Dungeon of the Endless draws its influences from a wide variety of sources. It features elements from roguelikes, turn-based, and strategy games like XCOM and FTL while blending in some tower defense ingredients, carefully shaping them into the mold of a dungeon crawler. With so many distinct pieces, any imbalance in the scales would have resulted in a failed experiment. But Dungeon of the Endless brings together its disparate parts beautifully. While a lack of variety and some harmful glitches do harm the presentation, the impeccable gameplay balance, as well as the hunt for new characters and an excellent multiplayer mode, can keep you engaged for long after you sit down to play.
In Dungeon of the Endless, you guide a small, hand-picked team from room to room, using a large crystal to illuminate discovered areas, all the while looking for an exit point that takes you to an express elevator that only goes up. There are 12 floors between you and freedom, and surviving until you reach the surface of a hostile alien planet is your only goal--but the path ahead is obscured in darkness and peril.
The crystal, however, is the torch to light the way. Collecting a resource called dust, you power up your crystal to energize rooms, which then become temporary safe zones. But each level is procedurally generated, so you never know what the other side of a door yields. You could discover a stockpile of dust if you’re lucky or a gang of ravenous monstrosities if you’re not.
If micromanagement is your dish of choice, Dungeon of the Endless offers a full plate and a second helping, so come hungry. Not only do you have to maneuver a team of up to four heroes while collecting dust, you must also gather three other resources while building turrets to stave off advancing waves of alien foes who are out to destroy your crystal. And if they accomplish their goal, you have to start all over. You construct modules to collect resources or to build turrets. Major modules collect said resources in the forms of industry, which is spent on creating new modules; science, which upgrades existing modules; and food, which allows you to heal or level up your team or recruit new heroes. Minor modules consist of turrets, ranging from laser blasters to mortars to devices that can heal or strengthen your heroes.
There is a lot of strategy to consider as you hunt down your exit. Dust is a limited resource, and you almost never have enough to power every room in each expansive level. Lighting a room stops enemies from spawning there, but the longer you take to find your way out, the more darkened rooms are left behind--each one capable of spawning dozens of monsters. With this in mind, you are left with the task of how to best manage your heroes. A favorite strategy of mine involves taking the fastest members of the group as a scouting party while placing stronger (but slower) heroes in a darkened room to keep enemies from spawning or at choke points with turrets to halt the march of any attacking foes.
It’s a lot to handle, but the game’s sharp design keeps everything balanced. Controlling your team is smooth and intuitive; you can select all your heroes with a button, or just take a small group to scout ahead while leaving others to guard the rear. Working with the mouse and keyboard is effortless, making way for quick, deft movement to navigate your team while using a tactical map to coordinate attacks or retreats. You can also pause the action to give yourself some time to plan your next move.
If micromanagement is your dish of choice, Dungeon of the Endless offers a full plate and a second helping, so come hungry.
Finding the exit completely changes how you approach the game. Where exploration and survival were the initial focus, the final part of the level is a mad dash to take your fragile crystal and slowly move it to the exit. One character is needed to carry it, making him or her unable to attack. Enemies surge from the darkness in an endless stream, and it’s up to your remaining heroes to protect the crystal during its perilous journey. But this is not an easy task. The game is difficult, and watching your crystal bearer succumb to a wave of gnashing foes just inches before the exit is almost too gut-wrenching to witness.
Dungeon of the Endless provides you with only four available heroes, but many more can be found roaming the floors. You begin your journey with two heroes in a party but can recruit up to two more. As your knowledge of each character grows, you can figure out new ways to fit them into your party. Pairing a burly tank character with a nimble thief, whose speed and passive ability to sneak past enemies without drawing their gaze, is a good start. But throwing in some brains isn’t such a bad idea, either. An engineer, for example, scurries about a room repairing damaged modules, all the while mumbling sage advice on how keeping equipment in working order returns the favor to its users. Characters can be equipped with a wide assortment of weapons and gear found throughout the game. Many items are discovered in treasure chests, but others can be purchased from a merchant, who trades his wares for resources.
Colorfully pixelated, the ever-shifting environments keep your flight to the surface from becoming stale. Brushed steel and the flickering lights of a Hollywood sci-fi setting adorn the halls of one level, while other floors display something more akin to the home of a necromancer: Lit by flickering torchlight, potions dot the ground, and the walls are lined with old books or prison cells--the inhabitants now lifeless skeletons. In other levels, the walls pulsate and ooze, while frozen zones covered in ice yield large, mammoth-like skulls. A great use of lighting effects helps sell the feeling of dread and isolation of the strange world. Characters, monsters, and alien flora covered in waving tendrils cast creepy shadows against objects and walls, giving the atmosphere an eerie and foreboding quality. Enemies themselves are also widely varied, from crystalline golems to sorcerers that cast spells.
Reaching the planet’s surface for the first time is an immensely rewarding feeling, but, unfortunately, it isn’t one you will experience again. Variation in the levels is moderate, and once you have conquered all 12 floors, you have seen just about everything Dungeon of the Endless has to offer. Replaying the game to unlock more characters’ escape pods that change how you approach the game is pleasurable, but even that doesn’t last for too long. Once I completed the game, taking four heroes to the surface, the thought of playing it all over again wasn’t particularly exciting.
The game’s mantra of proper balance is reflected again in its multiplayer mode, with split resources and responsibilities, making for a gratifyingly enjoyable time. You and up to three others combine your efforts and work together to make it out of the dungeon alive. Each player controls one hero, and since your life is now in the hands of others and vice versa, constant communication is a must to survive, though it does slow down the pace of the game. Deciding whether to explore the area some more or quickly make for the escape exit once it’s found makes for some surprisingly tense conversation. I’ve experienced a game where votes on decisions were tallied, as well as they often should, as one false step could lead to failure. But nothing beats the sense of satisfaction that comes with successfully completing a difficult level; the sighs of relief and cheers in the elevator between missions are palpable.
Dungeon of the Endless isn’t free of issues. In multiplayer mode, the lack of item trading keeps valuable weapons and gear out of the hands of those who need it most. There is also no host migration, forcing games to end prematurely if the game creator has to leave or gets disconnected. Other problems range from glitches to problematic menus. At times, turrets don’t face enemies while firing, and sometimes character menus seem to stick and require some extra jabbing with the mouse pointer to free them. But those are merely nitpicky issues. Actual problems include a particularly annoying glitch that prevents you from purchasing new items from the merchant. Normally, this bug is fixed by restarting your saved game and speaking with the merchant again. But running across it online, where restarting is impossible, creates a frustrating scenario where any useful items now have to be left behind.
Great use of lighting effects helps sell the feeling of dread and isolation of the strange world.
Dungeon of the Endless manages to pull off the especially difficult task of cobbling together parts from multiple genres, ultimately creating something that feels special. The incredible balancing act alone is worthy of some attention, if not for its excellent multiplayer mode, which definitely merits a good look. While the lack of gameplay variety and an occasional kink or two does slow its ascent, Dungeon of the Endless is an elevator from hell that will keep you entertained for hours.