Ravenous Games first landed on people's radars with the awesome League of Evil [$2.99] a few years back, but it's pretty safe to say their output has been a bit of a mixed bag overall since. Looking at their last couple of releases, Random Runners [Free] was a complete misfire, and before that, League of Evil 3 [$2.99] was a pretty uninspired sequel. This developer is in need of a comeback, and I'm happy to report that at the very least, their latest title, Devious Dungeon [$2.99], shows slightly more creativity in concept than those two. It's more than a little similar in feel to their hit Random Heroes games, but the idea works far better here.
You play as a warrior sent by the king to slash and bash your way through a bunch of dungeons for reasons I've actually forgotten, but likely something to do with saving us all. All you have to do to clear each stage is find the key, find the exit, bring them together, and let the magic happen, baby. Naturally, the stages are populated by various monsters and baddies, and equally naturally, when you smash their faces, coins will come out. The coins can be used to buy new equipment that will make you stronger, which facilitates the whole slashing and bashing mentioned at the start. In total there are currently 65 levels with five bosses, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story, because unlike Random Heroes [Free], there's actually something random in Devious Dungeon.
Devious Dungeon is not a rogue-like, strictly speaking, but it does borrow a couple of traits from rogue-likes, and the most prominent one is that the level layouts are different every time you play. They're not completely random, of course. The difficulty of the stage is more or less connected to which set of floors you're on, for example, and you will see certain sections and sometimes whole stages repeat, albeit with different hazards strewn about. They're random enough, though, so if we were going to call this just based on how many levels you can play, then we can stop right here, because the train has just pulled into the station of Infinite Funsville. Population: you.
That's always the idea behind games that use that mechanic, but of course, in practice, it rarely works out all that well, mostly thanks to the non-designed nature of the levels leading to the lot of them feeling kind of boring and samey. Devious Dungeon is no different in that regard. The best rogue-likes avoid being hindered by that quality because other mechanics manage to engage and excite the player, in particular the combination of rare, coveted loot and the tension that comes from knowing you could lose everything at a moment's notice. As I said, however, Devious Dungeon is not a rogue-like. There is no rare, coveted loot, and if you die, you lose very little. You can return to your last checkpoint as many times as you like, and they are frequent, with every three stages giving you a new continue point. You keep your level and all your experience points, and you do not lose any items, not even gold. In fact, when you die, you're given a little cash bonus. Death isn't much more than a mild inconvenience in this game.
The crazy thing is, I really enjoy the game anyway. Yes, the level design is the kind of repetitive, paint-by-numbers result generally found in games with random or procedural levels, and there isn't any rare or exciting treasure to find. In fact, the flow of the game is basically just playing the game until you die, dusting off and buying some new gear, and continuing near where you left off to do it all over again with a slightly stronger character. It's a grind towards inevitable victory, to be sure, but I think what makes the grind work out well here, when it fails in so many other games, is that it never really feels like a grind. The moment-to-moment gameplay is satisfying and the rewards come frequently and feel tangible. Does being able to see your new weapon and armor represented on your character make the actual gameplay any different? Well, no, of course it doesn't, but it sure does feel good to watch your guy go from nearly-naked barbarian with a wooden stick to a bad-ass armored knight wielding a +1 sword of murdering.
Of course, Random Heroes featured visible rewards, too, but where Devious Dungeon easily bests it is that the rewards come fairly often. Even without the doubler, you're going to be able to afford something almost every single time you run into the shopkeeper. It might just be a new ring or necklace, but you're always either getting a new piece of gear or just a hair away from it. Another thing this game does well compared to Random Heroes is that your power progression maps pretty smoothly to the strengthening of the enemies. You're not going to find yourself in a position here where a basic mook takes eight hits to go down until you can scrounge up enough cash to get an awesome weapon. Basic badguys take about three or four swings of your weapon to defeat, even if you're a little behind on your upgrades. Even as the enemies power up, the game will still sometimes throw in older, weaker versions, which is a nice way to let the player feel how far they've come.
My biggest knock on the equipment system is how linear it is. Each new piece of gear is unquestionably better than the one before it, and you can't unlock later stuff unless you've already unlocked the pieces before it. I suppose if you felt like challenging yourself, you might have a reason to use older equipment, but otherwise, once you've picked up something new, everything before it might as well be in the trashcan. It would be nice to have some reason to use older gear beyond cosmetics. This sort of ties in with the game's biggest weak point. Once you've beaten the last stage and purchased the best gear, there's really no incentive to play more. Don't get me wrong, you'll get your money's worth and then some in playtime by that point, but the game seems to make gestures towards wanting to be like games like Rogue Legacy and Spelunky that are infinitely replayable, and this is anything but.
In other respects, Devious Dungeon is a well-worn pair of slippers by Ravenous standards. The action is controlled with virtual buttons that work very well, and like Random Heroes 2 [Free], you can hold the attack button to keep targeting in front of you while you move backwards. The graphics are the usual pixel art that Ravenous seems to lean on since the conflicted reception to the nice, clean art style of League of Evil 2 [$2.99]. Playing on an iPhone 5S, I experienced rare periods of slowdown, but no crashes or bugs, which is a pleasant change of pace for this developer. The music and sound effects are quite good, with some good dungeon-plumbing tunes and swings, smashes, and growls sounding like they're right out of a Castlevania game. Game Center support for achievements is included, a few of which are completely absurd. Finally, like many of their games, there are IAPs included in the form of a currency doubler and coin packs. I didn't find either necessary, but the doubler would certainly abbreviate the game, if that's what you're looking for.
I think in a lot of ways, Devious Dungeon is Ravenous's best game since League of Evil. It's certainly a more enjoyable experience than a most of their recent titles. A lot of that is owing to the pleasant reward curve and hitting the sweet spot in terms of grinding where it's fun without feeling like work. There's potential here for a lot more, especially with regards to the equipment system, and I'd love to see the developer step away from the pixel art style again outside of their flagship series. Once you've finished Devious Dungeon, it's well and truly over with, but for the price of admission, it's kind of hard to gripe much.
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