Ten Minutes for Glory: Desktop Dungeons

I was, admittedly, a bit negative on Torchlight when I wrote about it. I’m not above the allure of lots of loot and numbers going up slowly but steadily. I’ve played far too much World of Warcraft, and the early (BioWare) Baldur’s Gate games were among my first loves. I guess I just like my RPGs to have a little more meat to their interaction than just getting better loot. Which might explain why I like Desktop Dungeons so much, even though it can be far more infuriating than Torchlight (and whatever I might feel about Torchlight, it is at worst dull–never infuriating.)

Like Torchlight, Desktop Dungeons can trace its lineage back to Rogue. Desktop Dungeons is essentially a distillation of the roguelike genre into a ten-to-twenty minute game. You pick your race, your class, and your dungeon type and you’re off into a randomly generated dungeon, which only has one level and should take only ten or so minutes to clear. Death, when it strikes, is permanent, but the typical frustration of lost progress inherent in the roguelike genre is largely avoided by how short a given dungeon is. You may lose progress with a given character, but at most you’ve lost fifteen minutes of your time.

In addition, Desktop Dungeons is all about strategy. The dungeon starts blacked-out, unexplored. Mousing over each monster shows what health the monster has, what damage it does, and any other modifiers (strikes first, take less physical damage, etc.), as well as the outcome of the next turn, should you choose to attack. Simple enough, except each each time you uncover a square of the dungeon, your character regenerates a little bit of health and mana. Once you’ve uncovered the entire dungeon, that method of regenerating health and mana is gone, and you must rely on potions to do the job. But the condition for “beating” the dungeon with a given class is to defeat the one boss monster, who will often require a good number of potions to do the trick. While monsters don’t move when you move, they will regenerate health just like you do when you uncover undiscovered squares. So you are level 3 and there are no monsters revealed on the map that are your level, but there is one level 4 monster who you might be able to beat if you use a potion: do you attack the level 4 monster, using a potion to win, or do you use up the precious resource of undiscovered squares in search of a level 3 monster, saving the potions for later? It is a difficult choice, and the “correct” choice varies greatly from class to class, situation to situation.

This decision gains even more layers as you clear the dungeon with different classes. Each time the dungeon is cleared with a new class, new items become available for purchase from randomly generated shops in a level, a new class becomes available for play, and new enemies appear in the dungeon. Mana Wraiths which appear after clearing the dungeon once will apply a “mana burn” effect on attacking which prevents you from regenerating mana by uncovering unexplored squares unless you use a mana potion to remove the effect. As a result, mana potions become that much more valuable. So each subsequent clear becomes more challenging, and the core choice of whether to search out new monsters to kill or try to defeat the ones that have already been revealed gains new dimensions. All of this agonizing is just a prelude to the biggest choice of them all: do I attack the dungeon boss now, when I think I have enough potions, or do I risk trying to kill a few more regular monsters in hopes of leveling up again and being more powerful when I face the boss? Add in the ramifications of later classes, some of which have a random chance of evading enemy attacks entirely (which isn’t always reflected in the mouse-over text) and you have a game that combines strong tactics with a will to take risks.

The one infuriating thing about Desktop Dungeons is that there are some randomly generated dungeons that simply aren’t clearable. I have had dungeons generated where my puny level one character explored as far as he could only to find that all available paths were blocked by monsters too high level to beat. It’s frustrating, but it never takes long to reach this point. It only becomes infuriating when you come *this* close to defeating the final boss with a new class, only to fail on the last attack, and then you find yourself clicking your way through an unbeatable dungeon or two before you get a chance to really try again.

Perhaps the best thing about Desktop Dungeons is it’s free. It takes ten to twenty minutes to try, though I can virtually guarantee you’ll play more. The best comparison may be that it’s Solitaire (or Free Cell, or Minesweeper) for the roguelike set. A quick, casual desktop game that rewards repeated play with new layers of complexity for the gamer that likes their click-fests to have a little more strategy.

Download it here.

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