There are certain games that remind me of those little activity books you used to be able to find in gas stations before every child in North America owned a handheld gaming system of some sort. The ones that had a “magic" marker that would reveal invisible ink as you ran it over the pages. When I was a little fellow, I loved those books a lot. As far as I was concerned, those were magic. There was just one problem with them. Once you went through the whole book and marked up all the pages, they were finished. There was no reason to keep them, and you certainly couldn’t redo them. You couldn’t even admire them the way you could with a particularly well-done coloring book since most of the fun came from the discovery.
Games where you derive most of your enjoyment from unlocking things are not terribly different. Admittedly, in the modern age the developer can always add on to these games, but that’s not always feasible. In many cases, all you can do is have a great time sucking them dry, then toss them away like a forgotten bundle of chemical-drenched paper in a gas station garbage can somewhere near Sudbury. Dungeon Hero RPG (Free) is one such gameDungeon Hero RPG, and while that may not sound like the most flattering of comparisons, things could be a lot worse. After all, like those activity books from my childhood, it’s very hard to put down until you’ve completed everything. The gameplay is perfectly competent in most respects, but a severe shortage of content means the game has to lean on its unlockable goodies to keep you coming back. That well runs dry sooner or later, and that’s when you’ll likely have had your fill of Dungeon Hero RPG.
Given that most people will derive those hours of fun from the game without paying a cent, it’s hard to complain too much, though. Gems are the currency here, the beginning and ending all in one handy value. The game will give you some to start with, enough to unlock the first of many different heroes. You get your choice of three, initially. There’s a wizard who can use powerful offensive magic, a druid who specializes in defensive magic, and a fighter who is really good at knitting sweaters. The dungeons are all randomly generated, but you can choose how big you’d like them to be. At first, only the smallest size is available, but a relatively small number of gems will fully open your options. There is also a selection of pets that you can take along with you, though you won’t have enough gems for any on your first go. Eventually, you’ll be able to take one into the dungeon with you, acting as a valuable companion that you can develop and level up in the same fashion as the main heroes.
That gets us to the main gameplay, which is a real-time dungeon crawl played from a first-person perspective. It’s actually reasonably impressive, allowing you to look around in full 3D. There’s not exactly a ton of interesting sights to see, but the engine is undoubtedly solid. Although it plays in real-time, you move along a grid using a small assortment of arrow keys, just as in turn-based dungeon crawlers. When you encounter an enemy, you simply wail away at both sides of the screen to swing your equipped weapons. If you have any magic, that can be used by tapping a button at the side, and certain items can be thrown at the enemies in much the same fashion. The enemies get more powerful as your hero levels up. They start off relatively harmless, but they soon become quite fearsome. Your character carries over from game to game, whether they finish by finding the exit or simply die, so the early monsters will soon become a rare sight unless you field a different character.
It should be noted that although there’s a surprising variety of monsters, there’s very little variance in their behaviors. Some can attack from a distance, while others can only use melee attacks. The only other differences are cosmetic and statistical. Avoid being surrounded, try to lure them into narrow passageways, and smash away until they’re dead. Hopefully you’ll have enough HP to survive, but if you don’t, you can always just park somewhere safe and wait a really long time for them to restore. Apart from the monsters, there’s not much to see in these dungeons. There’s a ton of loot laying around everywhere, though like the enemies, a large variety in visuals belies the fairly meager differences between each piece. Pick it up, check if it does more damage than what you’re carrying. If it does, replace one of the weapons in your hand, if it doesn’t, put it in your bottomless inventory bag to sell later. You’ll want to keep your eyes open for keys in particular, since locked doors are the only environmental obstacle you’ll come across. There are also locked chests around that carry random loot, enemies, or sometimes nothing at all.
Your goal on each floor is to find the stairs down. Once you’ve found the third set of stairs, you can exit the dungeon and claim your gem prize. The number of gems you receive is based on the size of the dungeon you cleared, and since they’re randomly generated, you might as well go for the largest size every time. The stairs are just as likely to spawn near to you as they will far, so in practice it doesn’t take that much longer to finish the biggest dungeon compared to the smallest. If you’re looking to completely mop up every nook and cranny of each floor, the bigger sizes can take a lot longer, but there’s no real incentive to do that. There’s so much loot to be had, even just following the shortest path to the goal, that you’ll never want for good gear. This is where one of the cracks in Dungeon Hero RPG starts to show.
Ideally, a dungeon crawl should have the player constantly having to make a choice between risking exploration or making a direct, safe run for the goal as soon as it’s uncovered. There are lots of ways to build this into the design. Many games use special loot as the pull, a very effective option if your loot system is strong. You can also use the chance to build up the player character’s power as a useful means of tempting the player to hang around. You’d better level up as much as you can on this floor, because the next one will be even more dangerous and you’re not equipped to handle it. You can also use special encounters, secrets, specific keys, and so on. Dungeon Hero RPG doesn’t provide any good incentive to explore. Whether you level up or not is seemingly pointless, since the enemies will more or less scale with you. The loot is plentiful and nearly inconsequential, so that doesn’t do the job either. There are only two types of keys that will unlock either doors or chests, so you usually don’t have to go searching around for the right one to progress, either. You get the same number of gems no matter how you get to the exit, and if you die, you get no gems. I suppose you could hang around if you’re having fun beating on the enemies, but as hooks go, that’s a pretty weak one.
The most powerful hook in Dungeon Hero RPG is the unlocking of new characters and pets. It’s a very good one, too. There are thirteen heroes and six pets in all, and each of them has their own persistent levels and skills that you can build up over repeated plays. Of course, they all have capped stats that will essentially halt their progress after several level-ups, but that’s nothing a few gems can’t take care of. To keep moving forward in any meaningful way in Dungeon Hero RPG, you need those gems. There are only two ways to come by them: finishing a dungeon, or making use of the game’s IAPs to get a bunch at once. So you want a new character, a new pet, or just want to keep advancing the characters you already have, you need gems. If you want gems, you need to clear dungeons. If you want to clear dungeons reliably and quickly, you should take the stairs as soon as you find them without exception. It’s a good little circle until you run out of things to open up. At that point, the gameplay needs to carry the game, and it gets a lot less pretty.
It’s a shame there isn’t more actual substance here, because the game has its foundations built well. The battles are fun if a bit monotonous due to the poor variety in enemy behavior. The presentation is excellent, with solid tech backed by some lovely licensed art, all set to the tunes of a fairly diverse soundtrack. The movement controls are a little fussy, leading to the occasional misfire, but overall it’s very easy to pick up and learn. All the pieces are in place for something great to be built here, but instead we’ve just got something that feels highly-polished and undercooked all at once. I’ll tip my hat to the generous economy the game has set up, at least. The premium currency flows freely during regular play, so you never feel like you need to buy anything except perhaps as a tip if you’re enjoying the game. Getting more gems quickly just means the joy of unlocking things is over that much sooner.
If you like dungeon crawling, I think you should give Dungeon Hero RPG a try. It’s free, after all, and you are very likely to get at least a short period of great fun out of it. The game doesn’t hold up well over the long term, though, and oddly not because you hit a paywall or anything like that. Rather, you’ll have seen almost everything worth seeing after a few passes through its humble dungeons, leaving only mopping up the remaining unlockables as a reason to keep playing. Unusually for a free game, Dungeon Hero RPG is more than willing to freely give you everything it has to offer. It’s just a shame that everything it’s got ends up being fairly meager in total.