Poking Around with Purpose in Desktop Dungeons

When Extra Credits took a look at the old alpha version of Desktop Dungeons, their entire description was, “Exploration as a limited resource? Brilliant.” That might indeed be the game’s single best trick: what appears at first to be its most merciful aspect is in fact its most brutal.

Uncovering a new tile on the map restores both HP and MP—and the levels are balanced to reflect that, so you’ll need those restorations—and thus the very act of poking around a bit will require the same care, forethought, and strategic thinking as combat and character-building. Wounded enemies won’t pursue you. They’ll just stand there healing and (I assume) chuckling to themselves while you, like a world-class chump, fritter away your precious unexplored tiles.

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The bulk of the quests have randomized maps, enemies, and items, in true roguelike-alike fashion, though there are several quest chains laser-focused on class-specific core competencies: outwitting enemies you could never outfight as a thief, using the terrain and the elements to your advantage as a mage, that sort of thing. Then there are the Puzzles—short, entirely non-random levels with singular, rigid solutions, each serving as a sneaky extended tutorial for one of the game’s dauntingly numerous advanced techniques.

And those techniques will be more than handy; they’ll be necessary. Since each hero begins each quest from just-about-scratch, success often means finding the quickest path to a higher level, or some better equipment, or a hoard of potions, or a more powerful array of spells. Usually it’s your level that’s the sticking point, because you’ve been picking off low-level monsters rather than hunting higher-risk, higher-reward quarry.

Focus purely on surviving and eking by (as opposed to thriving and flourishing) and you’ll find yourself in a staring contest with a boss monster, the door sealed behind you, locked in a battle to the death without any real means of, um, battling. You’ve got to optimize, or you’ll end up in checkmate, or a stalemate, which is more or less the same thing from where you’re sitting.

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Many a fighter, thief, mage, and cleric will fall in Desktop Dungeons. There will be countless humans and elves and dwarves and orcs errant who will never return from their attempted feats of derring-do. But you, the player—even thouhg you control them directly, you’re not any of those poor schmucks, not really. Nope, you’re the Kingdom Administrator, tasked with keeping the Realm booming and its settlements expanding.

Yours is a questing-based economy, so in addition to building a tavern, and some homes, and some sort of ill-defined demonic hellgate (would it be home without one?) you as the Administrator can expect to throw a ceaseless procession of plucky, interchangeable would-be heroes at quests that range from the merely unforgiving and to the apparently impossible. Those taverns and hellgates won’t pay for themselves, after all.

This overworld and this narrative context represent the biggest difference between the original, now-free Desktop Dungeons and the full release. It feels a bit like a zoomed-out version of how Rogue Legacy felt to John Teti—a collective effort for greatness (or at least profit), but on the scale of a community rather than a single family, of history rather than biography. Individual heroes can succeed or fail, but their efforts are about bigger goals. A better tower for the mages, more monster trophies for the taxidermist, more gold for the coffers of the bankers (here a synonym for vampires) who do whatever the hell it is that they do on the edge of town.

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All of which will just sort of be in the back of your head, most of the time. The bulk of your attention will go to the tiny, screen-sized, turn-based, unflinchingly lethal dungeons. Those are what you’re there for, and they’re lovely (in like, you know, an evil way).

Still, too many games’ resource management elements are glorified spreadsheets, and too many fantasy worlds are unadorned dollar-book Tolkien—and for that matter, too many dungeon crawls take the form of mushy, grindy Skinner boxes. Desktop Dungeons consistency offers something far deeper, far weirder, and far more rewarding than that. None of the new stuff feels tacked-on or perfunctory.

This new-and-presumably-final version Desktop Dungeons is a work of mad and maddening cleverness, carefully balanced yet entirely uncompromising, composed of familiar parts yet ultimately resembling only itself.

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