Come weary travelers and sit a spell, as I share with you a legend of a seedy tavern on the outskirts of this very kingdom. Of the priceless treasure said to be hidden deep, deep within its confines and of those foolhardy enough to try and find it. This is Legend of Dungeon.
Yes, Legend of Dungeon. An 8-bit inspired, rouge-like, dungeon crawling beat’em up from the minds at RobotLovesKitty, which recently made its way to Steam after receiving $32,999 in Kickstarter money late last year. Is this crowdfunding success story worth the hard earned gold which adventurous backers toiled to collect? To be honest, some will enjoy the game’s unforgiving difficulty but others (myself included) will find this treasure chest is mostly a mixed pot.
Before exploring too deeply into the dungeon’s catacombs, I should say the game has a fantastic sense of visual flare. On the surface, LoD looks like a typical throwback to various fantasy games from the 80s and that’s exactly what it is, complete with pixelated backgrounds and characters designed by acclaimed sprite artist Sebastiaan van Hijfte. However, before anyone says anything, my praise is not connected to any nostalgic feelings I have for the 8-bit era (although I do love me some well-designed sprite art) but rather the way in which the RLK team expanded this style using modern tech to create something bold.
I’m of course referring to the much-touted “Dynamic Lighting” system, which uses 3D Mapping techniques to manipulate the otherwise low-res sprite art to light up the screen in an explosion of pixelated color. This system brightens up the otherwise dingy dungeon with a rainbow of neon-infused pyrotechnics with each lit flame, demonic glow, sword-swing, blood-drip, and level-up. Even vomiting is a thing of beauty thanks to this palette manipulation. As odd as it is to say this, Legend of Dungeon is one of the prettiest games I’ve played this year.
Speaking of blending in beautifully with the sprite work, LoD’s sound effects -- whether they’re sword swings, activated secrets, or enemy battle cries -- are all comprised of familiar bleeps, bloops, and hilariously timed voice clips that retro enthusiasts will appreciate.
The music, on the other hand, is entirely composed of modern, melancholic rock. While some will likely feel a chiptune score would have been a more suitable choice, I think the music does a good job of conveying the lonely and dreary atmosphere of the dungeon, especially if you’re playing alone. I just wish there were another song or two to help fill out the soundtrack, as the few songs offered tend to mesh together after awhile.
So now that we’ve covered the bells and whistles, it’s time to explore what LoD has to offer in terms of gameplay and this is where things get hazy. Don’t get me wrong, there’s fun to be had deep beneath the tavern but you’re not guaranteed to have too much of it each time you play.
The game claims to be a beat ‘em but it’s really more of a bare-bones hack and slash RPG. You wander the dungeon looking for items and slashing enemies with your sword (pretty much the only attack you have) to level-up, as you progress through the 26 levels to find the hidden treasure. That’s Legend of Dungeon in a nutshell. However, there are various elements thrown in to spice things up and as I’ve hinted, it doesn’t quite work out as well as the developers would have hoped but it’s still a decently fun experience overall.
I know it sounds like I’m indecisive and to be honest, I am. I apologize, but I just can’t find the proper words to describe my love/hate relationship with this game. On the one hand, there are a few major aspects about this game’s design that really agitate me but on the other, there are a few things I rather like such as the aforementioned visual aesthetic and the game’s sense of humor, which I’ll dig into in a bit.
First up on the negative side is the fact each level is randomly generated. I know this is supposed to make each playthrough more exciting since its intention is to give the feeling that you’re never playing the same game twice, but in LoD it doesn’t quite work since most levels look almost identical. So in actuality, it feels as if you’re playing the same levels but with a slightly different layout. Not to mention this mechanic also randomizes the locations of items, enemies, and the item shop/blacksmith. So you’re completely at the game’s mercy when it comes to finding the more useful trinkets, locating spots to purchase upgrades may feel next to impossible and powerful boss-type enemies and the strongest grunts may appear way before you’re ready for them. On the bright side, the doorway of each room you enter is promptly lit up, so getting lost on your way to the next set of stairs isn’t much of an issue.
I also don’t like that the only character you can play as is a swordsman or swordswoman -- and talk about a weak character. All of the cooler characters in the tavern such as the dwarf, bard, mage, and “Sultan of Coffee” will instantly thrash you if you engage them in a fight. Hell, even the cook, shopkeeper, and the random Kickstarter backer will whoop ass quite thoroughly if given the opportunity. Sure, gathering the more powerful weapons and levelling-up as you progress does make up for this, but interacting with these other heroes made me wish I could play as one of them instead. Additional characters can be unlocked by beating the game, but good luck with that. I’ve spent a few hours with it and the furthest I’ve ever gotten was level 17.
But my main issue with this game is its rouge-like qualities or to be more specific, its use of “permadeath” rules. Once you die, that’s it. Game Over. There are no extra lives, no saves, and no continues. Oh and unlike other games in the genre such as Rouge Legacy, your stats do not carry over to your next playthrough and your inventory is emptied immediately upon your explosive demise. So you have to start all the way back at the beginning and you return to being a weakling with nothing to show for it but a high score. Legend of Dungeon doesn’t mess around.
Actually, there is a way to get a second shot at life but it’s only available when you’re playing with 2-4 people. You’ll essentially fly around as a lost soul until you pick up enough “ghost orbs” for a resurrection…but you’ll apparently be very low on health. I say apparently because it’s only available locally and since I have the game installed on my laptop, I had to go it alone every time I played. I don’t want to rag on this too much since it’s likely due to the small budget but making a couch co-op game for PC (especially one this hard) is a rather strange design choice.
With all of that pent up frustration out my system, I can admit I don’t actually hate this game; which may seem shocking given the previous four paragraphs but it’s true. In fact, I actually loved it in some circumstances. For instance, I loved its use of humor.
LoD is certainly a game that’s good for a few chuckles. There are plenty of out-of-place weapons that had me grinning from ear to ear. My favorites being the Tommy Gun, the Cyclops-style visor, the flamethrower spray-cans and the Laser Cat. Another nice comedic mechanic is the Team Fortress 2 inspired hat system, which as you know, allows the player to dawn several wacky hats each with their own unique stat boost. My favorite hats would have to be the dead fish, the flaming cowboy hat, the birthday cake and the gerbil who throws his nuts at enemies. Some people (Sean) prefer the cat that just chills on your head for no reason but the gerbil is really where it’s at. The gag potions, which can put you to sleep or make you vomit are good for a couple of laughs as well.
But the humor doesn’t fully depend on the silly upgrades, as there’s also plenty to clever humor within the level design such as the use of crates, which are usually filled gold or helpful items. However, every so often they’ll contain a smaller crate, which contains nothing…or miniature version of a basic grunt. There’s also a few Easter eggs for those who love parodies of beloved nerdy things such as a gambling mini-game send-up of the Toad House from Mario Bros. 3 and a Dr. Who type character who isn’t afraid to use deadly force. There’s even a few goofy enemies like the leprechauns, PopCap Zombies, Dracula, and the godless killing machine that is the unicorn.
But the humor isn’t the only positive thing I can think of. The controls are very tight. Jumping, slashing, and running are all perfectly responsive and feel great. Pulling levers to activate hidden platforms to reach higher areas or to find hidden items in the walls and secret shortcuts was a really cool idea and fit the motif to a tea. There’s also a fair abundance of health items and potions. Sure most of these items are apples that only regenerate three or maybe five HP and the potion effects are randomized rather fitting the stat color scheme (which is confusing), but there are plenty of them.
Not to mention, there’s plenty of cool enemy monsters inspired by all sorts of occult mythology, and legitimately badass weapons like the grim reaper scythe, the giant hammer, the spell book that summons the undead to do your bidding, and the flame sword. Most importantly, when you level-up and find one these stronger weapons while breaking your previous records, it all feels satisfying and you feel as if the treasure could be within your grasp.
Unfortunately, due the random nature of the game, this satisfaction is extinguished almost as quickly as that rush of confidence kicks in. Maybe you’ll fall victim to a swarm of high-level grunts, or an OP boss monster will squash you as soon as you enter a room, or maybe you’ll be trampled by a unicorn. It doesn’t matter. The odds are you’ll die, thus becoming a weakling once more. A sad, pathetic weakling with no items but a lantern, a few apples and a rusty sword. Talk about a buzzkill.
This was a tough review to write since there were moments in which I genuinely had fun but being repeatedly crushed by the game’s often-unfair difficulty left me feeling annoyed and frustrated to the point that I just didn’t want to play it anymore.
It’s a real shame too, as had the developers done away with the randomization gimmick or if the character stats could have transferred over to each new attempt or if it had online co-op, LoD’s difficulty balance would have felt more stable.
Legend of Dungeon is still an OK game though. Not great but OK and I do admit, I will likely come crawling back to it eventually but I’ve more than had my fill for now.
Despite its many charms, LoD won’t be the game to draw non-Rouge fans into the genre. However, old-school die-hards who are gluttons for punishment may want to check it out, although they’ll likely want to have a way to play with friends.
Ryan Conway became the Weekend Editor at ScrewAttack after writing for the community news section for 20 months (14 of which he served as head writer). This lover of platformers, beat ‘em ups, and fighting games (and just about any other genre really) currently resides in a small town located in Nova Scotia.
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