Legend of Dungeon hands-on preview

Joe Donnelly August 14, 2013 - 10:00 am

Legend of Dungeon is a procedurally generated four player co-op beat ‘em up which takes players to the bottom of a 26-floor catacomb, and back, in search of treasure. Joe Donnelly plumbed the depths of the dungeon (well, sort of) in search of gold.

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When I was younger, I used to measure the quality of games by how often they crossed my mind once I had stopped playing them. I mean, I understood that factors such as visuals, storyline and game mechanics were what prompted this particular idiosyncrasy – at least to an extent – but I nonetheless gauged how I really felt about a game by how often it popped back into my head post-play.

Only the most compelling games throughout my childhood commanded such idle thought-snatching exemplifications. For me, classics of similar magnitude to ToeJam and Earl, Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Broken Sword, Vice City, Half Life and the Final Fantasy series – before it descended into utter tosh – ranked high on my much-pondered list. And even though my job now requires me to critique games on a much deeper level, I still consider this method of exposition key to my initial appreciation of any given game.

Legend of Dungeon is one of these games. For even after my first play, it was on my mind more than whoever it was Elvis – and latterly the Pet Shop Boys – was harping on about all those years ago.

RobotLovesKitty’s successfully Kickstarted, and Greenlit, Legend of Dungeon is a beautifully presented rogue-like, pixel-art-infused beat ‘em up, which can be enjoyed by up to four players in local co-op.

It’s hard. Yeah, yeah, so are all retro-inspired indie games, I hear you say. No really, it’s damned hard. When Alix Stolzer – one half of RobotLovesKitty, alongside husband Calvin Goble – sent me her game, she signed off with the cheerful predication: “Happy dying over and over!” Talk about an understatement.

Challenging, yet rewarding

Because if I could describe Legend of Dungeon in just three words, the journalist in me would say: challenging, yet rewarding. The gamer, and quite frankly the realist, would say: fucking, bastard difficult. But all in a compelling ‘if at first you don’t succeed…’ sort of manner.

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The game is procedurally generated, with rooms, items and enemies appearing at random, meaning playthroughs can be similar but never the same. The dungeon, as it were, consists of 26 levels and each chamber within each level is littered with weapons, goodies, potions, and of course bosses. “Legend has it there is a treasure on the 26th floor,” says one of the game’s characters in ‘The Tavern,’ the game’s opening level. It is my understanding that this treasure is to be collected and returned to The Tavern, but I’m yet to get anywhere near that far.

In actual fact, neither of the RobotLovesKitty team has managed to complete the game – apparently Calvin once got the treasure, but was unable to make it back up to The Tavern – testament to just how challenging Legend of Dungeon really is.

Proceedings begin with the player – of which the sex and appearance can be selected by entering and exiting the marked female and male toilets – making their way from The Tavern in possession of nothing but a sword. Here, they have chance to gather some staple supplies including a lantern – more on this later – apples and beer, and can also meet pixelated incarnations of character designer Sebastiaan van Hifjte, two of the game’s Kickstarter backers, as well as composer David Dirig.

Dirig’s hybrid fusion of retro 8-bit-esque melodies and sound effects, combined with daunting medieval mandolin compositions and heavy metal guitar riffs creates a nostalgic, yet suitably epic soundtrack for exploring the horrific setting.

Whenever I’m coming to grips with a new game, I like to familiarlise myself with my surroundings from the get-go. In Legend of Dungeon this was to my immediate detriment, as I set myself alight on a flaming torch whilst mounting a table, after mere seconds of play. It certainly wasn’t the best of starts – far from it – but, as mentioned above, death was a recurring theme and a sign of things to come.

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At first, enemies don’t pose too much of challenge, and to be fair the game does offer a fairly progressive learning curve. Starting out scant, enemies begin to multiply as the player progresses through each level. As they grow, it can at times become tempting to blindly attack clusters of foes when your back’s against the wall, but precise timing is everything. Foolhardy button-bashing – particularly before locating decent weaponry – will only end badly; punishment for such temerity.

Only after multiple playthroughs are you able to understand the movements and attack patterns of enemies, and only then can you exploit their foibles. As the player delves deeper into the dungeon, health items become increasingly scarce, thus dropping needless HP early on is not an option. By the way, there’s no continues (at this stage, at least) so if you die on level 20, you’re right back to the beginning.

This could be considered the game’s only downfall, as being forced to go back is frustrating, and – although it will spur some players on – it does have scope to put some players off trying again. That said, continues are something RobotLovesKitty has suggested may be included in the final version. Perhaps the option to toggle them on and off would provide a happy medium.

Dungeons and dra- Conehead Zombies?

Health is regenerated via a range of potions, although some have adverse effects, and power-ups allow for added defense, as well as HP boosts. The weapons and items are also brilliantly named, but as they are generated at random, garnering exceptional equipment is completely down to luck. My favourite item of defense was the ‘nimble kitten of awesome’, whereupon my player donned a ginger tabby cat upon his head as a helmet.

My most successful run through had me kitted out with a ‘safety top hat of power’, which gave my character a distinctive Abe Lincoln look; a ‘sword of five blades’, which called upon five aggressive ghoul-like skulls as henchmen following every kill; and a variation of a ‘magic book’, which allowed me to summon as many as 25-30 skeleton minions at once (the screen was so busy it was too hard to say exactly how many) for me to use at my disposal. But even with all this, I still only managed to reach level 15; my gold tally seeing me secure 105th place on the online scoreboard.

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Legend of Dungeon’s defining feature is its vast array of enemies. There are over 40 different villains in total, ranging from one-hit-kill bats; grueling Skeleton Warlocks; Zombies with traffic cones upon their heads; exploding walking bombs; Vampires, who are invincible and only defeat-able when in bat form, of which they then transform into approximately a gijillion vampire bats; and the Grim Reaper himself, to name but a fraction of the game’s evil cohort.

The game has the uncanny ability of gradually increasing the difficulty level of enemies as the levels progress, whilst steadily upping the bat-shit craziness of them at the same time.

Legend of Dungeon also includes interesting quirks, such as rooms without lighting, where the player has no choice but to stagger into hidden enemies, utilizing any dim light they can in order to strike back. If the aforementioned lantern was collected in the opening tavern scene, these areas become easier to maneuver.

If it was missed, however, the chances are the player will spend these sections blindly and timidly reconnoitering for further attacks. This is a very well executed feature, because, after the first time I was forced to fight in the dark, I realised just how important searching for items all over the map really was.

It’s unfair to lump ‘indie games’ into one category as they comprise of all sorts of genres, designs, styles and budgets, but Legend of Dungeon absolutely nails the retro-inspired indie game with a modern twist, which is a la mode at the minute. When echoing the style of these classic games, indie titles must ensure they are compelling enough to consecutively call you back for more and more after first play. Legend of Dungeon does this, and some.

And this is only the beta version. Expect a range of character classes as well as a pet system – as per the Kickstarter Stretch Goals – to be implemented as updates in the final iteration.

 Legend of Dungeon, by RobotLovesKitty, will be available September 13, 2013 on PC, Mac and Linux.

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