Enter the dungeon, go as far as you can, gather some loot, get some experience, and get out before you get killed. Go back in, get a little farther, grab a bit more loot, get a bit stronger, and escape again. Almost every great dungeon crawler has a pretty similar hook to it, and it works time and time again. It’s fun to build a character, something that sits at the heart of almost all RPGs and, these days, plenty of non-RPGs. There’s a certain thrill in finding a special piece of equipment we haven’t seen before, too. But the biggest thing I think the sub-genre has going for it is its near-perfect realization of risk vs. reward. Oh, every game uses this to some extent, or at least the decent ones do, but the reward is usually something relatively meaningless. A little more progress, a nice power-up, a cool new gun, or something like that. The Enchanted Cave 2 ($5.99), like most of its dungeon-crawling brethren, puts an extra ante on the table, something more precious than any piece of loot: your time.
The Enchanted Cave 2 is a rather smart combination. It’s mostly a turn-based dungeon crawler, but it sprinkles in a few choice bits from roguelikes to spice up the equation. You’re tasked with exploring a magical cave for reasons that don’t really matter all that much. It’s filled with treasure and monsters in near-equal proportions, but your main goal on each floor is to find the stairs leading down to the next one. If you simply rush down the staircase each time you find it, however, your character will soon be in too deep to survive. You have to explore at least a little on each level, picking up some loot and killing monsters. Fairly early into the cave, you’ll find an important item that will warp you back out. Doing so will restore your health and magic, and will even save your character’s gained experience level among other things like your accumulated gold. There is a cost for such a boon, however. Essentially any equipment or items you’re carrying that aren’t magical will be destroyed as soon as you exit the cave. On top of that, depending on where you chose to warp out, you might have to retrace several floors’ worth of progress.
Although the floors of the cave are randomly generated to an extent each time you enter, there are certain things you can count on. Magical items will often appear on the same floors each time, though they sometimes differ from game to game. There will be a smithing stone on every fifth floor, and barring a couple of surprises, a shop on every tenth. The shop is particularly important because it acts as a checkpoint. If you can make it as far as the next one, you can start the cave from there the next time you enter. Having these reliable checkpoints makes things a lot easier on you, since there’s little mystery as to how far you need to go to make some permanent progress. The smithing stone allows you to modify your gear with the reagents you find scattered around, adding attributes and stat bonuses as you like. You can also use these reagents at any time to mix up potions with varying effects. Like your non-magical gear, these vital ingredients will scatter to the winds when you escape from the cave, so like the man says, smoke them if you’ve got them.
The monsters are actually fairly non-aggressive for the most part. They’re just in your way. Some of them will need to be killed for you to reach the stairways, while others simply block chests or stand around waiting to die. By tapping on the square they occupy, you’ll enter into combat with them, trading blows until one of you is dead. You can tap a free square to run away, which can sometimes be helpful. Take out enough of them and you’ll earn a level up, which allows you to pick one stat to improve and gives you three skill points to allocate. The skill points are spent on a grid that resembles Final Fantasy 10‘s Sphere Grid, letting you spend points along a few different paths to open up further upgrades down the road. These gains are permanent provided you safely escape, so you’ll generally become stronger the longer you play.
Yes, this is another one of those “inevitable win" type of games, but it’s a very engaging one. The loot varies and scales up appropriately, the enemies are constantly changing and becoming more powerful, and you have just enough input on all of it to make it feel like you’re in control. Throw in the occasional boss and some random events here and there, and you probably won’t even realize that you’re doing almost the same things over and over again. Diligent explorers will discover secret rooms along the way that not only offer up a magical item or two each time, but also feed you a little scrap of the game’s story. It’s not hard to find these secret rooms if you’re paying attention, and since there always contain stairs down to the next level, they’re worth the risk of brawling with a nasty monster or two. Apart from those bits, the story is pretty bare. Trips back to town will often give you some extra side-quests to accomplish along the way, but the rewards for completing them are generally material as opposed to narrative. You’ll want to pay attention all around, just the same. Even apart from the secrets, if you start feeling like you’ve got the tempo of the game down well enough that all risk of dying is gone, the game is more than happy to throw in a curveball that leaves you scrambling. I like that.
There are a few choke points where it can get a little grindy for my liking, but they at least keep you from rolling the game too easily. The larger monsters in this game are quite impressive relative to the rest of the pack, so you really feel like you’re fighting something dangerous when they come along. While there are better examples of pixel art out there, the game looks quite good overall. The sprites look like they wandered in out of the 16-bit console era, and while the animation is fairly meager for most of them, the main character at least moves smoothly. The user interface is well-designed, making it very easy to flick around your menus, equip items, and sell off junk to the shopkeeper. The in-game movement is a little fussy, however. You have to tap the square you want your character to move to, but I found myself making frequent mistouches, sometimes at great risk. This is likely a bad combination of my sausage fingers and the smaller screen of my iPhone 5S, but I think it’s still worth mentioning. Fortunately, the game’s turn-based nature and stationary monsters make it a non-issue in most cases.
I have to make a special note of the music, because it’s outstanding. Composed by ex-Rare musician Grant Kirkhope of Banjo-Kazooie fame (among countless others), it fits the game’s theme perfectly. I wish there was more of it, but if you’re going to have to hear any tracks over and over again, these ones aren’t bad at all. You can change the music and sound effects independently in the option menu, where you can also switch out the look of your character and play around with a few other settings. You can make a suspend save in this menu if you need to take a break while you’re in the cave, and the game will also makes its own save on each floor in case of crashes or the app being cleared from memory. It’s also worth noting that this game is completely IAP-free.
The Enchanted Cave 2 is one of those games that pulled me in to the point that I lost track of time, unable to resist taking just one more dive into the cave. It’s impressive that it manages to be a relatively gentle example of a dungeon crawler while still having enough teeth to keep from becoming a grind. Veterans of the genre might find it to be a bit too lenient and limited in tactical choices over the long haul, but it’s hard to completely please that crowd without turning off almost everyone else. While it’s certainly a streamlined example, the core of what makes that kind of game fun is alive and well here. I suspect most will find The Enchanted Cave 2 to be just the right mix of sugar and spice to keep them happy through all 100 levels, and potentially beyond.