In this golden age of indie gaming, the roguelike has made a big comeback with titles such as The Binding of Isaac, Pixel Dungeon, Nuclear Throne, and Risk of Rain. The newest contender in the randomly-generated arena is Dungeon Souls, a fast-paced, top-down hack-and-slash dungeon crawler that meshes a lot of great ideas from those titles and has proven very difficult to put down.
Even though the game's randomized dungeons and large variety or power-ups means some playthroughs can be easier than others, I haven't been glued to my screen for such a difficult game since the first Hotline Miami.
Our story involves choosing from a pool of fallen heroes and helping them in their quest for Soul Orbs that can free their entrapped spirits. Dark enough for you? By reviving them on the menu screen, you set them on the path to finding themselves again via traversing a series of deadly labyrinths.
Good variety for character building
The precise gameplay relies on accuracy, knowledge of the class you're playing, and intelligent stat and build choices. Careful spacing and quick reflexes are rewarded, and smart use of secondary abilities is essential to surviving the chaotic hordes.
Classes can be divided into close-ranged (Barbarian, Warrior), mid-ranged (Thief, Necromancer) long-ranged (Archer, Wizard, Cleric) and variable-ranged (Nightblade). While some characters are locked into one initial secondary attack, most can unlock one of two special abilities by default, and can choose to either unlock the other one later or boost their existing one.
Each of the seven classes has a sort of Area-of-Effect attack, such as the Barbarian's ranged Thunder Axe or the Archer's Rain of Arrows, and a special ability unique to that class. For instance, the Cleric can heal, the Thief can turn invisible and invincible for a certain period while attacking, the Wizard can teleport while stunning opponents, and the Necromancer's Blood For Attack skill boosts your default damage by 50% at a cost of 2% HP per attack.
There's a big difference between each of the classes' default builds and while each has their merits, every player will have their favorite. The Archer and Barbarian are excellent for anyone just starting out. The Thief is a bit more advanced, trading range, health, and defense for lightning-fast movement and attack speed, the Nightblade can switch primary weapons between a Barbarian-like axe and a bouncing charm, and the Necromancer has a unique and challenging play style, since he has to juggle draining his own health to boost damage with recovering it by summoning Skeletons, who return 20% of his health on their way out. Classes also 'evolve' past a certain point, though the changes are cosmetic.
Progression through each floor is straightforward and as follows: you seek out several glyphs (between 4-6), and fight your way through the enemies that spawn from and nearby them. Once you've activated every glyph, a demonic entity named The Redeemer will appear on the map, seek you out, and siphon your health in a rather terrifying animation, so it's time to hop in the portal into the next floor. This effectively prevents the player from too much level grinding. Because of this threat, it's useful to locate which glyph is nearest the portal marker and save it for last. The shiny drops include coins and gems (which you can spend on upgrades), potions (to heal, provide buffs, or regenerate), and keys (Silver and Gold, for respective chests).
On each floor you'll find a Shopkeep, and this gentleman is an oasis for the player. He'll offer you three different items, and you'll be crossing your fingers hoping for a powerful upgrade. However, you only get to pick one of them before the merchant whisks away to the next floor and leaves a potion (what a nice guy!), so it's essential to choose wisely.
The upgrades are generally really helpful and come in every flavor. Some are permanent buffs to stats such as damage, magic, health, agility, movement speed, critical rate, cooldown time, etc. Others are more creative, including a Spike Ball that rotates around your character providing both offense and defense, a Twin Blade that has a 30% chance to double your damage, a Berserker Ring that can initiate a berserk mode after you take a hit, or items to modify your attacks to, say, launch an enemy or cause poison/fire/stun damage.
There are also uber-powered rare items, such as the Laser Staff (20% chance to fire a laser) and the King's Crown (20% max health, 20 damage, 20 defense). My personal favorite has gotta be the accurately-named Pacman's Glove (stronger knockback). Enemies drop gold liberally, but later upgrades do kind of burn a hole in your pocket. However, that sweet cash does carry over after death for use immediately in your next run.
As for the enemies, they come in many varieties. Sure, you've got your garden-variety bats, flaming demon bats, walking skeletons, and zombies. But there's also scythe-swinging minotaurs, broadsword-wielding wights, gargoyles, exploding gels, winged beetle spearmen, hard-to-hit evil flies, mustached yetis, hooded summoners, disgruntled snowmen, and the like. And there's also a whole host of traps to look out for, such as Indiana Jones-style boulders, moving spikes, and stationary energy, arrow, and fire traps.
Bosses are king, challenges keep coming
It's the bosses that are the real challenge in this game, however, and it took this player many tries to get through each one following the first, especially since the arena can often change to be littered with spike traps or magic turrets. The Skeleton King and Gigantum Slime aren't too tough of customers if you play your cards right, but the fellows that await at the end of the Ice Cathedrals are a bit of a skill gate. The final boss is a damage sponge, and since you're fighting in an enclosed space, if your character is not up to snuff and you don't have fast enough reflexes, you're gonna have a bad time. However, after the boss, you get a chance to play through the game again, only on a more difficult mode and with newly unlocked characters. Because the challenge never ends, experienced players can continue to push their limits by keeping the party going for over a hundred floors. With multiple classes to unlock, play as, and evolve, there's a ton of replay value.
Technically, Dungeon Souls wears its retro aesthetic admirably, with colorful attacks, items, and lighting effects standing out from the background. One of the things you notice quite early is that for a game with a file size of only 40MB, it's got some pretty nifty lighting effects. Most of the background will be shrouded in darkness, with your character emitting a sort of necro-luminescent glow to brighten the way. This also means you can get easily ambushed if you're not paying attention.
Also, perhaps due to file compression and/or advanced dynamic lighting, the game does get hit with slowdown even on good systems at very high levels of play. Older PCs such as mine can be hit by slowdown as well. Even at minimum settings, I experienced slowdown globally on my 2009 Windows 7 Vaio during the dungeons, while bosses ran at normal speed, which was disorienting. I know that I'm not alone in experiencing uneven speeds of play and framerate drops thanks to concerned posts on the Steam community page. One fix that was recommended but I did not get the chance to test was setting the game's allotted memory usage on the Task Manager to high.
If I have one major complaint about the game, it's the soundscapes, first and foremost the low-res sound effect samples, which can sometimes be piercing. There are a lot of explosive traps and heavy enemy attacks in the later levels that are best tackled with the volume lowered. The music, while serviceable, is also nothing to write home about.
There's a few minor issues as well that stand in the way of this being a perfect game, and one might hope that they might be addressed since developer Mike Studios has been on the ball since day one, and has been publishing updates almost every week. One is the unclear explanations for certain abilities and items, as well as no visible Critical Rate for your hero on the pause screen or main menus. Other minor standouts are slightly blurred textures, as well as a lack of variety in the environments, since cosmetically there are only three different areas.
However, for most people, these issues are not deal-breakers, and if you can most probably run the game just fine with a decent graphics card. Mike Studios have also promised dual-analog controller support in the future. It’s a welcome addition for those who struggle with the keyboard and mouse.
In conclusion, if you like your roguelikes tough, frenetic, and with a large degree of both randomness and customization, Dungeon Souls is a very worthy addition to the growing pantheon of the genre's rebirth. The game's stability and variety is improving day-to-day, with a plethora of promised features still to come. Hopefully there will also be DLC someday.
Dungeon Souls is available now on Steam Early Access for $9.99. Give it a shot!