NewRetro Game Review: Pixel Dungeon (Retronic Games, 2015, Windows/Mac/Mobile)
To end the year, I thought I'd give you a tiny taste of something new. I've been scouring Steam and the app stores for modern games that capture the retro feel of classic titles from the past, games that feel like they came from back then but pack the power of now. You see, New Retro isn't limited to an art form... its aesthetic and feel is applicable to all kinds of things in our lives. One fine example of old and new meshing together into something incredible would be Pixel Dungeon.
In the spirit of the old text and character-based dungeon delver games like Zork and Linley's Dungeon Crawl, Pixel Dungeon offers an expansive, brutal turn-based adventure where wits and caution serve you as well as any sword or spell. Players may choose from the Warrior, Rogue and Mage classes to begin their descent into the depths to find the Amulet of Yendor. A fourth class, the Huntress, is unlocked once you've progressed a certain amount with any other class. Each has its obvious strengths and weaknesses; I'd advise Warrior for anyone new to the game, but Rogue and Mage don't take long to learn.
Once you're in the dungeon, you know next to nothing. You'll find potions, scrolls, and other goodies, but be careful... your best bet is to cautiously try them to find out what they do. Once you've used a potion or scroll, the game lets you keep track of its function and tells you when you find others like it. Most of these things are helpful, but potions are especially tricky; drinking a potion of liquid flame can kill you, but they are great as thrown grenades. Items you equip (such as rings, weapons, and armor) can be cursed, and require a special scroll to remove. However, you'll want to find better gear as you go on or you'll be toast. You also want to keep fed; your character's hunger is monitored, and food items are scattered about the dungeon. Lastly, you will find dewdrops and seeds by sifting through the weird grass in the dungeon. The dew can replenish your health a little, and the seeds have a variety of uses (and don't need to be identified like potions or scrolls).
The dungeon isn't all treasure chests and goodies, of course. You'll be pummeled by rats, skeletons, gnolls, thieves, ninjas, giant blobs of black goo, and even robots! Every set of 5 floors is themed, and ends in a boss. Let me be the first to tell you: these bosses are no laughing matter (even if some of them do look funny). I won't spoil too much, but Goo is the first boss (on floor 5) and he is a true challenge of your ingenuity. On floors 10, 15, etc. there are progressively harder bosses to fight. Just slugging away at them with the direct approach is a good way to end up in the dead book. And once you die, you start all over... a popular concept in these “roguelike” games called permadeath.
There's a few unlockables in store for those bold enough to plumb the lower depths of the dungeon. One of them is a class-specific book item that you unlock by defeating the third boss on floor 15. It allows you to customize the class you achieved this feat with in future game sessions, by choosing one of two specialist classes. For instance, the Warrior can become a gladiator or a berserker, gaining little perks depending on the choice. It's a small edge and a fun choice for seasoned players, and something worth working for.
The real delight of Pixel Dungeon is that for all its gruesome difficulty and harsh mortality, it is a great casual pick-up game. While you die for good when you're dead, you can leave and come back to your game session at any time (especially nice for mobile users). The difficulty isn't prohibitive, and the brass ring is never truly out of your grasp. It will keep you coming back. The pixelated graphics and jaunty (if limited) soundtrack fit together beautifully, and the game is easy to learn quickly.
I'd say that Pixel Dungeon deserves an 8 out of 10. It's not something every single gamer will like, but it's got something for most of us. I've certainly put in my time on it. It's free on most mobile app stores, and I got my PC copy on Steam for $5. It is worth it.