“Staying put won’t help,” the tutorial screen tells me.
I laugh. I legitimately scoff. If I had a nickel for every time a game told me I couldn’t take my time and painstakingly plan out every movement and decision I make, I’d be able to fulfill my lifelong dream of swimming around in a vault of cash, my wildest Scrooge McDuck fantasy. So I tuck my hubris into my front pocket and get going.
Then, I die. I die a lot. In fact, I died so many times in the first two hours of playing this game that for a moment, I had a serious existential dilemma. Was I really good at video games, or had I been living a lie my whole life? Had I just been incredibly lucky with every other video game I’d touched until now? Did I really beat that Sandcrawler level on Super Star Wars without dying, or have my parents been coddling me into a nest of deceit and false praise since I was a child?
Make no mistake, “Dungeon of the Endless” is an incredibly difficult game. At a distance, it’s a game that looks familiar, a strange amalgam of gaming conventions piecemealed together Frankenstein-style. It’s brain is a tower defense game, it’s skin is a dungeon crawler, and it’s heart is a procedurally generated rogue-like. But once you get up close and put your hands on the thing, it becomes immediately apparent that it is quite unlike anything you’ve played before.
On its face, “Dungeon of the Endless” is a genre-bending tale of the crew of a prison ship who have crashed onto an alien planet. To escape, they must carry a crystal from their landing point to the end of the dungeon. Before you can move the crystal, though, you need to find the end of the level. And before you can even hope to survive getting the crystal from point A to point B, you need to make sure the route is adequately defended.
Amplitude Studios relishes in the notion that in this game, the player will be forced to somehow move quickly while maintaining a carefully planned tactical precision. While it mashes together the perma-death and procedural generation typical of rogue-likes, the game also factors in aspects of tower defense games, such as resource management and tactical planning. All of these things must be done on the fly as you guide your heroes in exploration through the dungeon. Work in some RPG-style leveling to even out the tone and you’ve got Dungeon of the Endless.
To survive, the player needs to be fast. And not just quick-witted and nimble on your toes, either. You need to plan ahead, be quick enough to make crucial decisions at top speed, and also fast enough with your fingers to shift the map from the apex of your exploration to where the danger may be occurring elsewhere. Often times, it almost seems like you need to manage to be everywhere at once. The game will force you to weigh your priorities: is it worth pushing forward down this hall (maybe the exit is there!), or should you divert your heroes and resources back five rooms to help your defenses take out those pesky drones?
From the moment you open your first door, the onslaught already begins. Using your resources, you can power any rooms for tactical purposes — enemies don’t spawn in powered rooms and once a room is powered, you can build resource-producing modules that will also protect the room once enemies make their way into it. The problem is those resources are limited. It almost seems that the more you use them, the more scarce they become. Open the wrong door and you could produce a funnel from which enemies will pour into your safezone, however well-defended it may be.
Available on Steam, Mac, Windows, iOS and soon to Xbox One, “Dungeon of the Endless” promises an excess of fifty hours of gameplay. I personally sank just under fifty hours into this game on Steam and about ten hours on iPad between bouts of violent sobbing. On iPad, there are some expected differences in operation, but the core experience is much the same. With a host of unlockable characters, the game offers plenty of bait to keep the player pushing on, just in case a unique procedurally generated playthrough and the hopes of getting to the end of finally freeing yourself isn’t enough of an incentive. It’s true, this game is amazingly difficult. It is maddeningly so. But it is also amazingly fun and, for anyone who is patient enough, it is unreasonably addictive.