Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of Ancient Arts
Genre: Action Role Playing
Release Date: 02/15/08
There are probably only a handful of you reading this who remember NEC’s ill fated TurboGrafix 16 console. Even fewer of you are likely to have owned one, and even less than that have likely played the first installment of the Dungeon Explorer series. Developed by Hudson, who were responsible for putting together close to three quarters of the games available of the T-16 console, Dungeon Explorer borrowed heavily from Atari’s Gauntlet game play formula, but delved deeper into the RPG-esque idea that Atari’s game always seemed to hint at. It worked extremely well, and was an absolute blast with 2 or more players.
The series saw a direct sequel for the T-16’s CD add on, a “remix”Â of the original game for Sega CD (more or less), and finally, a game for Super Nintendo in 1995, which never saw a release stateside. Besides the recent availability of the T-16 original on the Wii’s Virtual Console, the series has remained dormant for over a decade. Imagine my surprise to hear that amidst all the Bomberman Realms and Lands and Battles being released, Hudson announced not one but two brand new Dungeon Explorer games for the PSP and Nintendo DS handhelds respectively.
Being fond of the series back in the day, and a notorious fanatic for quite literally anything with the word dungeon in its title or subtitle, I was, needless to say, looking forward to these two games quite a bit. After a gamut of incorrect release dates and scarce retail availability, I finally got my hands on the elusive PSP version of Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of Ancient Arts via an online retailer. It was finally time to do what the series’ title suggests: explore some dungeons.
The story’s foundation in the PSP version of DE: WoAA is more or less your stereotypical sword and sorcery fare. The lore tells of an Age of Darkness brought about by the existence of great dungeons that spewed forth countless vile monsters that ravaged the land and enslaved the people in constant mortal fear. Eventually, the three kingdoms of said fantasy world unite to take back what is theirs. Through this, trade is stimulated, and the kingdoms all flourish. In time the monster threat subsides, and the events that carry the game’s core story line are presented. Basically, the scene is painted with the idea that the three kingdoms are at edge with one another. Each kingdom has been spoiled with power and wealth gained through their joint revolution during the Age of Darkness, and now each seeks diplomacy over the other. The situation returns full circle, as the beginning cinematic details the monster threat regaining power because of the kingdoms greedy and ambitious ways of late.
The story centers around your created character, a citizen of one of the three kingdoms and new recruit of the local Adventurer’s Guild. Through your adventures you’ll do your best to tie the ends of the usually confusing political mystery together, as you meet characters from the two other kingdoms, and follow a set of very vague and subtle side stories.
A politically charged story line for a game of this type is an interesting concept at first, and the way the game fits your created character into the story as sort of a savior of all kingdoms is neat, but it honestly just winds up being more confusing than anything. Though it’s not common for other games of its specific type to have award winning storylines, the one attached to DE: WoAA will certainly not be the reason you see the game through to the end. More traditional RPG players will most likely be disappointed with the mumbled story that never really seems to get its point across. But fans of the specific sub-genre DE: WoAA is marketed to will most likely not care.
The graphics for the PSP DE: WoAA are nothing fantastic in comparison to other PSP games. The character models look pretty good and have a decent amount of detail. The environments in the kingdoms and dungeons are all of acceptable quality as well, and there are some nice mist, smoke, and distortion effects here and there.
Graphically, DE: WoAA is very comparable to other PSP games on the market at the moment. It looks better sometimes than others, usually in comparison to the more elaborate city sets opposed to the top down and repetitive nature of the dungeons. Generally though, the game comes off as a very average presentation visually.
As with the visual presentation of DE: WoAA, the sound presentation is pretty run of the mill as well. The music tracks are what one would expect from your typical fantasy based video game, with each town and dungeon having its own score piece. The music does the job of setting an appropriate mood, but is by and large forgettable.
The sound effects are all reasonably passable as well, and also include all one would expect to hear. Monster grunts and groans, whizzing and whirling magic noises, and familiar tonalities when items are acquired are common and acceptable. There isn’t any voice acting in the game, but in the same respect there isn’t a wealth of conversation either, so not much should be missed by the absence of such.
Much like the original entry in the series borrowed considerably from Gauntlet, DE: WoAA’s general mechanics owe a lot to the modern dungeon hack movement of the past decade. Fans of games like Diablo and the Black Isle D&D games will be all too familiar with the general formula DE: WoAA is taking on at its core. You’ll start by creating a character, male or female, who can begin his or her career as an adventurer by taking up one of six different jobs. An additional six jobs can be unlocked during the game by meeting certain prerequisites with the initial six. As you play the game, your character and party members (who can be recruited from the guild hall) will become proficient with specific weapons, thus making an assortment of different power moves available for use. They will also learn new arts as their job rank increases, which include a various collection of status boosts and attacks that cover a wide area. In cooperation with your other party members, you can also execute “Big Bang Arts”Â, which do increased damage and cover a wider area than normal attacks. In addition to all this, your character will level up in traditional RPG fashion based on the race you choose, and each level of experience will award you with points you can distribute to any of the statistics you wish. The detail and depth of character creation is without a doubt the strong suite of DE: WoAA, and truly offers a lot to do. It is sad to mention that equipping various different armors doesn’t change the look of your character. You can however edit the colors of their outfit via a sliding RGB bar, even after the initial creation process. Weapons and shields have several different visual appearances however.
The game essentially plunges you head first into the role of a grand adventurer amidst troubled times. At the adventurer’s guild, you’ll take on a number of quests, most with the same or similar goals, which will net you gold upon their completion. You’ll be able to recruit a party of three other adventurers to accompany you on your quests at the guild as noted previously. As you complete enough regular quests, special quests will become available. These quests usually pair you up with recurring NPC characters that play a part in the story, and they needs to be completed to advance the game’s plot, as well as offer new areas and merchants to the player. The game consists of a series of affinity based dungeons, and though any of the game’s 40 or 50 different drone monsters may appear in any on of the dungeons, the maddening status effects they can afflict on your party are based of the affinity of the dungeon your currently exploring. The monsters themselves usually always come out of generators, which is one of the few direct similarities between this and previous games in the series, as well as a staple in the original Gauntlet games. A set number of generators must be destroyed before you can pass to the next floor in the dungeon, and ultimately fight the boss to leave. Destroying generators is what makes up most of the dungeoning to be had in DE: WoAA, as they commonly produce gems that are required to buy passage to deeper floors in said dungeon.
Status affects, and the management of them, is probably the biggest gripe with the actual combat experience in DE: WoAA. They can be quite unforgiving, and can end your adventure quite quickly, even if you’re wearing armor that protects against the ailment you were just affected with. Navigating the real time item palette heightens this agitation. Since there is no way to actually pause the game (another universal trait most dungeon hacks share), save for putting the PSP into sleep mode, you literally have to move the D pad to the right item on the fly and use it. This is made even more difficult when you have, at times, over a dozen different items, and the game takes a whole second to affirm the item after you stop pressing the D pad. Even worse, one has to literally memorize the tiny graphic icons that resemble the items, as the name of the product doesn’t appear until it’s affirmed on the pallet.
Managing all this in real time, combined with the severity and frequency of the game’s status ailments, is annoying to say the least.
I was pleasantly surprised, however, by the quality of the AI my party members displayed. The game sports a detailed system that allows you to micro-manage the behavior of everyone in your party, and you can have them focus on several different things by means of a sliding scale. The party is for the most part, entirely self sufficient. If equipped with restoratives and potions, they will use these on themselves and even your main character. Though the combat classes in my party can never seem to come anywhere close to killing the amount of monsters I put away on a dungeon run, everyone does what is expected of them.
Multi player mode, unfortunately, is disappointing in DE: WoAA. Up to three players can ad-hoc their way through any dungeon the host has unlocked, with the loose promise of “possibly”Â getting better and more equipments. In multi player mode, no characters will get overall or job class experience, though weapon proficiencies will increase. I played through several dungeons with a friend in this mode, some of them quite elite, and came home with nothing really exciting, let alone better than the equipment I acquired in single player mode. This nerfed mode is without a doubt the biggest let down of DE: WoAA. There seems to be little reason to play it, and with the limited rewards and no experience, you and your buddy will probably find yourselves flipping the LAN switch off a few dungeons in. The lameness of this mode REALLY hurt this product in my opinion, and I’m sure quite a few people were interested in the game simply because of the idea of multi player. Be warned, it’s weak.
That said, the game pretty much does everything you’d want (provided you have no friends who bought it) from a dungeon hack on a gameplay level, and the depth of character creation is quite impressive. It can be monotonous, sure, but monotony is what these products are usually about. If you’re into this kind of thing, you can replace monotonous with a different adjective, because it’s really par for the course.
You’ll be grinding on your character for some time just to complete the game, and even longer if you desire to unlock all the jobs and dungeons. Since you can appoint your character any job you choose at anytime, it’s possible to explore the dungeons in many different ways. Working on job combinations to unlock advanced jobs is a lengthy task as well, and definitely has the ability to make you want to work at the game. Once you do everything there is to do and get your characters to a point where they’re dungeon gods, however, the disappointing multi player mode isn’t going to make the experience last any longer.
Given the stat based nature of the game, the game actually balances itself out reasonably well. There are times where you won’t be able to complete a quest because the monsters or the boss get the better of you, but it’s usually nothing a little level grinding won’t overcome. As I mentioned in the gameplay details, the status effects can be somewhat maddening at times, and though this is partially due to the fact that the real time item palette can be so damn frustrating to work with, it still bears weight on the game’s balance, as you can find yourself succumbing to status ailments in a dungeon you and your party have no right croaking in, and that’s just kinda lame.
Balance: Above Average
The game’s biggest claim to fame as far as originality is concerned would be the detailed character creation and its novel approach, especially with the usually simplistic formula of the Diablo-esque dungeon hack. But much like the initial installment in this series capitalized on Gauntlet’s formula, DE: WoAA attempts to do its own thing with the modern dungeon hack, without really putting their signature on anything.
Some of the systems and the Big Bang Arts are cute, but definitely don’t bring the game to any higher than “me too”Â status. The political fantasy story is worth mentioning as an original attempt, rather than an actual credit to the games uniqueness, as it’s quite flawed, and the ascetics are pretty much carbon copied from any other fantasy based RPG we’ve played, seen, or read about in the past two decades.
Simply put, if you’re into this kind of game, you are going to clock a considerable amount of hours onto it. Leveling up your character, getting him of her the advanced job that tickles your fancy, and mastering all your various weapons and arts is among the stuff dungeon dreams are made of. Even taking out the garbage multi player, there is a lot of good dungeoning to be had with this product, and if that’s your thing, you’ll be coming back for quite some time. Unfortunately, you’ll probably be doing it alone.
Like many games similar, DE: WoAA is a niche title. It’s made for specific people, and I personally believe the sparse distribution of both this and the DS version proves that point. I imagine Hudson knows that people who want to play this game are going to somehow hear about it, acquire it by whatever means necessary, and as such, little to nothing has been done to let the general video gaming public know of either titles’ existence. Even though DE: WoAA falls into the same RPG category as games like Diablo and Baldur’s Gate, the elements that make this game slightly more involved, (detailed character creation, hardcore level grinding) are the same elements that will potentially turn off fans of the afore mentioned games. Not to mention a totally ass multi player mode that really cripples the ability to recommend the game to your typical RPG gamer friends.
It’s a poorly marketed niche game, and it’ll be at least another decade, if at all, that we hear about the DE franchise again.
Appeal Factor: Poor
All in all, DE: WoAA is a niche title within a niche genre that you will either love or hate.
Hudson did a decent job adapting a pretty much forgotten series into a modern day dungeon hack at its core, but the elements incorporated to make the game a little more than the sum of it’s parts are what is most likely going to kill the experience for fans of the games’ overall formula.
There are those who will enjoy the munchkining and monotony involved with getting the most out of the product, but these people are not many. Most fans of DE: WoAA’s surface mechanics will prefer the more easily accessible gameplay of Untold Legends and Dungeon Siege as far as PSP dungeoning goes. I for one am not one of these people, but once again, I’d find myself in a small minority.
Let’s say you fit into the niche within a niche that DE: WoAA as a product would cater to.
You’ll be all about the game for a considerable amount of time, as there are always goals in sight to make your character attain, and as an experience, it carries itself reasonably well.
The issues that arise from navigating frustrating real time menus, ridiculous status ailments, and a rather irrelevant story won’t stop those who can enjoy DE: WoAA for all it is from devoting some serious hours in it’s many dungeons. The worthless multiplayer is indeed heartbreaking, especially if you have a friend or two who are interested in the game as well, but in the end, this just cripples any lasting appeal the game could possibly have over the single player quest.
I doubt we’ll be exploring any dungeons from Hudson anytime in the immediate future.
But DE: WoAA is a good dungeoning time for the select few that can appreciate what it does, and with a few tweaks and modifications, a possible sequel, no matter how unlikely, is certainly something I’d be very interested in.
Miscellaneous Rating: Good
Balance: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Poor
FINAL SCORE: Above Average
Short Attention Span Summary:
Confusing fantasy-based political storyline aside, the core design of Dungeon Explorer is an accessible and enjoyable experience for those who can enjoy what the game brings to the table that is different from what Diablo 2 and other modern day dungeon hacks do. The gameplay is not without its problems, and the multi player stinks, but overall the gameplay is still enjoyable and will keep you interested in the game for quite a long time.