There’s no two ways about it, sometimes an RPG fan just gets the urge to play a good, classic CRPG. While iOS offers plenty of options for the gamer who wants to revisit 90s CRPGs or early roguelikes, adventures that recapture the 1980s era of Ultima and the SSI gold box games are a bit harder to come by. Fortunately, we’ve seen a few developers try to fill the gap in recent times, and one such game is the iPad-only Dungeons Of Chaos (Free). While it doesn’t quite have the scope of some of the great games of old, it’s certainly got the feeling down pat. For many, that might be a turn-off, but for some of you, and you probably know who you are, you’re going to find this one hard to put down until you’ve finished it.
A couple of big caveats to start off the review, however. First, as I mentioned already, and will state again just so that there’s no confusion, this is iPad-only with little chance of ever going universal. The developer has given reasons for that, but it’s not too hard to figure out why after playing the game for a short while. Simply put, this game’s interface is fussy enough on a larger surface, and while the iPhone 6 Plus would probably be fine, anything smaller than that would probably be unplayable. The other thing I need to make clear is that this is just the first chapter of the story. The developer is apparently working on the second chapter, but I’m sure everyone understands the risk involved in getting invested in first chapters like this. The story is far from resolved by the end of the currently-available content, and many of the more advanced aspects of character-building either come up near the very end or not at all.
With that unpleasant business out of the way, let’s talk a little bit more about what Dungeons Of Chaos is. Basically, if you’ve ever played the middle of the Ultima series, you’ll find this game more than a little familiar. You play a party of adventurers, exploring the world from an overhead view. There are towns, an overworld, and plenty of dungeons. If you meet enemies, you move to a separate grid-based screen where turn-based battles play out, move by move. NPCs will give you quests that you’ll want to get around to solving sooner or later, but you can also find quite a bit of fun and excitement just by wandering around and poking at things. The main story has you and your people driven out of your home kingdom by an evil force, but that plot isn’t anywhere near resolved in this chapter. You start the game in a cave that a powerful wizard teleported you and many others from your home to. He’ll issue you your first couple of quests, including the traditional basement rat hunt, but you can immediately go off and start getting into trouble if you want.
That’s actually the best part of the game, at least for me. There’s a lot of optional content waiting out there for you to discover, and the rewards of finding those secret places are actually tangible and good. Like any good CRPG-style game, you’re allowed to write your own story to a great extent. You can also get yourself into a lot of trouble if you go poking around where you shouldn’t when you’re underleveled, but such is adventure. The game is actually fairly forgiving in a lot of ways. You can rest at any time to recover health and mana, though doing that near wandering enemies is probably a bad idea. Any character who dies can be resurrected provided you find the right person to do it, and if your whole party wipes, you’re not totally without hope. One of the pleasant concessions the game makes to modern times is allowing you to check an auto-map. You have to fill it out yourself by traveling, and you can only see a certain distance around your current position, but it keeps you from getting lost beyond hope in most situations. You can’t trust it in a certain tower, though.
The battles are pretty fun, though like the games it’s inspired by, ranged attackers pretty much rule the roost. The battlefields are huge, so by the time your melee guys close the distance, there’s usually not much left for them to stab at. Before every battle, you can choose whether you want to manually fight it out or let the computer handle things, so tedious fights against low-level mobs can be delegated if you like. Because of this tilt towards ranged attackers, a couple of the available job classes are considerably less useful than others, but if you play wisely, you can definitely survive having a couple of characters with situational uses in your group. I love the wide range of skills you can open up for your characters. Everyone has plenty of options to choose from in battles, and since you can easily rest between battles in most places, you can feel free to let loose in fights.
While this is billed as a retro-styled RPG, the graphics and sound are actually a little bit more detailed and colorful than the era the game pays homage to. The music is actually quite nice, though it’s more atmospheric than anything else. Since the game makes use of a field of view and a day/night cycle, parts of the screen will disappear on you depending on what your character can see. This, too, is similar to many of the Ultima games, but it might be a bit jarring for anyone not used to that kind of thing. While the sprites themselves look pretty good, there’s almost no animation to speak of. The user interface is kind of busy and takes some getting used to, but it does have a lot of nice functions you wouldn’t have seen in games of the vintage it’s aping. My biggest problem with the game’s presentation is the lack of feedback in battle. At first, I was very confused as to whether I had attacked and missed, or had simply mistouched. The controls are a little bit unwieldy at times, especially when you need to make fine movements. There’s an on-screen directional pad to help with this, but it doesn’t work as well as you might want it to.
While it’s a bit disappointing that there’s no resolution for the main story in the game thus far, the content that’s here already justifies the game’s rather humble price, in my opinion. Dungeons Of Chaos isn’t going to be for everyone, but anyone with fond memories of CRPGs from the 1980s should at least give the Lite version a shot. It allows you to play around with all of the game’s features, with the sole limitation of not being able to level up, and should give you a good idea of what to expect in the main game. I sincerely hope the developer sticks with this one, because it’s already quite good even in this most basic form. I can only imagine what the completed adventure will bring.