“Welcome to Dungeonland!” squawks the Dungeon Master through a loudspeaker. Almost immediately a group of skeleton archers, bees and wizard bunnies descend on my fellow adventurers and me. You see, Critical Studio – Dungeonland’s developer – has never heard of “easing in”. This game is punishingly difficult. From the outset you will be challenged. You will die often. It is to be expected from a game whose lowest difficulty level is hard.
At its core Dungeonland is a cooperative dungeon crawler. Underline cooperative, because without cooperation you and your team mates will die many a horrible death. An understanding of your chosen class’s abilities is the key to success. The Mage takes on healing and protection roles, using his “Beam of Awesome” to temporarily make a team mate invincible. The Rogue is nimble and is most effective if he can get behind an enemy. The warrior takes on the tank role and can deal lots of damage as well as absorb damage for a short time.
Dungeonland makes a great first impression. Not only is it presented well, the overall design is wonderful. Colours pop and really draw the eye in. Enemy design is creative, varied, and often funny – the rocket powered hippos that shit on you from above are a highlight. Its aesthetics aren’t ground breaking in any way, but what Dungeonland lacks in AAA polish, it more than makes up for in character.
Dungeonland’s gameplay can best be described as a mix of Gauntlet and Diablo. You will spend your time battling through hordes of enemies and bosses. Along the way you will collect coins which can be used to upgrade weapons, armour and perks – or buy Dungeon Maestro cards, but more on those later. Like Diablo, events can occur at random, often throwing large hordes of enemies and special monsters at you. The suspense of not knowing what might be coming next will keep you on your toes. Sticking close to your allies and communicating well is the only way to survive some of the nastier onslaughts.
Dungeon Maestro mode is for four players, and turns the tables slightly. One player becomes the Dungeon Maestro and can see the entire map and where the heroes are. Quick thinking and clever trap and monster placement can yield pleasing results. The DM controls the monsters and traps within the dungeon, while three others battle their way through. The goal of the Dungeon Maestro is to kill all of the heroes until they have no more lives remaining. To accomplish this you will have to create a deck of cards. Your deck contains assorted monsters, traps, perks, and bosses – should the heroes manage to make it to the end. Gold coins earned can be used to buy new cards to strengthen your arsenal. The more sadistic Dungeon Maestros will have great fun creating impossibly difficult decks. In my time playing as DM I found some cards to be a little overpowered, while it didn’t ever stop me from using them, some fine-tuning is definitely in order.
That is all there is to Dungeonland. Three stages and DM mode make up the entirety of the package. While the harder difficulties will be tougher to crack, by the time you have completed the stages on hard you will most likely have unlocked most of the items in the shop. DM mode provides a little more longevity due to the random dungeon creation and the sheer fun of frustrating opponents with a killer deck. The low price and lack of content are undoubtedly due to forthcoming downloadable content.
My time in Dungeonland wasn’t all sunshine, lollipops and shitting hippos. The game has some very serious game-breaking bugs. At the time of writing “Cannibal Kingdom” simply does not work. On more than one occasion team mates got stuck on scenery, or thrown off the map. Even the boss glitched – a mixed blessing seeing as it was the only way we could have ever killed him. A memory leak also considerably degraded performance over time. Even a high-end machine struggled to maintain a decent frame rate.
A lack of built in voice chat makes playing with strangers on higher difficulties almost pointless. It is highly recommended that you play with friends or people you can communicate with while playing. If you abandon your friends and play DM mode you will find it can be substantially imbalanced due to a lack of levelling. It is possible to be paired with players of uneven skill, or worse to have new, ungeared players be massacred by a competent and experienced DM.
In my opinion the reward for completing dungeons may not be commensurate to the challenge involved. Players do not level up, and the only unlockables are gear. A statistic or levelling system would have greatly increased depth.
Another minor annoyance was the repetition of the same phrases over and over. The Dungeon Master’s assistant is most guilty of this. You will hear “Can’t place that there, Master” and other phrases repeated ad-nauseum.
Even with the bugs and irritations, Dungeonland is a compelling little package. The main game is incredibly tough, but with the right people and teamwork it is also one of the most rewarding experiences available. A real sense of achievement accompanies the effortless slaughter of enemies. Dungeon Maestro mode is incredibly original, the shallow mechanics give way to very complex strategies. The right combination of cards can banish foolish heroes in less than a minute.
Critical Studio is off to a great start with Dungeonland. Rarely are games this affordable so fun to play and presented so well. If they can get the bugs and glitches under control and release some more content, Dungeonland will become a favourite online and at LAN parties for a long time to come.