It took nearly three years, but I’ve almost shaken Blizzard’s hold on my PC.
I estimate that Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch consumed 80% or more of my gaming over that time. Still in a bit of a daze, I’m discovering that despite my addictions, I managed to pick up a number of games during Steam sales. It’s time to dig in to my unplayed games, and this week began with a glorious excursion into 2014’s Dungeon of the Endless.
I’d love to give you a pigeon-hole summary for this game, but there’s a lot of moving pieces. It’s “Rogue-like” in that there is exploration and perma-death. There’s an RPG component, as you assemble a team of characters and upgrade their stats and skills. A strategy game forms the basis for the core gameplay: you decide where to explore, what defenses to purchase, and where to place them. And each “turn” of the game features a (pause-able) RTS/tower defense portion, where you have to defend against alien attackers.
Phew! That’s a lot to take in, and you might think those components would be a mess when mixed together, but Amplitude Studios (the makers of Endless Space) have done it expertly. The premise of the game is that your team is on a spaceship of prisoners that crash-lands onto an alien world. Your vessel pierces an ancient underground complex, and you need to make your way to the surface. To help you do that, you cart along your ship’s power crystal, a device that runs on “dust” and can power rooms as you explore. Unfortunately, aliens have a deep hunger for it.
Let me break a turn of the game down for you:
- Position your team members strategically.
- Have one one of your heroes open a door.
- Opening that door triggers the game’s turn-based strategy component of generating resources: food, industry, dust, and science (FIDS). This is affected by your team members’ skills, as well as by any generators you’ve built.
- At this point, aliens may spring forth from the newly-opened room, as well as any unpowered rooms you’ve previously opened. They’ll try and make their way to your crystal to destroy it (and your chances of escaping!)
- Your team will now automatically fight any aliens they share a room with. Aliens will also take damage from any defenses you’ve positioned on their path to your crystal.
- Once the aliens are dead, you can spend those newly-earned FIDS to buy generators, defenses, level up your heroes, research new technology, and power rooms.
Your goal is to explore the level until you find the exit. At that point, you have one of your team members pick up the crystal and walk (excruciatingly slowly) to the exit. The movement of the crystal brings out howling masses of aliens, who spring forth from every unpowered room (explored or not) to chase your carrier down. While your crystal carrier can’t fight, the rest of the team, along with your powered defenses, can work to keep a path to the exit clear. Once you reach the elevator, you ascend one floor and start searching for the next exit.
The tension comes mostly comes from not being able to power enough rooms. As I’ve improved at the game, I’ve gotten a fairly good grip on generating sufficient industry, food, and science. Dust, however, can only be found by opening rooms, and the game never gives you enough. Pretty soon you’re having to make strategic decisions about how best to funnel the aliens so that you can engage them without being overwhelmed.
Strategic choices abound. You only start with two team members, but you’ll find others to recruit along the way, forcing you to adapt your play style each game. Characters have specializations to exploit: some can operate generators to bring in resources quickly, others are strong fighters or add team buffs, while others can move quickly, which is useful for opening a door and then running back to join the main fight. You’ll also find equipment and merchants as you explore, allowing you to further customize your team. Research opportunities are randomized, encouraging you to try out new strategies or wait for the upgrades you really want.
Each time you open a door, should aliens show up, you enter Dungeon of the Endless‘ RTS/tower defense mode. Even if you’re not an RTS fan, this isn’t as bad as you might think. You’re able to pause the game at any time by pressing the space bar, and can even issue orders while paused. So you can take your time giving commands: moving heroes between rooms, healing (for food), using their special abilities, or even spend some science to reset their special ability cooldowns.
The RTS fighting is stressful, not because of its speed, but consequences: you absolutely, positively have to keep the aliens from reaching your crystal; aliens will attack it and you’ll lose dust with every hit. Losing enough dust that you power one less room almost inevitably leads to a failure cascade, as it’s another room from which aliens can spawn. Watching your heroes run to reach another engagement and realizing they’re not going to make it in time is delicious agony in action. Or, since you might be attacked on multiple fronts, you may find yourself expecting just a bit too much from a hero and whoops! – in a moment of distraction they die. And remember: you can’t reload. Stress does bring the opportunity for some truly glorious gaming moments. When you come out on top due to good planning and tactics, it’s a great feeling.
While I must admit to being a fan of the modern “Rogue-like,” I still have a few complaints. The tutorial was somewhat slim, which wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t also a lack of information in the game’s descriptions. Do defense effects stack? I still don’t know for sure, and without in-game damage numbers I’ve got no way to test. What’s the effect of an EMP? I eventually figured it out after searching a wiki, but more detailed in-game tooltips would be really helpful.
There is also the fear of the dreaded random number generator: as each level is created procedurally, it’s possible for some to be laid out in a way that feels very unfair. Are they actually unfair, or am I just not good enough at Dungeon of the Endless? While Reddit would have a pointed answer for me, I’m of the opinion that it sometimes felt punitive, especially after your team has made it up a number of levels, only to find a layout that crushes your composition. Do note that for those looking for a less stressful game, the game features two difficulty settings: “Easy” and “Too Easy,” though I never gave “Too Easy” a try.
The style may be off-putting for some as well. At first glance, Dungeon of the Endless is walking the ragged edge between “charmingly retro” and “cheaped out on art.” However, on closer inspection, there is a lot of beauty to be found in the game’s visuals, with distinctive enemies and engaging color palettes. The game has definitely chosen to focus on strategy over detailed graphics, and while it works for me, if you only enjoy games that push all the polygons, this game may not be for you.
Replay is definitely something that is not a concern with this game. Once you’ve gotten a hang of the procedurally-generated levels, found characters you prefer, and gotten used to managing the research tree, you’ll find that there are a number of different spaceship types to choose from at the game’s start. Different ships are essentially different game modes, changing the rules and giving you entirely new challenges to overcome. If you like to master all aspects of a game, Dungeon of the Endless will certainly give you your money’s worth of entertainment. On top of that, there’s a co-op multiplayer mode which lowers the need to manage all the heroes during alien attacks, but also prevents pausing. I didn’t give it a try though, so judge your purchase accordingly.
Having been out for a while now, you can pick up Dungeon of the Endless, for the low price of $11.99 on Steam. There’s a “Crystal Edition” with all the DLC available as well, but given all the fun I’m having in the base game, you can probably wait and see if you want to upgrade later (you’ll be out a mere $2). I’ve had a blast in Dungeon of the Endless, and if you’re a fan of the modern “Rogue-like” or a strategy gamer, you’ll probably love it too. Let me know in the comments if you pick it up and make it to the surface!