I haven't slept properly in days. Eating and personal hygeine has become a minor distraction. Pity me, dear reader, for I've become a hapless, dribbling thrall enslaved in the grip of what could well be the most ruthlessly addictive game I've played in years. Desktop Dungeons is still only in beta, but it's clear that QCF Design have managed to find themselves a perfect storm: all of the immediate fun of a dungeon-crawling roguelike, but packing the persistent RPG elements and city-construction that we crave in from the biggest AAA titles. This has got Indie Game Of The Year written all over it, even in what has been a truly exceptional year for independent development.
As the leader of a town that's situated in the middle of a warren of terrifying dungeons, your choice is clear: send a stream of disposable heroes into their dark depths to battle the monsters and complete missions for fun and profit. It's a turn-based roguelike that randomly generates maps for short and slick bursts of play, providing a micro-RPG experience for between five and ten minutes. The labyrinthine areas are full of enemies of various levels, abilities and types, and since your hero always starts out at level one, you'll need to choose to take them out in the right order - or gun for more powerful foes early on for experience boosts. Spells, powerups, weapons and loot all await the intrepid, along with some powerful bosses to defend them.
Roguelikes are ten a penny (especially because many of them are free), but Desktop Dungeons manages to tower over most of the recent competition thanks to the simplicity and depth of its mechanics. On the face of things, you just need to click your way around the dungeon, click on enemies to hit them, earn experience, level up and kill the boss. However, doing so will usually get you killed - and quickly. Foes strike back hard and fast, tending to return any damage they take unless you're well prepared or a much higher level than they are. Instead, you'll need to make full use of a selection of powerful spells - some of which can deal direct damage, whereas most provide more interesting effects such as swapping position with an enemy, turning them into a wall tile or affecting combat speed. Using these spells effectively, or absorbing them into yourself along with other unwanted items in exchange for character-specific enhancements, is the only way to prevail.
Do you keep the loot? Or use it to boost your attack power for that one last push? Do you retreat and earn a few quid or risk everything for the big score? Coupled with some nifty optional puzzles, Desktop Dungeons provides a impressive amount of player choice.
But here's the key. Here's what really makes Desktop Dungeons tick. Make it out alive and you'll pour all of your collected money and loot into the town treasury, which allows you to persistently improve your infrastructure. Upgrading your guilds unlocks new classes and races. Your blacksmith provides new items that can be equipped for a nominal fee. Taxidermists, the town church and even a shopping network formed by the tentacles of a disgusting transdimensional money parasite are all fair game for your hard earned cash. Of course, dead heroes don't get paid - meaning that players will have to balance risk with reward at every stage.
It's the perfect blend of compulsive long-haul grind with quick, accessible fun that's good for five minutes or five hours. In fact, basically any free time you have.
Desktop Dungeons also has an anarchic and somewhat unpredictable sense of humour. Item descriptions are frequently hilarious, and the whole thing is packed full of puns, references and the occasional bit of rampant sillyness. The very fact that the beautifully-named boss Punycrush McSissymage stands in your way at one point, replete with hilarious dialogue, stands testament to a game that doesn't take itself too seriously and is all the better for it. Since the mechanics are so brutal, the light relief is definitely necessary. As are lots of evil goats.
QCF has urged me to give them some feedback since Desktop dungeons is still in beta. So be it. While the experience is shaping up to be incredibly addictive, the between-mission GUI is currently a complete mess that could do with a much more intuitive layout. For example, before starting a dungeon, you'll need to click a button on the right hand side of the screen... then one on the left... and then some haphazardly scattered around the menu depending on what upgrades or items you want to equip. Keyboard movement would also come in handy, especially for those who decide to play on netbooks.
It's also incredibly difficult. Roguelikes certainly don't have a reputation for being easy, and Desktop Dungeons soon takes off the training wheels and pits you against some nigh-insurmountable odds. You can only regenerate health and mana on tiles you haven't explored, and potions are always in short supply. After a while, the experience becomes a finely-honed puzzle game that revolves around clever use of glyphs and taking advantage of the mechanics - but it takes a while to learn the ropes. Oh well: being easy to learn and hard to master is never a bad thing.
Desktop Dungeons works fantastically well as a browser game, but QCF Design is also targeting Steam, other digital distribution outlets, Mac, Linux and the iPhone. The alpha version is free to play, so I heartily recommend heading over and checking it out. Before you pre-order what could very well become the Indie Game Of The Year.