Chances are that if you load up a review of Dungeon of the Endless — any review, doesn’t really matter which one — you will see, at some point, the words “tower defence” and “roguelike” in very close proximity to one another1. This is partially a reflection of DotE’s refusal to be pigeonholed; while it does indeed smoosh together some elements from both genres (you build towers to hold off waves of advancing baddies, but you also have a party of four characters who you outfit in looted equipment and level up as the dungeon progresses) into a single game, it also has some very interesting mechanics that have nothing to do with it being either a tower defence or a roguelike, and which can only be found in DotE. That it’s picked up those labels in spite of its unique qualities indicates that it’s been pigeonholed nevertheless, however, and I think that to describe it as a “roguelike tower defence” could end up misleading people. I certainly bounced off the surface the first time I played it because it wasn’t what I’d been led to expect – playing it like a roguelike simply didn’t work, and it didn’t seem quite tower-defencey enough (you start off with a grand total of one offensive tower, which doesn’t exactly promote strategy) to engage the strategy part of my brain. It wasn’t until I gave it a second chance after Christmas and accepted it on its own merits — rather than cramming it into a niche where it didn’t fit — that Dungeon of the Endless really clicked for me.
I’d like to tell you that it was a Damascene conversion and that Dungeon of the Endless is the best not-tower defence game since the first Defence Grid, but I would be lying. DotE is a smart, well-made game that still ended up underwhelming me slightly in spite of its quality and its cleverness. We’ll get to the reasons for that at the end of the review, but in the meantime it’s important to remember that DotE does a hell of a lot right. The basic setup available to first-time players of the game (you can unlock more game customisation options later on) starts you out with a party of two heroes out of a possible four. The heroes begin in a room with your all-important power crystal; the room will have one or more doors that you can open to reveal another room beyond, and this unexplored room can contain anything from monsters to resources to additional heroes you can recruit into your party. Usually it’s monsters, and your heroes will deal with them in a very hands-off fashion: your only control over them is telling them which room to go to, and if they happen to be sharing said room with monsters they’ll engage in combat with them automatically.
This was what threw me the first time I played the game; I’d gone in expecting it to be heavier on the roguelike side, but the heroes in DotE are much more like powerful mobile turrets than they are traditional roguelike characters — you’re concerned with their strategic placement on the map, not their second-by-second involvement in a scrap. Nonetheless there is plenty of variation amongst the pool of twenty-odd heroes you can eventually unlock, from slow, heavy machinegunners capable of holding back entire waves by themselves to quick, light melee characters who get torn apart if you let them get swarmed, but who are capable of responding quickly to unexpected monster incursions and who often have additional passive abilities to make up for it. Each hero has their own art, animations and a written biography that you’ll never ever read — their visual characterisation is good enough that you don’t even need to learn their names beyond Orange Space Marine Lady, Horse-Face Halberdier, Robot Knight etc. etc. — and watching them sprint/lumber around the map is one of the highlights of DotE because of the effort that’s gone into making each of them move differently and interestingly. They also eventually unlock a pair of special abilities you can use to turn overwhelming odds in your favour; while I found these a bit fiddly to utilise in the heat of the moment, they’re certainly powerful and definitely worth using.
Anyway, those are the heroes. The monsters they fight are rendered in a similarly charming fashion, and have a chance of spawning in areas that you can’t directly see whenever you open a door leading to a new room. Opening a door effectively counts as a turn in DotE; as long as you’re not exploring new territory monsters will never spawn and you can arrange heroes and build turrets to your heart’s content, but as soon as you crack open a door it’s time to batten down the hatches and await the inevitable onslaught. Each monster type has different behaviour — some will go for your heroes, some target turrets and resource modules, and a few of them will even beeline straight for your power crystal and attempt to smash it to bits, which is really bad for you and why it’s very important to open doors in such a way that any monsters that spawn are funneled through your fiendish network of defence turrets and (hopefully) get shot to pieces in the process.
So far, so tower defence. Sprinkling the roguelike mechanic of dungeon exploration on top doesn’t do much to change the basic formula — you’re still stacking turrets and managing monster paths, just like you do in Defence Grid. No, if you ask me the clever thing DotE does isn’t that it introduces some roguelike exploration elements to the game, but that it mixes in its own unique power mechanic at the same time. The power mechanic works like this: roughly every other room you open will yield a certain amount of Dust (in this case a fancy word for “electricity”). Every ten Dust you accumulate allows you to power an additional room. You get vision on powered rooms (meaning monsters can’t spawn in them), and you can also build turrets in them, and so selectively powering up rooms allows you to control which direction the monsters come from — if you’ve fully explored one area of the map it’s usually a good idea to power up that whole section if you can, so that you don’t have to worry about monsters spawning behind you while you explore the rest of it. The catch is that all of your power emanates from your power crystal, so in order to power a room at the far end of the dungeon you have to have enough Dust to also power an unbroken series of rooms between it and the crystal room. Dust is scarce enough that you can almost never power enough rooms to create an ideal defensive layout, and so there’s an ever-present element of compromise to the placement of your heroes and turrets; every room that you can’t see can spawn a wave of monsters, and so you have to both create defensive strongpoints that can hold back monster attacks as well as ensuring you have enough vision – either through hero placement or by powering rooms — that the monsters never reach the critical mass required to overrun your turrets.
It also adds a risk-reward element to unlocking new rooms. Because only some rooms give Dust – and no room will give enough Dust to power itself — opening up too many doors will change the map layout into something that’s very, very difficult to defend with the limited amount of power available. At the same time the avowed goal of the level is to find the exit elevator so that you can drag your power crystal to it and travel to the next floor, so you have to do at least some exploration. Because opening each door is a turn, the more doors you open, the more resources you’ll gather from your resource modules, the more turrets you’ll be able to build, and the more you’ll be able to level up your heroes with food. Because you start each level with just the resources left over from the last one, if you beeline straight for the exit every time it’s unlikely you’ll take enough resources into the next level to get a proper foothold there. Opening doors is both necessary and useful, then, but while it’s sometimes a no-brainer to do it it’s usually accompanied by a feeling that you’re about to overextend – badly.
It’s this constant sense of danger and the tradeoff between getting more stuff and potentially screwing yourself over that turns DotE into a one of the more thoughtful games I’ve played in the last year. The turret construction itself has been ripped wholesale out of Generic Tower Defence Game #106 – you’ve got your rapid fire low damage turrets, and your slow-firing high damage turrets, and your turrets that damage groups, and your turrets that lower defense and do damage over time, turrets that buff heroes, turrets that slow down monsters for other turrets to shoot — basically nothing that I haven’t seen at least a dozen times before in games that did it better, especially since the turrets all have “hilarious” pun-based names and descriptions that leave you none the wiser as to what they actually do. The other roguelike elements – the item system and the hero permadeath — feel similarly rote; the impact of losing a hero is somewhat lessened when you have a better than even chance of being able to recruit a new one on the next level, although they might not fit that well into your group. This is why I say that it’s not the mere fact that DotE fused tower defence and roguelikes that makes it good, it’s what it does to build on top of that with the map exploration and the power mechanic that makes it worth playing once.
Probably not more than once, however. I’ve spent six hours with Dungeon of the Endless, most of which was made up of two games. In one game I got to within two levels of the exit, only for an awful UI design “feature” to fuck me over: as previously mentioned, when you find the exit elevator you have to drag the power crystal to it while an unending horde of monsters assaults your crumbling defences. I had three of my heroes playing rearguard while the crystal carrier slogged his way to the elevator; seeing that he was about to reach his destination I moved to select my other heroes so that I could get them the hell out of there — only for the game to pop up the “PUSH TO LEAVE LEVEL” button right on top of my party just as I was clicking on them. Once you push the button any heroes who aren’t on the elevator get left behind, and there’s no confirmation dialogue to make sure that this potentially game-ruining action is something the player actually wants to do, so what happened here was that I lost three of my four heroes and couldn’t continue the run. Exactly why Amplitude think it’s a good idea to suddenly materialise this button anywhere near the play area – rather than, I don’t know, one of the corners of the screen where the player is unlikely to be clicking their mouse in the regular course of playing the fucking game — I do not know, but it pissed away two and a half hours of my time and caused me to ragequit for a couple of days before I felt like coming back to it.
Once I did, though, I managed to make it all the way to the end on the next run without feeling particularly pressured; I’d figured out the game, and while it required some brainpower to spin all the plates DotE had given me it was only really a game-ruining misstep like the one mentioned above that could stop me from finishing it once I’d built up some momentum. And this is where I ran into Dungeon of the Endless’s big problem: despite a number of mutators you can employ to change up subsequent runs, I feel like it has almost no replay value (and I did try). One run seems largely identical to the next, and there isn’t enough variety in the enemies or the dungeon environment to sustain long-term play. The very best roguelikes maintain an almost gambling-like thrill through hundreds of sessions as you never quite know what you’re going to encounter on each playthrough, but while DotE does have that risk-reward thing of opening new rooms to progress the actual contents of the rooms are depressingly dull — oh, it’s a machine that yields 17 food, whoop de doo. Having completed it once I found that I wasn’t particularly interested in doing it again with a mutator that gave me strong heroes who couldn’t heal themselves; that might have changed my approach somewhat, but it didn’t feel like a very interesting challenge to me, and certainly not interesting enough to justify investing another three hours into a third playthrough. That’s not exactly a black mark against Dungeon of the Endless; despite enjoying the genre I can’t name a single other tower defence game I’ve played through more than once, so it is at least in good company. At the same time, though, it does have all this stuff that’s explicitly geared towards making it more replayable than its peers, and it just doesn’t hook me in the way that it should.. Dungeon of the Endless is a good game on its own merits, but there’s no getting away from the fact that if I hadn’t been screwed over on that first run I would have finished it after four hours, not six, and even at six I came away with a slightly disappointed feeling that it was over too soon.
- And yes, I’m aware that by writing this I’ve just added this review to the list. ↩