by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Not The Souls You're Thinking Of
Dungeon Souls seems a bit like a sampler of everything in-vogue in PC gaming right now. Developed by a small team and release for relatively cheap? Check. Spend along time in Steam Early Access? Indeed. Retro graphics and sounds? Right on. Blood-boiling difficulty? You betcha. While Dungeon Souls never quite gets past it’s early impression that it’s more an amalgamation of things you’ve already done than something new, it does those things well enough that it’s still a fun game to pour yourself into for awhile. Your task is relatively simple. Navigate your mysterious hero (and I do mean mysterious; there is no story or lore at all to be found here) through progressively nasty levels of dungeon hell by clearing areas, and activating floor runes, and wiping out the baddies that activating said runes spawn. Clear a few areas, beat a boss, and then carry on to the next environment to do it all over again. A thankless job indeed.
Dungeon Crawl, Wall To Wall
Upon initially starting the game you’ll only have three classes to choose from, but after unlocking the additional seven that are available there’s actually a pretty healthy range of playstyles. I found the range and burst damage of the archer to be most to my liking, and it’s worth noting that it actually does benefit you to stick to one class from one playthrough to the next once you find a character you like. While you will lose all of your progress and attack upgrades when you die, you do earn small bonuses to your health, speed, damage, etc. by ranking up your level with a character. I’ll give the game credit for trying something a little different with the system. It is nice to have something to show for your efforts as you jump back in dozens and dozens of times. Additionally, all characters get to share a bank of passive boosts that you can upgrade in between lives. This permanence actually impacts each playthrough much more than the character specific boosts, meaning to get very far you’re going to have to grind out some doomed runs to save up coin for them.
Level progression is kind of cool. The map layouts are generally complex enough to make the player explore a bit, but were never complicated to the point I’d get lost. While you’ll start out in a pretty generic gray and brown dungeon with traditional dungeon crawler enemies, every few stages you’ll fight a boss and move on, which keeps things interesting. I will say, at risk of sounding like a broken record, that the visual style is the biggest thing working against the environments. When there are a ton of enemies on screen, which there often are, things get really hard to read. When there are baddies coming at you from one direction, a trap firing at you from another, and a candle every 10 feet that’s letting off “particle effects” in the form of glowy squares, it’s just too much.
Not Vintage Retro
If first impressions are everything, Dungeon Souls could use a few lessons on introductions. I understand that small indie games love to play the “homage to an era of gaming past” card, but there’s a fine line dividing purposeful old-school design and low-effort graphics and interfaces. I understand the draw for small teams that are sometimes made up of as little as one or two people to throw the 8- or 16-bit out there. Dungeon Souls teeters back and forth across that divide. I also know that whether or not you like the style is going to be largely up to personal tastes, but it just didn’t do it for me here. I know a lot of people are still in love with the look are going to retort that gameplay trumps graphics, and they’re right, but there’s a way to make sprite graphics look appealing and a way to make them look detracting, and this falls, for me, sternly in with the latter. I didn’t play through the game on a huge monitor (a humble 20 incher), but even on that size screen the pseudo-low-rez text was incredibly hard to read. The first menu I entered when I started the game was the tutorial, and I had to take a few seconds just to adjust to what I was looking at. Even if everything else were to stay the same, the text desperately needs to be improved.
Luckily, and this is really the most important thing, the core gameplay of Dungeon Souls is a heck of a lot of fun. Controls are tight, enemies are fair, and I rarely felt like deaths were unearned (even after dying from a boulder trap for the 20th time). After clearing the first set of dungeons a few times you’ll be able to breeze through them on subsequent playthroughs in no time, letting you get to the wilder, more powerful sections in no time. Eventually your passive boosts and character-specific upgrades let you play a little more risky, and the random loot drops that add effects to attacks and defense spice things up. In the end, no, this isn’t going to be a game that anyone is probably going to rip out 100 hours of, but it’s a lovely little game for killing a few evenings or a weekend.
Tight controls, varied available characters, permanent upgrades that help future playthroughs.
I dislike most everything about the visuals and presentation.