Platforms: PC (Steam & Browser)
Developer: QCF Design
I prayed this day would never come.
Desktop Dungeons is the devil. It's a monster. Ever since I first played this supremely compelling and fearsomely tough Roguelike back in 2011, it sank its claws into me hard and deep. "I haven't slept properly in days," I wrote, a broken husk of a manchild. "Eating and personal hygiene 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." As the months went by, I mustered my willpower, rejoined society and eventually clambered back onto the wagon.
But QCF Design spent the last few years with their noses to the grindstone, and the wagon is now a smouldering wreck. Desktop Dungeons is finally complete and available on Steam after several long years... and since it's also playable in-browser with cloud save functionality, there is nowhere to hide. It's too late for me. Run, before it's too late for you too! Fly, you fools!
It all looks innocent enough. Charming, even. A brief tutorial introduces us to the premise, casting players as the administrator of a struggling fantasy village, portraying our hamlet in a simplistic interface that resembles an adorable social game. To attract new races, adventurer classes and shopkeepers to the realm, we're tasked with sending disposable heroes into randomised dungeons for fun and profit, each one balanced to last between 5-15 minutes. Every run is self-contained, even down to the hero him/herself, who'll either die in the depths or retire to parts unknown even if they survive, though not before donating their wealth to our coffers to spend on persistent town upgrades.
If you've ever played a Roguelike before, you'll be on familiar ground here. Dungeons consist of a 20x20 grid of randomised tiles; labyrinths packed with enemies to kill, powerups, pickups, shops and a powerful boss to finally face off against by clicking around and uncovering terrain. Defeating enemies rewards experience and improved stats, while glyphs can deploy a range of buffs, direct damage spells and esoteric effects that initially appear to be totally useless. It's fast, intuitive and immediately accessible, packed with unpredictable sub-dungeons that encourage replayability, paced to be a bite-sized snack between other games. Just to put the icing on the cake, Desktop Dungeons sports an anarchic sense of humour (expect more puns than a Milton Jones gig), disarming retro-tastic presentation and an utterly superb soundtrack from Super Meat Boy's Danny Baranowsky.
"What a fun little use of a lunch break," you'll think, idly clicking away. Before realising that it's nearly eight in the evening and all your co-workers have left the office. Too late, far too late, to do anything about it.
See, Desktop Dungeons nails the 'little and often' mentality that helps to keep us hooked in for the long-haul, but the 'casual' overtones mask cavernous depth and sadistic difficulty beyond our wildest expectations. By the time you realise that, you'll be in its clutches.
Desktop Dungeons' challenge curve is mountainous, which is largely due to us having to forget everything we've learned from decades of RPGs and other Roguelikes. It's more of a puzzle game than a true Roguelike, in fact, with every dungeon forcing you to expertly balance your incredibly limited resources and think differently about mechanics you thought you knew... against utterly insane odds.
As an example, mopping up low level enemies will usually result in you being under-powered for the final battle, rather your time will be better spent working out how to take down monsters at much higher levels with clever combinations of buffs, and exploiting their boosted experience. Health and mana return with each new grid square you uncover, forcing you to explore slowly and methodically, knowing that your primary method of healing will eventually dry up once the map is totally uncovered. Those 'esoteric' skills I mentioned suddenly reveal hidden depths, such as smashing foes through solid walls, swapping them out of position or providing massive experience gains. Everything has a cost and every victory requires precise planning after the first few levels, yet the simple controls mean that you're always scheming and putting your strategy into action rather than fighting with an awkward interface.
More loot is always better, right? Not here. A key part of Desktop Dungeons is sacrificing your gear, spells and even your potions for all-important attack power, health or other bonuses. Sometimes destroying your prized possessions will make the difference between close-run success and total failure. Since you'll always know the outcome of an attack, down to any remaining HP and status effects, you'll have to make some deadly calculations and think several moves ahead to triumph.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, as Desktop Dungeons reveals dozens of levels, numerous puzzles and increasingly tough bosses to face off against. There's always something new to consider or factor into your strategy, whether it's a variety of gods to worship who reward you if you follow their teachings mid-battle (such as only attacking certain enemies or refusing to use items), uniquely situational new classes who provide a totally different gameplay experience, various races (the suave and sophisticated tea-swilling Orcs are my favourite - how's that for typecasting?) or equipment to give your expendable grunts a fighting chance.
The constant influx of exciting new gameplay elements proves to be ruthlessly addictive, especially when combined with the unpredictable map design and ever-improving town to take pride in. Each run may be a standalone venture, but our persistent village provides perfect context to literally dozens upon dozens of hours of continued play. I've been enthralled for an obscene amount of time and haven't come close to completion, with two classes and loads of dungeons yet untapped, not to mention swathes of curated puzzle challenges.
And that's all before we get to the difficulty.
Desktop Dungeons channels more of Super Meat Boy than just its composer (and obvious enemy cameo). It is hard. Bastard hard. Rarely have I played a game with such a ruthless challenge curve, but once you start to learn the systems, you'll realise that it abides by a set of codified rules. It's a level playing field that, like Team Meat's platformer, rewards dedication and persistence with that oh-so-tasty-sweet payoff and rush of overwhelming endorphins.
Don't get me wrong, there are certainly moments when satisfying difficulty becomes full-on frustration, or the constant mental arithmetic makes the tougher puzzle gauntlets feel more like the Civil Service entrance exams as opposed to a satisfying dungeon crawler. Perhaps the price tag might feel a little steep if you're a sucker for shiny visuals. A little consolation prize would have also been nice, just a token amount of gold or upgrades after a failed attempt to make us feel like we accomplished something, anything, over two hours when we really should have been working.
And yet I keep coming back after each cruel spanking like the naughty little hack that I am. I can't stop (I won't stop), and as mentioned, there's no escape. A single purchase allows you to create an account to play both on Steam and in-browser, carrying your progress between both versions thanks to functional cloud saves. I could uninstall it, but it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference. At least the next console generation is the perfect time to go cold turkey.
- Deliciously deep dungeon crawling delivered in bite-sized chunks
- Complex and versatile systems, satisfying retro-cruel difficulty
- Maddeningly compulsive, contains a massive amount of meaningful content
- Fantastic soundtrack and anarchic humour
- Staggeringly steep challenge curve, can be intensely frustrating in parts
- Can occasionally feel more like a mental maths test than a videogame
- Price tag may feel slightly steep considering the basic presentation (but it's more than appropriate for the content)
The Short Version: Desktop Dungeons is magnificent and terrifying; expertly mixing the most compelling parts of RPGs, roguelikes, puzzlers and browser games into a monstrously moreish and ferociously challenging package. I can't help but recommend this satisfying thief of time, but I'm so very sorry, dear reader. I may have just ruined your life, and chances are I won't be able to sleep tonight knowing that.
Then again, I'll just be playing Desktop Dungeons anyway.