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Dungeon of the Endless Review: Live Together, Die Alone
Platform: Windows PC
Developer: Amplitude Studios
Publisher: Amplitude Studios
Release Date: October 27, 2014
We were on Floor 11, and we were in trouble. Our supply of Dust was reduced to dangerous levels after the most recent wave, and we could barely power the rooms around our crystal. Our healthy buildup of Industry and node access was crippled by our lack of power. We spread our heroes around to deter as many enemy spawns as we could, but still they came as we searched for the exit.
Finally we took a gamble and opened several rooms at once, starting off a terrifying chain of enemies that would be our doom. Except one of the rooms contained the exit to the final level. We grabbed the crystal and ran through hordes of foes, using our last remaining food supplies to keep everyone alive until they reached the exit. We made it, but only just, and if the final floor was any indication there was a good chance we wouldn’t make it out alive.
The scenario above is only one such experience from playing through Dungeon of the Endless, the latest game to explore the Endless Universe created by Amplitude Studios. Whereas their previous games, Endless Space and Endless Legend are Civ-like 4X empire management games, Dungeon of the Endless is, *deep breath,* a cooperative rogue-like tower defense dungeon crawler. If any of those terms spark your interest you may discover one of your favorite games of the year in this unique mash-up of genres.
Dungeon of the Endless represents the gap bridging the worlds of Endless Space and Legend: A prison ship is shot down over the planet Auriga and several survivors crash land in the labyrinthine dungeon beneath the planet. Your chosen heroes must survive twelve levels of increasingly hellish monsters and dwindling resources to make it to the surface, where Endless Legend’s conquer of Auriga ostensibly begins. It’s a supremely cool way of tying the games together, and fans will recognize many of Auriga’s native creatures in common with Endless Legend as well as Amplitude’s signature humorous writing.
Each floor of the randomly generated dungeons are made up of a series of about 15-30 rooms. Opening a room gives access to modules and nodes to build towers on, as well as treasure, NPCs, monsters or events. The act of opening a door is like pressing the End Turn button on Amplitude’s other Endless games, as it generates your resources and may spawn a wave of enemy foes.
The resources share the same FIDS system as previous Endless games – Food, Industry, Dust and Science. Food is used to level up and heal heroes, Industry to build towers modules and Science to research new towers (if you’re lucky enough to find an artifact). The use of Dust, the currency of the Endless world, is the most unique and defining element in Dungeon of the Endless. For every 10 Dust you can power on a room which gives you two important advantages – the ability to build modules and towers and preventing hostile creatures from spawning.
With every door you open there’s a chance that enemy forces will spawn from darkened, non-powered rooms and make their way to your precious crystal – the source of all your power. When your crystal is attacked you lose Dust, and if you lose all your Dust it’s game over. In true rogue-like fashion if any of your heroes fall they are permanently lost, along with any items you found and equipped on them.
In singleplayer you choose two heroes out of a possible four initially, but more can be found and recruited by randomly finding them in the dungeon. Heroes are not directly controlled or micro-manged – they can only move from one room to another and they automatically attack any enemies in the same room. The wide variety, from tanky marine Elise Ness to supportive tower-worker Warden Mormish all serve different roles in the dungeon, and finding an ideal combination is definitely a key to success (along with pure dumb luck of course).
Each hero has differing stats in damage, speed and defenses, and can equip up to three items, weapons or armor; leveling them up gives additional passive abilities (like increased stats when alone) and active abilities (like slowing down all enemies on a level). Keeping a newly found hero alive for three levels unlocks them as another starting hero choice, giving you even more incentive to keep them alive and additional options when replaying.
Heroes are a vital part of your strategy, but they don’t have to stand against the forces of Auriga’s bowels alone. While you start with only the weakest, most basic tower and resource generating modules, more interesting and powerful choices quickly become available as your research them.
Major Modules can only be built one per room, and only then if a room contains the particular slot. Most provide additional resources per opened door and can be upgraded to provide even more. Others give you additional bonuses – an Emergency Generator can power a room without the need for Dust, while a Tactical HUD makes all your heroes stronger by a significant percentage. Heroes with the Operate passive skill can be left in a room with a module and help work it, generating even more of a resource bonus.
Minor Modules are your towers, divided between offensive, defensive and supportive. They range from your typical attacking, slowing, damage over time varieties into some really unique choices like the Holohero that acts as a taunting scarecrow and the Autodoc Shards that heal heroes in the same room. Like Major Modules they have a random number of available slots in each room, making some rooms infinitely more defensible than others.
It’s the placement of towers that makes every tower defense game live and die by its strategy, and in Dungeon of the Endless you also have to contend with keeping your heroes alive and funneling enemies along a tower-filled path while still having to search for the exit. Your always limited resources prevent you from powering every room and covering the map in claymore mines, so the choices are even more deliciously agonizing than most games in the genre – and that’s just on the lowest difficulty of “Very Easy.”
“Very Easy” and “Easy” are the only available difficulties, and I assume these are jokes about the inherent difficulty of the rogue-like genre that’s meant to be replayed dozens of times with very few victories. Like FTL: Faster Than Light, the lowest difficulty is doable even if some mistakes are made, while “Easy,” seems nigh-on impossible unless you get lucky with the randomly generated levels.
Another brilliant feature is the zoomed out mini-map that’s quite impressive in its intuitive design. You can switch on the fly and easily direct heroes across the map, power rooms and note where enemies are coming from during waves. Even with its super low-grade pixel graphics I was able to quickly discern what the various icons and alerts meant, though the initial learning curve can still be quite daunting.
Dungeon of the Endless already provides a ton of replayability in a charmingly pixelated package, but one of the biggest draws is the cooperative multiplayer. I was able to test-drive the co-op with some buddies and came away really impressed with how well the mechanics are integrated and balanced. In multiplayer you start and control only a single hero (additional starting hero unlocks carry over from singleplayer and vice-versa). Your resource income is severely diminished to balance out the fact that there are 1-3 additional players with their own resource pool, but you do share all benefits of any towers and generators built. You can even pool together resources to let one player build an expensive module or level up your party’s main offensive hero, but the only way to trade randomly found items is for one player to sell them to randomly found merchants and another one buy it.
Communication online is vital; trying to survive with random people will be a nightmare unless you’re all on the same page. If you can coordinate which doors to open and which towers to build where, you’ll discover the best cooperative tower defense game since Sanctum.
Unfortunately one of my co-op partners was consistently kicked out around Floor 6 or 7, and experienced the same crash in singleplayer. I’ve heard it’s attributed to 32-bit systems, so buyer beware (and pay attention to any upcoming patch notes). In my dozen plus hours of playing I never experienced any crashes or technical kerfuffles, though the action was prone to slowing down and the framerate occasionally dropped during the hectic final crystal snagging on each floor on multiplayer.
My buddy’s crashes did signify an unfortunate disadvantage to multiplayer – the inability to save a session in progress. A solo dungeon crawl can easily be saved and restored (one at a time, like FTL) but no such option exists for multiplayer. With a single run easily taking three or more hours, you and your friends would require quite the time commitment to see a single game all the way through.
One of my favorite parts of Dungeon of the Endless is the end of a floor. Upon finding the exit, you then have to select a hero to pick up the crystal and make it to that room, which is often across the entire dungeon. As soon as you grab it a gigantic wave of enemies spawn, the intriguing synth music drops into a pulse-pounding beat and you’re left with an exciting and climatic race to the end, praying your established defenses and fellow heroes can escort you to safety.
The aforementioned learning curve can be quite daunting, a side effect of just about every rogue-like game I’ve played. The in-game documentation and tooltips can leave much to be desired; if this is your first Endless game you could be well and truly lost trying to decipher the stats, and the graphics don’t pull any favors trying to distinguish between all the towers you can build. But like any good rogue-like, persistence and practice will win out, and perseverance is rewarded as you learn optimum strategies and micromanage your heroes and abilities while pausing during a big wave of alien creatures.
As a big fan of 4X games it comes as no small surprise that my favorite game from Amplitude Studios is actually this crazy niche pixelated adventure that started off as a random side project. Dungeon of the Endless successfully blends together many of my favorite elements of rogue-likes, tower defense and dungeon crawlers and somehow manages to include working co-op that enhances the whole experience. Unlocking additional heroes and starting ships (the latter which fundamentally alters the gameplay) are fun incentives to keep tackling Auriga’s depths, and the little storylines and dialogue your various heroes engage in between floors are a nice touch (try taking Sara and Gork together). If you have any interest in the rogue-like and tower defense genres you should check it out; if you have buddies willing to take the same plunge it’s easily a must buy.
Multiple review copies were provided by the publisher.