How do I explain a game like Dungeon of the Endless in a rational, logical manner? Here we have a game that purposefully, gleefully breaks genre molds and shatters expectations; the game play willfully created by the developers to fly in the face of as many conceived notions of various game tropes as possible. Yet, each little deviation this game creates makes it more memorable, more of a cohesive whole, not muddled and confused.
Dungeon of the Endless is a game that defies easy classification, but that's what makes it so great. The first time you watch your prisoners crash land aboard this strange alien plant and attempt to escape into its depths, you feel scared, lost, and confused... much like the prisoners you play as probably do as they scrap together protective lasers and weapons out of the junk they find. There's something else though, a feeling that grows as you keep playing, as you keep opening doors looking for exits: Hope. Anticipation. Excitement.
This game has hooked me, not just with a gimmick or one particular well-crafted element, but because its simply well made, through and through.
Created by Amplitude Studios, Dungeon of the Endless is weird right out the gate. It's the third game set in their Endless Universe, with Endless Space and Endless Legend having come before... but weren't those other two games Civilization style epics, telling a story about ruling the galaxy or saving your species? What the heck is a tiny story about some crash-landed prisoners doing next to these two games? Why is it pixel art? Why are you being attacked mercilessly by an entire dungeon of monstrous creations?
The game is still 'turn-based', loosely. Playing through the dungeon is broken down into this: Your crash-landed heroes (or prisoners, or monsters, or robots) open the door from their crash-landed ship into the massive maze of an old facility upon the planet Auriga. The power from the ship's crystal...it's engine, essentially, is re-directed into the facility, lighting it back up and allowing you to build. Not build as in structures...but defenses. It's very obvious very quickly that this is not a safe place, and creating miniature laser turrets, explosives, and hero-augmenting crystals are a great way to stay alive. A lot of the monsters in the game are drawn to the glow of the crystal, and wish to destroy it.
So, this game is tower defense, essentially.
Or, maybe not. See, the 'waves' that you fight in a typical tower defense are created by opening new doors into the dungeon, as your brave group of heroes and/or villains try to find an escape. Each time you open a door, it can reveal resources, a nest of monsters, a merchant that got trapped down here with you...or another survivor you can use to bolster your rag-tag team. Of course, every time you open a door, any of the rooms that you've opened before this point that don't have power running to them might spawn waves of monsters as they crawl through the vents or out of their nests to assault your survivors and your crystal. It makes each hiiiiiissssssss of a door sliding back make you catch your breath, especially as the levels go deeper, and its impossible to keep everything powered at once as you desperately look for the exit. You never know if you are going to get assaulted with waves of monsters over and over, or hear simple, somewhat eerie quiet as the coast is clear for a few moments longer.
Lets not even get into how there are different ships you 'crash' with,each changing the basic parameters of how heroes and defenses functionfor your play-through.
So, this game is a rogue-like, then.
Well, maybe, but lets not forget the other elements of the game, like how you are managing a whole team of guys, not just one. How you manage resources - a project where you defend generators as well as everything else - to keep researching better defenses, keep enough food to heal and level your heroes, and make sure there's enough Dust (the currency of the Endless game series) to fuel the power to the floors you are on. How there is a story underneath everything, how the characters you play as have tiny blurbs about being a failed hacker due to smoking addiction, or native to the planet that wants to defend what is 'theirs'. There's some amazing surprises here, where the normal witty small banter between characters in the elevator turns into short stories if you find the right combination of survivors...its a fun little mini-game, as suddenly you realize some of your prisoners love or hate each other, but are stuck side by side anyway.
You learn to love the elevator between levels.
So, this game is a tower defense rogue-like with RPG elements... and squad-based game play that's inspired by XCOM. Does that sum it up well enough? Finally? Are we done?
That's probably as close as we can get it without making the genre description the size of a paragraph. I mean, we should probably add 'pixel' somewhere in there, thanks to the awesomely retro aesthetic that has been applied over the whole game. The game also has a massive sense of black humor layered over all of it: the guys at Amplitude studios mockingly named the modes 'Too Easy' and 'Easy', when this game will gleefully backhand you when you think you've finally got it figured out. Yet, at the same time, that hint of foreboding, of grand design that you get in the other Endless games hides in the corners here. Opbot, one of the heroes you can find, is a character that appears in every game, one as a droid hero in space, another as a guide for a group of crash-landed spacefarers trying to discover their past...and then here, trapped in this terrible dungeon on Auriga, waiting to be found and escape...perhaps to then become that guide for the crash-landed spacefarers. Who knows? There's just enough breadcrumbs to make this part of the Endless universe, but with enough gaps to leave you trying to figure out the connections in wonderfully imaginative ways. The mood wavers being moments of hilarity and a deep sense of dread as the next door slides open.
Okay, I'm done trying to categorize this game. There isn't much of a point, after all: shoehorning something like this into just one simple label takes away and reduces the sheer amount of awesome that is in this game. Each element has been finely crafted, from the ambient, echoing music as you wander the halls of the forgotten dungeon, to the frenetic need to defend your turret systems as giant crystal golems come to smash them down. There is a constant intensity that keeps growing as you delve further into the dungeon, and as you grow attached to the people in your team. Losing one hero isn't the end, but man, it stings. I'm not as much of a Rogue-like fan as some of the other writers here, but this game keeps pulling me back in, thanks to how varied the game play can be, and how many different types of games it manages to juggle.
Perhaps, I should just let the folks at Amplitude studios try to sum up the genre:
So now, with that out of the way, I'm playing through the game for the twentieth time, praying that the next door I open doesn't spill out space rhinos. Yes, space rhinos, who can demolish my plans to escape from this hellish Dungeon. They rampage and break down doors before I'm ready, causing a tidal wave of oozes, of zombies, of horrific robot creations to be unleashed on my meager attempt to find the exit, with just a few lasers and holograms there to defend me. It's happened before, and left me screaming at my computer monitor. Yet, as the door slides open, I can't help but grin, and entirely forget to care what genre this game might possibly be: I'm just having too much fun to worry about something like a label.