RPGs are gargantuan monsters, roaming the deep dark caverns of gaming, feasting on the time of players. Complex and mysterious beasts that many face, yet few escape unscathed. By contrast, Dungeonland is a faery. Flimsy and simple, it flutters around, pointlessly tapping on gamers’ shoulders begging to be played with. It has heart, it has humour, but essentially it is lighter than air. Eventually it will float away into nothingness.
If you boiled down the core components of Diablo and its many clones, ruthlessly removed the aspects that add any depth to proceedings then you would be left with Dungeonland. Experience culled. Levelling chopped. Multiple-skills, bah, who needs them? And a plot, you have to be kidding? Perhaps then it is a testament to the developers at Critical Studio that the game still, at times, reaches the dizzy heights of good entertainment. Hell, sometimes it even produces a cackle or two.
Booting up the game you are met with a saccharine screen that exudes the sweet-corny-in-your-face style the game is trying to present. A glossy theme park for adventurers. Picking an area, then selecting a hero from one of three classes (Mage, Rogue and Warrior) and finally one of three sub-classes for each, you are thrown into the entrance of a randomly generated dungeon, left to fight off hoards of quirky monsters. All the while the park owner taunts you like the Joker from Batman whacked out on syrup.
Gameplay is simple. One button attacks, another button performs the classes’ slowly regenerating special move, one button dives forward and a final button drinks a potion. Using well timed combinations of these presses allows you to defeat the continuous waves of monsters and progress through the sections of the theme park to the final boss. It aligns itself far closer to the frenetic brawling of Gauntlet than the more deliberate style of Torchlight, and feels far more suited to a gamepad than the alternative mouse and keyboard setup. When the fighting works it is addictive mindless fun.
The problem is that it too often fails to work. By far the greatest issue in the game is your team’s AI. Each mission must be played with three characters and those that are not in the hands of humans are replaced with bots. These computer controlled heroes are a mess with no coordination or skill, running around like soon-to-be-headless chickens. Perhaps not too much of an issue by itself, since it is something we have come to expect from AI in team games, but when you consider that lives and pickups are shared between heroes and running out of these hearts ends the game, you can be assured the game will be over far too quickly when playing on your lonesome. In a very true sense this game is simply broken in single player.
Fortunately the game is squarely aimed at multiplayer with three players able to play on one machine if they have the peripherals available and if that is not an option there seems to be a fairly healthy, if rather unreliable, matchmaking option providing intelligent randoms to adventure with on a drop in and drop out basis.
The brainless computer problem is compounded further by the maniacally insane difficulty of the game. This is no yawning Diablo III plod through, the game humorously mocks you by stating the lowest level is ‘hard’ and the gradient severely increases from there. You will be killed if you stray too far from your team or are unfortunate enough to encounter a danger area which spawns enemies of monolithic proportions. Your team can attempt to revive a downed member, in an attempt to save a valuable life, but this process is incredibly risky with enemies around and more than often results in further loss.
Conversely the intense difficulty turns out to be one of the game’s strengths if you manage to find three skillful chums to party with. The constant threat of death drives the game forward, ensuring you are always on your guard and paying attention, sprinting to your allies’ aid with well timed attacks and potions. At times the difficulty spikes too high and survival is all but impossible, but most of the time it manages to maintain a consistent intensity, grappling on to you as you frantically push on through the two sections of each quest to reach the final big boss. These puntastically named bosses (such as the freaky one-eyed imbiber named “Beer Holder”) brilliantly sum up the best parts of the game with even more intense action and slaughter.
If you are insanely lucky and manage to fell one of these giant beasts then you are heavily rewarded with piles of gold. Gold is the raison d'être of any quest in Dungeonland since the game lacks any form of experience point system. Whether you live or die you will collect coins as they rain from fallen enemies or chests which is spent in the store between missions. Unlike standard ARPGs, the lack of inventory means that gold is spent on unlocking new sub-classes of heroes, traits (one of which can be applied per mission) or changing the the effect a potion might have. The result is surprisingly refreshing with the burdensome weight of item management entirely removed.
Admittedly, there are costumes and weapon changes available but these are purely cosmetic to show off to your friends as you dance around the theme park like a loony in your new pirate outfit. It is a game that seems ripe for dreaded micro-transactions yet fortunately, despite feeling like at some point you will need to enter your credit card number, it never dares venture down this road almost as if it is making yet another satirical prod at similar games that have adopted this approach.
If all of the above sounds a little insubstantial for a game then Dungeonland has one final trick up its sleeve to entice you. Maps can be played in Dungeon Maestro mode. This places you in charge of where to drop enemies, traps and timed events. Although this mode is not particularly deep and feels as if it was rushed in to add some variety to proceedings it does not stop it being a bundle of laughs. Before the quest begins the Dungeon Maestro selects cards (further cards can be bought with gold) which will become his creeps and traps as the heroes proceed through his madhouse.
Again it requires you to have three buddies on hand to experiment upon, since slaughtering internet randoms feels slightly underwhelming and the bots are useless, but the experience is a barrel of laughs when you nastily pick on a weak friend, dropping monsters on his head until he succumbs. Other times you can make the party believe they are safe and begin relaxing before unleashing the hordes upon them and cackle as they are overrun. Foolish heroes.
Dungeonland is ultimately pointless when it comes down to it. Yet it is the good kind of pointless, the kind that still produces entertainment with friends and fills a void. Dungeonland knows it does not amount to much, in fact it revels in it, wilfully mocking itself throughout. It is this inanity and insanely high difficulty that keep this game afloat and will keep you coming back every now and then for a burst of irrelevant fun. Sure, it will not replace your Diablo or Torchlight breed of game, since they require a large investment of time, instead Dungeonland only asks for minutes and repays you in kind. In a genre that despises players that dip in and out this is a breath of fresh crazy air.