If there ever was a series that could pose as a case study in the general shift to freemium in iOS gaming, Gameloft's Dungeon Hunter would be at the top of the list. The first two games operated as full-featured Diablo style clones with everything you'd want in a dungeon crawler. The third made a dramatic leap into the freemium sphere by going away from its dungeon crawling roots with arena-style gameplay, very little narrative, and plenty of IAP.
Dungeon Hunter 4 [Free] looks to bring some balance back to the series with the return of an actual story and a greater emphasis on traditional dungeon crawling. For the most part, the game actually succeeds in this regard, with a legitimate story, plenty of gameplay and options and beautiful visuals to boot. While the game certainly brings back some of what we loved in the first two titles, the 'in-your-face' IAP and other freemium elements leave a wistful feeling in your mouth.
After mysteriously waking up in the middle of a demonic invasion of your kingdom. Dungeon Hunter 4 puts you in the role of one of four heroes mysteriously imbued with power and charged as last hope of the kingdom of Valenthia. As the kingdom's savior you'll journey from region to region taking on standard story-based dungeon crawling quests coupled with a decent amount of side quests that provide supplemental awards. I didn't find the story to be particularly enthralling but it is a full-featured narrative and provides a far better experience than the previous Dungeon Hunter.
Meanwhile there are a lot of fundamental areas that Dungeon Hunter 4 does well. The visuals are impressive on current generation hardware, with plenty of special effects, detailed models and nice looking backdrops. The combat system also earns points in my book, with a dual-stick scheme that hardly ever felt like a hindrance. Admittedly, as the action got more hectic it became harder to activate the hot-buttoned skill moves, but otherwise I was satisfied with the game's controls.
Obviously, it's expected that a freemium game would be rife with IAP, and Dungeon Hunter 4 is no exception. The standard dual-currency system applies with enemies dropping a decent amount of gold during normal play while the premium gems are rarely given out and will primarily be earned via IAP or via an in-game ad watching system. As you might imagine, equipment that can only be bought with gems are far superior to the gold-based items. In addition, gems are also used beyond weapon purchases, and can be used to unlock skills early (rather than waiting to reach a certain level for them to unlock), reset skill points and speed up timers.
Yes, in addition to the standard freemium trappings mentioned above, Dungeon Hunter 4 also contains a variety of timers centered around upgrading your player's inventory. For example, merging charms into stronger versions launches a timer, as well as removing charms from equipment and upgrading items to the next tier of strength. While upgrades only cost gold, the timers themselves require gems to bypass and upgrades on already strong equipment can take quite awhile.
The most egregious example is the timer on potions -- heroes can hold up to three health-refilling potions but will have to wait 2 hours to refill one of the potions (or spend gems to bypass the timer). I really don't understand the need for timers, as it just creates an additional annoyance on top of all the other freemium elements.
As if the timers weren't bad enough, Dungeon Hunter 4 has an annoying tendency to repeatedly shove premium items in your face. Every loading screen suggests an item you should buy that costs gems (which you can conveniently buy via tapping on it). Gaining a level is typically met by the game giving you a "deal" on a premium item. Even the game's inventory screens, which typically only show items you possess also showcase premium items that you could own if you just dumped some cash into gems and picked them up. This last item is particularly annoying and has the potential to be confusing to some players.
I hate having to spend so much time outlining the free-to-play mechanics but it's important because of how intertwined they are with the foundational gameplay. The premium items are more of an annoyance (although I question the balancing for players that don't buy into them) but the timers make a significant change to what is an otherwise good dungeon crawler.
For example, having to wait for potions to replenish could be counteracted by repeating areas, gaining levels and gold, and getting to a position where you need less reliance on them (dying puts you back at the last checkpoint area). However, the fact that timers exist for charm removals/enhancements and upgrading weapons and armor means that even that technique is going to at least require additional time if you're trying not to shell out for gems.
It's just a shame because Dungeon Hunter 4 does a decent job putting the series back on track to its roots. Unfortunately, the emphasis on freemium elements puts a damper on the improvements made. Seeing how it's free, dungeon crawling fans should definitely check it out. However, the question remains whether or not its worth the investment required to plow through the entire experience.
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