Some games are good. Really good, and you know you will be playing them for hours. Other games might take a little work, a little bit of spit and polish, and they could be good. Then there are some games that I really want to love and enjoy and recommend, but for one reason or another I just can’t. Dungeon of the Endless ($ 7.99) is one of them. Not because it’s bad, but because it just … doesn’t attract my attention, can’t stop me from coming back run after run, even after months of not playing. It’s also not immediately clear why – the art is great, the soundtrack is good, and the minute-by-minute gameplay is fun too. So what is it Even though I own the game on three different platforms and try dozens of times to get involved, why am I drawn to really delving into strategy and eventually beating the game? The answer I found is simple: the post-start reward loop that lets you return for another floor, experiment with the thing you just unlocked, or see if tweaking your strategy makes exactly that difference, just … is not there.
Well, going back, if this is the first time you’ve heard of Dungeon of the Endless, Dungeon of the Endless is a rogue tower defense. Players select a team of two prisoners and an escape pod and must ascend through twelve floors of a dungeon filled with a multitude of overly enthusiastic defense forces as well as other prisoners (who can be recruited) and vendors (who have a variety of goods to the Trade). Fortunately, with a shimmer of insight, someone designed the escape pods to include blueprints for resource generators and towers, as well as a portable power supply to get them working. Also (as if that wasn’t enough) the prisoners are quite capable fighters themselves, and some can even operate or repair the buildings.
Mixing and matching prisoners’ skills, figuring out how to maximize their impact, and managing resources – industry, science, food, and dust (energy) – are the basics of floor climbing. Some prisoners are great fighters, ranged fighters, or melee fighters while others are much better suited to helping out with group fans from behind or simply increasing resource production. While managing these characters strategically attracts the majority of a player’s attention (by opening doors, tracking their health pools, using skills, and making sure they don’t rave), they’re actually only the second most important part of most strategies. Buildings – or modules – are by far more important, at least to survive, if you grab the crystal.
Modules turn Dungeon of the Endless into a tower defense. They are the resource generators, the defense systems, and a host of other different constructs that require the industry, operating power, and the right type of space to support them to build. They form the backbone or, if you prefer, the supply train of your ascent to the surface. Figuring out the best spaces to peg, which spaces are safe enough for generators, and which spaces are best powered and left alone takes a little practice and a lot of mistakes, but it doesn’t just make a huge difference when clearing a floor, but well survive the rush if you try to go. See, after grabbing the crystal, enemies appear in any unpowered room that is constantly occupied. Taking the time to establish a well-defended escape route can make the difference between a clean exit and the end of a run.
It sounds like a lot to manage, and it is, but it’s not cumbersome in-game. At least not after the first few runs. There’s a pretty steep learning curve as the tutorial offers the slightest amount of guidance and allows players to discover as much for themselves as possible. Which is okay, even preferable. Sometimes. However, when things come up that could (and should) likely have been covered in the tutorial and throw a wrench into the works, it is a royal pain. That said, I wouldn’t have it any other way, as the process of discovering interactions, figuring things out, and even Googling for meta information is part of the charm of a roguelike.
The question now is whether it’s better on iOS or … well, anything else. The answer … is actually not that clear. It’s a good port and plays very well on both the iPhone and iPad. The user interface is well designed and the tower defense gameplay lends itself well to a touch screen. The only real downside, I think, is that it doesn’t have the PC version’s hotkeys, but that’s actually not a huge downside. The other two platforms – Console and Switch – each have their own set of advantages, but the only real competitor is the Switch, and between the two, iOS has the Switch beat for me. The iPhone is just as portable, if not more portable, than the Switch, and the iPad has a bigger screen. The only thing that doesn’t exist as far as I can tell is controller support. However, this can easily be fixed later.
While the gameplay may be the main attraction and how people rate a game, in my opinion, aside from none, the best part of Dungeon of the Endless is the art. Simply put, it’s beautiful. Each panel tells a story that draws the audience a little deeper into the atmosphere and world of the endless, pushing them to engage and wonder about their place in the wider world. While this world is never fully worked out (by design, spiritually; a full world of stories has few secrets), it is a fascinating place to stay for a while. However, the art I love so much is not fully implemented in gameplay, but is used to illustrate background stories, loading screens, and concept art. The game uses pixel art instead – pixel art which I have to say is beautiful too – which is a bit of a disappointment. While beautiful, charming, and in line with the genre, it doesn’t quite have the same flair, mystique, as the illustrations.
While I love the art and enjoy playing the game, it has flaws. This isn’t the first time I’ve played it and I doubt it will be the last, but I still can’t sit and play it like Dead Cells. I’ve found that the reason for this is that when you fail a run there isn’t the same feedback loop. If you lose (and you often will), this is it. Usually there are no new prisoners or new escape pods to give a barrel a unique twist to begin with, or new weapons or upgrades or, or, or … or anything . You just start with two prisoners and the experience you’ve gained as a player and try again. It’s brutal, and I appreciate it for that, but it’s also very unrewarded for keeping playing, trying again and again, and so rarely being rewarded for your efforts. It’s the biggest flaw in Dungeon of the Endless, and therefore, while I keep coming back, I can’t play it for more than three or four runs at a time.
I like Dungeon of the Endless. I like the strategy of managing characters and clearing the dungeon room by room, floor by floor. figure out which resources are most important on this floor, which rooms need power and which need reinforcement; and i love art and sound design. It’s all done very well and makes for a very enjoyable experience. For this reason I would like to give a warm recommendation to everyone who likes roguelikes, tower defense and strategy games. I wish I could – but I can’t. Something is missing and without it I don’t think it’s as repeatable as it could, maybe even should be. Without it, it’s hard to get involved with.
To be clear, Dungeon of the Endless is beautiful, fun, and crispy enough to keep you going. It’s also brutally punitive and utterly impenetrable to anyone unwilling to try further after spending hours getting to the brink of success with little to nothing to show because something is completely outside Is in your control. If that doesn’t put you off … give it a try. It can be your type of game; and even if it isn’t, it can still be worth it, just as it was for me.
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