or the enemy positions for a given floor via the map and lantern consumables, whether or not you encounter enemies is purely up to the RNG gods. As I said before, you just click tiles till you find the key or are forced to deal damage. The enemies could be anywhere, as can the key, it’s entirely up to chance.

The game considerably lengthy even going quickly and without dying (which sets you back to floor 1 in that dungeon). Implementing puzzle mechanics for clearing the grid could make it slower, but I feel doing so would have notably increased the players intellectual engagement with the core gameplay, and could have been a more rewarding experience, even if the overall number of floors to clear was drastically reduced. All of the floors are randomly generated based on defined sets of enemies and hazards, and even includes and endless dungeon in each area. However the game does have a defined length because of the gradual expansion of that enemy/hazard pool, the items/spells gated behind clearing specific dungeons, and passive buffs bought with gold in your mansion. After 10 hours, I’d beaten the final boss, but unlocking the various equips for each character would require that 3 more times. It’s far too long for a game this monotonous mechanically. If they wanted these unlocks to have an effect on your play as they do, structure along the lines of Rogue Legacy or Knightmare Tower would have been a better option; only a few stages that are lengthy and challenging, where you’re meant to fail and gradually accumulate till you finally succeed. The 100 Floor Twitch Challenge they put out for streamers was almost exactly that, it just needed two more alongside it for the forest and desert realms.

Dungelot - Characters

The 4 characters (the Succubus, Werewolf, and potentially another are coming in a free update) have different 4 skills and 2 passive skills each that proc based on a percentage tied to a bar filled by destroying items and lowered by using spells. There are a considerable number of items that equip in two slots on your character that are removed upon leaving a dungeon, weapons with different stats and abilities equipped in the overworld (including 2H weapons that disable the second equip slot), and tons of items that can be found, bought in shop floors, or crafted with picked up materials. All items found in dungeons take up inventory slots (4 to start, 6 by the end). Spells are unlocked for all characters at once and buffs/bags are universal, but each character has weapons and crafting recipes that can only be unlocked by completing with them specifically. They can have impact on your play, which disincentivizes switching between characters on the first run, and wants roughly 4 playthroughs to finally have them all on equal footing. Overall the characters are different enough to change how you approach various elements. They aren’t just cosmetic nor simply raw stat changes, which is nice to see.

One thing that I found cool was that there are a number of skip-able non-standard floors. The shop was essential (though it has a bed that can exchange food for health, and a weapon rack that gives good items purchasable via the mansion), but there’s also a memory mini-game with 4 heads that light up and sing, a blacksmith with a timing mini-game, an alchemist that can be invested into over time to unlock a powerful potion each time you visit, a 1 in 3 chance for an item (I’d have liked this more as a shell game), etc. In addition, there are a few mini text adventure challenges you find in the overworld, with smaller risk/reward events randomly as you progress through dungeons in which some characters unlock additional options.

Presentation

While none of the designs stand out to me as unique or likely to be remembered, the visual style is cohesive and very well executed. The characters and enemies are made up of many small elements that squish, wiggle, and wave around, on top of their attack animations. This gives a very dynamic feel to a title that could have been completely static; the same can be said for the UI transitions, and it all looks great at a high framerate. There are also a few comedic bits of written dialogue between the characters at the beginning, end, and upon reaching each of the regions.

Dungelot - Realms

The game progresses through 3 different regions with their own tilesets and additional enemies that fit each theme. An additional ice realm is teased after the final boss, and is confirmed to be coming at some point in a free update. The huge bosses that appear at the end of each are very well done visually, but mechanically they didn’t seem to do anything interesting.

While the music is largely ambient and is nothing I’d listen to on it’s own, I’d say it fits the aesthetic and does change to suit each environment, with additional tracks for the menu and mansion (an acoustic guitar piece along the lines of Castle Crashers‘ shop theme). The game is so lengthy that most players will likely mute the music and listen to their own, or play while multi-tasking. Almost every interaction and object motion has a sound effect, the most used having multiple variations, along with subtle changes between the regions. Some don’t fully fade out properly, but it’s extremely subtle and can’t be heard with any other audio going. All 4 characters have voice acting; 4-5 lines when selected in the menu, and a few for various events like passive skills triggering.

Dungelot - Home
The completed “Mansion”. The 4 playable characters reside here, with room for 2-3 others to come in free updates. Items seen here add passive buffs and can be purchased with coins.

Conclusion

I’m personally more into active games over turn based or passive titles. The ones I do get into tend to be either very high quality, or they integrate puzzle and/or creative/building elements for me to get invested in. Sadly, this misses the mark. The art, animation, and visual presentation are very well done for a title of this size. There’s tons of items and enemies with traits to consider that play into each other, but the core play consists of a lot of meaningless clicking, made worse by a UI meant for mobile devices which forces tons of unnecessary inputs. There’s little to no strategy for clearing the floor tiles, so whether or not you’re forced into fighting is completely random, on top of the random generation failing to create truly compelling encounters. You learn the enemy traits to clear floors quickly while avoiding the actions that will punish, not because there’s any time element, but just because you want to get through it faster. There are key items for the characters that are locked behind playthroughs that are already way too long to begin with.

Dungelot - Scorecard

I’m not the target audience for this title, but I’m sure some will enjoy it. I don’t feel it’s strategic or deep enough to really dig your teeth into, but the presentation is great, and I’ve sunk more time into titles far worse than this on mobile in the past. I very much appreciate that the title is on PC, the more the better from my perspective. However, other than the high refreshrate support, it doesn’t really take advantage of the screen real  estate or input methods the PC allows for (which slows down play considerably), while also being a title far more suited to the smaller bursts of casual play often done on mobile. And to go with that, the PC version is $10 with the iOS release at $4, though one must also consider the bundle/sale culture that will inevitably bring that lower.

Dungelot - Bosses

Bugs amount to getting stuck once after clicking another block during the “Hand of God” skill animation, that the items in the mansion were filled from the start instead of appearing as transparent red images they’re supposed to be before purchase, and that bombs were infinitely craftable by right clicking the button after running out of materials (this was patched). There’s also a pretty significant issue with a large number of achievements not activating properly, but it seems that’s number one on their list at the moment. There’s quality and good bit of content here, but I can only recommend it to those looking for a more casual dungeon crawling experience (not that it isn’t hard, but that the game is heavily reliant on RNG where mathematics/puzzle-solving would have been more suited) to be played in shorter bursts, and are okay with A LOT of clicking. I might have thought more highly of it had I played the 100 Floor Twitch Challenge build, or simply stopped sooner. Playing through till the final boss for review (even though that’s still only ~25-40% of true completion), I found it tiring.


For full disclosure, Dungelot: Shattered Lands was provided by both the developer and publisher (tinyBuild) for review. If you found this review helpful, consider a rating on Steam.


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