Review: Dungeon Souls

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I love seeing great ideas iterated on, because there’s really no game so good that it can’t be better. With roguelikes in particular you can draw pretty clear lines between Binding of Isaac and Nuclear Throne and all the games they begat (to say nothing of the games that begat them), and at every point find improvements or at least differences in the formula. Dungeon Souls doesn’t hide from its legacy in the least, embracing its inspiration openly and faithfully. And while not everything new it brings is an improvement, its own unique blend of strategy and chaos earns it a place in a very crowded genre.

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You were a hero, before you died, but now your soul is trapped in the dungeon that killed you. But every so often you get a second chance, one more life to spend on breaking your soul free from its labyrinthine prison. Doing so means descending through the dungeon to find the power binding you there, and arming yourself with all the potions and relics you can find to ensure your success. By delving into the hidden levels and facing the sorrowful figures to be found there, you might even learn why the dungeon is what it is and why it refuses to let you go.

There’s a pretty good story here that I won’t spoil, but it should be encouraging to know that there’s something worth digging into on the narrative side. Even without that, though, Dungeon Souls has a compelling core culled conspicuously from several prior roguelikes, Nuclear Throne and Risk of Rain chief among them. The frantic top-down combat mimics Throne very faithfully both for melee and ranged classes, not to mention how your life can vanish in an instant if you’re not mindful of your surroundings. Likewise, your rewards from chests and shops and bosses are Risk of Rain-esque relics that set your attacks on fire or summon orbiting eyes or speed up your swings, and can be stacked to ridiculous degrees.

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I really want to stress that if you can get deep enough to score some quality items, the game can snowball in hilarious ways. The first time I reached the final boss, it was because my barbarian’s swings would explode, catch fire, and explode enemies, providing me with a speed boost that also left fire in my wake. Every class gets two skills and the one I leaned on made my regular attacks hit in 360 degrees around me, so getting into the middle of a crowd would clear the place out in an instant. That kind of setup is key, because each level in Dungeon Souls requires you to break two to five seals, and breaking one always surrounds you with enemies that you’ll want to bash for gold and experience if you can.

Combat here is hectic and messy, the result of giving enemies lots of health, slow movement speeds, and bullet-hell attacks. You want every fight to end instantly because avoiding damage is difficult, so being able to carve up groups in a hurry makes a big difference. Of course, that’s going to be dependent on your items and that’s left to the whims of the random generation. I wouldn’t say Dungeon Souls has a cruel RNG but there are big swings between exploding-flaming-axe runs and the usual uphill battle. Most of your attempts will end on one of the bosses, huge sacks of hitpoints with punishing bullet-hell spreads that will eat you up if your damage and defenses aren’t properly buffed.

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It can feel difficult to accomplish anything without luck on your side, and that’s partly because a lot of your options aren’t properly explained. There’s an entire meta-progression crafting and upgrade system where you can buy additional starting stats and build new weapons for your favorite classes. But the stat purchasing is explained nowhere and is only accessible through a button at character creation that says PASSIVES. And crafting weapons requires you to find scrolls in the dungeon and then collect the materials, but after three hours of play I have no useful scrolls and not nearly enough materials to make even the garbage I have unlocked.

Despite the lacking meta-progression, I can’t help but keep coming back to the clusterfuck battles. Each class plays dramatically different, from the Barbarian wading into packs of foes to the Necromancer mobbing even bosses with summoned skeletons. The many classes provide some much-needed variety, along with the hidden side areas that dispense additional lore and goodies. Ultimately Dungeon Souls isn’t an improvement on the formulas it borrows, but it’s different and engaging enough to command attention. I might not always know what killed me or what I could have done different, but when the dust settles and the blood dries I keep signing up for more.

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