Review: Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of the Ancient Arts (Nintendo DS)

Dungeon Explorer DS Box ArtDungeon Explorer: Warriors of the Ancient Arts (NDS)
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Hudson Soft
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 2/15/2008

This was a series I was surprised to see revived. The original game was for the almighty Turbo-Grafx 16 and hadten playable characters types (two are unlocked via passwords) and five player co-op action. It was ugly as sin, but it was pretty revolutionary. You can now get the original game on the Wii virtual console and it still supports five players at once.

There was also a version of the game released on the Sega CD, but compared to titles like Vay, Lunar, and Shining Force CD, Dungeon Explorer was overlooked by Sega CD owners in search of a quality RPG experience.

For some reason Hudson Soft has decided to revive this game as a next gen franchise, bringing the name in two wildly different versions to the DS and the PSP. Of course we never got the Bonk’s Adventure or Adventure Island remakes in the US from them, but this is a start.

In theory, it’s nice to finally have a multi-player action RPG on the DS. In reality, it all comes down to how good the game is. How does this version of Dungeon Explorer hold up?


Let’s Review

1. Story

There really isn’t much of a story here. You pick one of nine playable character and then start killing. Okay, there IS a bit more to it than that. You pick one of three races and then one of three classes. All the classes are same from race to race, but depending on what combo you pick sets your weapon set for the game. For example, my character was an Oros Hunter. That meant I used bows and crossbows. Had I made it a Taratta Hunter, it would have used boomerangs. An Emporos hunter would have a shotgun or pistols. Each of the nine options gives you slightly different stats for your beginning character. As always, I recommend distance based characters for action RPG’s as they tend to do less damage, but also tend to be faster and survive the game easier than the hack n’ slashers that walk straight into magical fireballs and the like.

Basically the plot of the game is two fold, although neither one is very good. If you are playing the solo player story mode you are fighting a group of necromancers who are doing the usual nefarious “destroy/conquer the world scheme.” Absolutely no characters, including your own are given any personality. You basically just go from quest to quest slaughtering things in a true Gauntlet like fashion and then move on to the next quest.

The multi-player game has even less of a plot. Here you and a few friends go into the Demon Pyramid and quest through 50 levels of slaying monsters until you take out the Dark God itself, Breed.

The game is pretty generic and shallow plotwise. It follows the usual hack n slash convention of dividing the game into several chapters, with the penultimate chapter feature the usual “collect four things from the evil main bad guy’s lieutenants and then move on.” This has been a standard fare in RPG’s almost since they began. Dungeon Explorer uses every cliché in the book story wise, and you will find yourself skipping through 85% of the dialogue in the game simply because it is poorly written and utterly useless.

Occasionally you’ll pick up a quest here and there from the one village in the game (not counting the elves which really only come into play once during the entire game), but for the most part the story is mindless dreck to fill the time between committing monster based genocide.

Story Rating: Poor

2. Graphics

Dungeon Explorer Shot 6This is a very ugly game. I mean really ugly. Character and monster designs are awful and although the game is not as bad looking as the TG-16 or Sega CD Dungeon Explorers, I’d be lying if I said it was much better.

The best thing I can say about the graphics is that the game has mediocre looking backgrounds in outdoor areas. Seriously. That’s as good as the game gets visually. This is not a game that even begins to tax the DS visually. That being said, very few action RPG’s are impressive to look at and fun to play. It’s generally one or the other. As the graphics here are quite bad indeed, that means the game has to play well, right?

Graphics Rating: Bad

3. Sound

Musically, the game isn’t bad. The score isn’t amazing by any means, but the music is decent. Again we have a collection of generic RPG themes, but a few manage to be catchy.

What’s amusing is what passes for voice acting. Each character has their own little sound effect when they start talking. It’s quite amusing, but also nostalgic as it is a throwback to simpler times. My favorite is the goblin storyteller who occasionally shows up in cut scenes telling a story to goblin children around a campfire late one spooky night. Basically each character has their own Pokemon-esque midi-based squark noise. The game easily could have fit in something better into the cart, but something tells me the budget wouldn’t have allowed it.

Decent little selection here.

Sound Rating: Mediocre

4. Control and Gameplay

Here is the strength of the game. On the surface, the game appears to be just mindless hack and slash, but in reality there is a lot of depth to the engine. It’s no Dark Alliance 2 but it’s still pretty impressive for a portable game.

First off, your character is completely customizable aside from your weapon selection, but even that is determined by you at the very beginning. You have four categories to divide three points per level into. Each category affects a different combination of stats. For example points into Strength allow you to increase your max items held and your non ranged damage. Dexterity affects your evasion and ranged attacks.

Dungeon Explorer shot 5You also will get one of 8 “Arts.” You Art is randomly selected early on in the game, although you can eventually change it. My Hunter received the “Axes” art which gave him a series of spell options, but also two “Form” attacks. Forms can be used when your attack gauge is filled, and the more you use Forms, the quicker your Arts will be unlocked. As a ranged based character I was happy to see the Forms I received from my Axes Art were a 100% critical hit attack and an attack that also released a homing missile that chases the target monster for a while. Nice little addition to my attacking from afar.

Later on you can get a robot sidekick that will help you find secret doors and also attack. There are eight variants of robots, each with one of four magic based cores. Partway through chapter 3, you’ll be able to evolve your robot even more into one of three advanced forms specializing in either attack, defense, or magic. I chose defense and then for the rest of the game, my robot didn’t take so much as a hit point of damage. Pretty nice! You can also customize your robot with defensive, attack, and resistance cogs that will change its stats. Make all cogs of the same “brand” (there are six) and your robot will gain a new super power. The robot sidekick customization alone has a lot of depth, even more so than your own character!

The actual gameplay itself is pretty good. You use the R trigger to lock onto an opponent and then hack and slash away with the A button. X and Y are for using items, which you can set up in your “Battle Palette” and the B button is for your magical attack. My only quibble is that the R button doesn’t always respond right away, or at all, to your attempts to lock on to a target. This is more or less acceptable, because you don’t NEED to use it. It does make being a distance character all the better as you have time before the computer comes after you if you mess up. If you’re a big action RPG/Dungeon hack fan, you’ll really have fun with the gameplay. If not, well, you’ll probably find the game pretty monotonous as you traverse through multiple dungeons destroying monster generators to unlock the door to the next level where you will destroy monster generators to unlock the next door to the next level where you will…

You get the picture. Gameplay is solid, but with a few targeting errors, and for a niche audience.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Good

5. Replayability

Dungeon Explorer Shot 2With Story mode, a HARD version of Story Mode, and a very long multiplayer campaign to get through, there is a lot of replay value to the game. The game is VERY short for an action RPG, at about 12 hours or so (compared to the usual 30-40), but I think this helps the game rather than hurt it as it dissipated the glazed eye monotony that can occur with this genre.

Multi-player mode isn’t as much fun as it would be if the game was about ten-fifteen years older. Instead it feels more like a souped up version of Gauntlet. And not the Gauntlet Legends or Dark Legacy games either. I mean “Elf needs food badly.” version. I’d honestly rather play that with friends of the Wi-Fi for nostalgia value simply because the levels in the Pyramid are too bloody long, even with a would be time limit imposed on them.

Either way the game has a decent amount of replay value to it. It’s probably not a game I’ll ever have the buring desire to pick up again, but it’s been a long time since there was a quality hack n’ slash title, especially a portable one, so hardcore fans of the genre will no doubt play this over and over again.

Replayability: Decent

6. Balance

Most of the game should be a cakewalk. In fact, in chapters 1 & 2, I barely took any damage. The AI of the game was pretty poor and my weapons and armour were top notch. My robot was pretty weak and pathetic though, but it didn’t matter as there just wasn’t a challenge to the game.

Dungeon Explorer Shot 3Then came chapter 3, where the difficulty shot up. Suddenly I was having to hit enemies multiple times. I was taking damage. I was having to run. I even died two times in a row against the first of the four “Necromantic Elite.” This death was mainly due to him summoning a ton of monsters at the beginning of the battle and then me not having the chance to figure out his attack pattern in time. After that though, the difficulty shot back down. I found where to evolve my robot into an unstoppable killing machine (right after that battle) and the Fair came to town so I could buy newer, more powerful items that the crap that was at the armourer. The rest of the Necro foursome had the same patterns, so they were easy to dispatch and I never looked back.

Granted, from Chapter 3 on there was a challenge and I came close to dying on occasion, but I had a full supply of healing potions and a robot shield of doom to hide behind which made things pretty easy, up until the end of the game.

I think this game will provide a good amount of challenge for both people who are new to the genre, as well as people who are new to action RPG’s. When in doubt you can also go back to a previous zone you have cleared and do it all over again, stock up on XP and gold and try your current situation when you are a higher level. When in doubt, beef your character up and railroad through the situation.

A fair amount of challenge here. Not mind numbingly difficult like SNK last boss syndrome, but not so easy it is boring either.

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality

The most original thing about this title is bringing back the Dungeon Explorer name after two decades of dormancy. Everything else is pretty much recycled from every other action RPG ever made. Even the tiny amount of story that we get is recycled from other titles. You can call Dungeon Explorer a Diablo clone, but even Diablo was in the middle of a long line of these types of games. Oh, and Diablo did everything better than this game.

By being honest and saying that Dungeon Explorer is utterly devoid of anything original doesn’t make the game any less fun or enjoyable. It’s just nowhere as groundbreaking as other titles in this genre, most of them being D&D licensed products like Neverwinter Nights. In fact, it doesn’t break any ground at all.

Originality Rating: Worthless

8. Addictiveness

It’s pretty easy to get sucked into a spree of Dungeon Explorer. The gameplay is simply, the dungeons are short and plentiful, and there’s always that “so close to leveling up/learning a new Art” feeling that keeps you going. The game may be ugly and a second rate version of other games in the genre, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. I had a good time killing thousands of creatures in this game, or dicking around in the pyramid with friends and random strangers. I spent several nights in a row just playing Dungeon Explorer, simply because I enjoyed what I was doing.

It’s hard to explain how easy it is for an RPG fan to get into a hack N’ slash title to someone who isn’t a fan of the genre. I imagine it is similar to really trying to explain the appeal of Beyond Good and Evil to myself. Or anyone here at DHGF really. Simply put is that the game may be monotonous to some, put for others it’s more a zen state of action plus the role playing goodness that we usually have to contend with in much slower moving tactical or turn based games.

Easy to get into and easy to have fun with. This rather helps offset the more negative qualities of the game.

Addictiveness Rating: Good

9. Appeal Factor

If the game was prettier or had a quality story, it would score a lot higher in here. After all the aforementioned Diablo and Neverwinter Nights are two of the most successful games ever and they are part of the same genre. Problem is that Dungeon Explorer lacks what made those two games so popular, and hones in on the people who basically want to murder digitized monsters while in a trance. This isn’t necessarily bad, but that means the only people that will really enjoy this game are the truly hardcore fans of the genre.

Factor in the fact that the game was poorly marketed and distributed and you’ve got only a small portion of the gaming audience that even knows this game exists, much less will have fun with it.

Appeal Factor Rating: Poor

10. Miscellaneous

Dungeon Explorer Shot 1I can’t honestly call Dungeon Explorer a good game. I can call it a decent or mediocre game, but that is as high as my praise can go. It’s too bad really. Hudson Soft gave us a solid engine and this is a hopeful sign of things to come from this franchise. There’s just not a lot of substance put into this game in areas that count. I have a feeling that with the lukewarm reception this game is going to receive that Hudson Soft’s attempt to start a new RPG franchise is going to die before it begins.

Let’s hope for better regarding the PSP game bearing the same name, but considering EBGamestop isn’t even carrying it in stores, I sincerely doubt it.

Miscellaneous Rating: Decent

The Scores
Story: Poor
Graphics: Bad
Sound: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Decent
Balance: Good
Originality: Worthless
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Poor
Miscellaneous: Decent
OVERALL RATING: MEDIOCRE

Short Attention Span Summary

It looks awful and has a plot that makes fan fic look enjoyable, but if you can ignore or look beyond the flaws this game has, underneath you’ll find a pretty solid engine with some rewarding (mindless) hack and slash. Definitely a niche title at best.

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