The roguelike genre has only been getting stronger in recent years, and there seems to be no end to the innovation that indie developers will bring to their attempts. The Dungelot series has existed as a footnote on mobile devices for a while now, but the developers think they’ve finally got it right. To prove this, Shattered Lands has made its debut on steam. Can this tile flipping dungeon crawler impress in one of the most crowded genres on the market?
Shattered Lands starts off with a pretty great intro about people sucking mana from the ground and eventually causing the partial collapse of the global continent. The three new continents are soon overrun by monsters. Humanity’s last hope depends on adventurers who dare to trek through dangerous dungeons in order to slay the monster.
After this neat intro, very little story is to be found. You kind of just go through dungeon after dungeon until the end. There are a couple of side story bits where you fend off a goblin attack and help resolve a scarecrow strike, but don’t expect any sort of plot. That isn’t normally a big deal, but the intro is so well done that you’ll likely want to see more of that world.
From a presentation standpoint, the game uses a humorously dark look. The colors pop off the screen, and the enemies all look like goofy flash animations. However, the overall tone is still quite foreboding. Think something along of the lines of a slightly more serious episode of Scooby Doo. It works. While the enemies at the start are mere flies for you to swat away, they get more vicious and foreboding as you move down. The simple animations aren’t anything to write home about, but there’s enough personality here to keep things from getting dull.
It’s the aural side of things that is hit or miss. The various voice clips are amusing and manage to avoid getting old no matter how many times you hear them. The paladin yells in a booming, self righteous voice while the vampire casually mocks his vanquished foes. It’s cute. The music is the letdown. It’s spooky enough, but quickly fades into the background as you play. It simply never becomes memorable. A killer soundtrack would have put the presentation over the top, but the lackluster musical suite that exists actually sucks some of the energy away. It’s a mixed bag, and you might not even want to bother turning the audio on. The game would go great with a Halloween mix tape, though.
While your typical roguelike might have you traversing through dungeons and slaying monsters, this game takes a slightly different approach. Your objective on each floor is to find the golden key that opens the door to the next floor. In order to find that key, you need to click on blocks on the map to uncover what’s underneath them. Your character just stands at the bottom of the screen and gestures menacingly. It might not sound too exciting, but the game is actually quite a bit of fun. There’s a certain “What’s in the box?” mentality as you clear blocks and pray for good things. If an enemy pops up, you are usually able to avoid them. However, you can’t clear out any boxes adjacent to that enemy, so who knows what loot you’re missing? They might even be keeping you from the key itself. When you’re low on health and supplies, each click can bring your death. Death means going back all the way to the start of the dungeon. The system in place here works brilliantly, to be honest.
Playing this game is about managing your various resources. Health is the most obvious one. Getting hit by enemies and traps saps your health. If it runs out, you die. End of story. Try again later. Armor is your best friend. It takes the hit instead of your health, but has a chance to shrug off the damage all together. It tends to run out fast, but finding an item that restores some down the road can give you enough courage to fight tough battles and enough time to get your health back up. Each of the four characters has a suite of spells they can use as well. These are unavailable until you pick up scrolls, and you can only use a spell if you have a scroll to burn. There’s also a charge meter that powers your passive abilities and empowers your spells. Without charge, your basic healing spell heals two points. With full charge, that number jumps to over ten in some cases. However, to keep your charge up, you’ll either need to quaff potions or salvage items in your inventory. Speaking of which, you have limited inventory slots and lots of different items to pick up. Of particular use are various thrown weapons that damage enemies without fear of reprisal. There are throwing knives, axes, and various bombs with elemental properties. Using these instead of attacking with your melee weapon allows you to fight without risking your precious health and/or armor. We’re not even done with the resources. Next there are provisions, or food. One of these gets consumed every time you move to another floor. If you run out, you’ll start to starve to death. Plus, they can be used in safe zones to recover health. Keeping them around is important. Finally, there’s gold. Gold can buy you items for use in each dungeon, which can be useful. However, there are permanent buffs and items that can be bought from the hub. You just have to make sure you make a profit.
There is a rather impressive variety of enemies in the game, and they often have special features. For example, beholders don’t have have much attack, but sap two of your scrolls when they die. Target dummies, a low level foe, are easy to take down. However, if you use a bomb to attack them, they explode and deal damage to everyone. That includes you and the other enemies. Some buff enemies when they die, some guard others from taking hits, some can be bribed to just go away, and some can spread poison on adjacent blocks. You can right click on an enemy to read what you know about them, and this will even include elemental weaknesses as you try out different strategies. Apart from the bosses at the end of each dungeon, you rarely are forced to fight. As long as there is an open tile, you can simply work around them to try and find the key. However, clearing foes can get you item drops, and clearing them all gets you a nice gold bonus.
You start out with one available hero, and gather more as you free them in each chapter. They vary by bases stats and their suite of spells. Each of them can go through each dungeon once, and each will unlock different awards. Going through one dungeon with your paladin might get you some gold, but going through that same dungeon with the witch might get you a new item in your shop. Instead of getting experience that levels you up, you’ll find tomes as rewards that can be used to permanently increase one of your attributes. There are also crystals you can find in dungeons that offer smaller increases, but they are quite rare. Your characters get stronger mostly by getting better equipment and by buying permanent buffs from the hub. There’s no ability nor reason to grind here. While you have the option to go through each dungeon with each character, you technically don’t have to. This will mean not being able to unlock some gear, but at least it allows you to pick and use a favorite if such is your desire.
The game can be insanely addictive. Clearing tiles to find out what’s underneath is a mechanic that serves the game well, and managing your resources isn’t nearly the chore it sounds. You’re also constantly unlocking new gear and encountering new stuff, which makes it easier to keep going. The downside is that the dungeons increase dramatically in length and difficulty. You’ll know the sting of pain when you die on floor thirty-nine of forty. A good run can also be foiled by a string of back luck. For example, I got trapped into a position where I had to fight to move forward. My character missed ten attacks in a row and lost most of his health. This made me far too frail to push on much further. You can also get screwed by bad rolls for enemy placement and lack of useful items appearing in the shops. As you get farther in the game, you start to play only one or two dungeons at a time. The game loses steam towards the end for sure.
Short Attention Span Summary
All things considered, Dungelot is an addictive and entertaining game that manages to sink its hooks into the player for a good while. The magic might start to wear off before you fell the final foe, but you’ll ultimately leave the game with a positive experience. It won’t revolutionize the genre in the way it might have hoped, but it does show that roguelikes are capable of a lot more than simple hacking and slashing. It’s worth a look to be sure.