The rogue-like genre is always one that’s been of key interest for me. There’s a start-stop appeal – of compulsion in one run bolstered by excellent items and strategy to doldrums in another punctuated by failure and/or trying to make long-term progress. Rogue-likes are a key instrument in short-term struggles but also a tool for crafting more persistent narratives over extended play sessions. Sometimes it may seem like your end is inevitable and fast-approaching. Other times, it may seem that you’re onto bigger and better things. That right combination of traits and items in Rogue Legacy, the right build and stats in Dead Cells – the list goes on for the number of things to work towards in a rogue-like.
And while the rogue-like nature of Dungeon of the Endless seemed at odds with the other involving mechanics, it also felt seductive with the threat of ever-present danger. But honestly, there’s a lot to appreciate about Amplitude Studios’ little project, besides the fact that it’s the origin point for the whole Endless storyline that continues in Endless Legend and Endless Space.
"What if your characters had to level up though? What if they each had innate perks and abilities that could be unlocked by spending food resources? Oh, and just for fun, let’s throw in resources that players can gather like it’s a strategy game."
The idea behind Dungeon of the Endless began in the way that many ideas do – as a crazy “What If?” scenario. At the time, Amplitude Studios was working on the bigger, more ambitious Endless Legend. The studio had already tasted success with Endless Space, its approach to 4X space strategy and continued to release expansions for fans to devour. Endless Legend was also a 4X title but sought to be more Sid Meier’s Civilization than Galactic Civilizations. It melded fantasy with sci-fi, questing systems with conquest and exploration with fairly hands-off combat.
But Dungeon of the Endless? How could you possibly “sell” this vision to people? Dungeon of the Endless is about a prisoner transport ship whose escape pod crash-lands on a nearby planet. The goal is to transport an Energy Crystal from the escape pod to the surface to probably plan some kind of escape off of the planet (Spoiler: It doesn’t happen). Players will explore numerous floors, all randomly generated, en route to the surface and gather different items to aid in their pursuits. So far so good. The fact that you can choose two starting survivors and unlock more as time goes on is easily understood.
What if your characters had to level up though? What if they each had innate perks and abilities that could be unlocked by spending food resources? Oh, and just for fun, let’s throw in resources that players can gather like it’s a strategy game. Exploring each room on a procedurally generated floor has a chance to net different resources like Tech, Science and Food.
However, you’re probably better off building generators for these so create some Tech for the sake of building things, Food for leveling up and healing units and Science to research better things to build. Of course, we can’t leave these unprotected. For that matter, what happens if characters stray too far from the Energy Crystal? So, build some turrets to protect them. Also, you have no idea what’s inside each room, lending a dungeon-crawling aspect to the whole deal.
"My particular favourite was the “possessed” mage Mizi Kurtiz. She wasn’t possessed per say but had a demonic war hero that existed and alternated between two planes of reality (I think)."
So, Dungeon of the Endless is essentially a rogue-like, tower defense, procedurally-generated, turn-based, dungeon-crawling role-playing game with Horde elements. In a nutshell, at least. Oh and it’s developed by a team of five people or so, utilizes a pixel-art style and was built using additional funding as opposed to crowd-funding. Just because a few development team members thought they could do it.
The key to Dungeon of the Endless isn’t in the smorgasbord of genres it presents but in how the gameplay seamlessly combines them. Starting with two survivors, you may build turrets in the starting room which are good enough to fend off the basic enemies. Exploring different rooms is easy but if a room is left unlit, then monsters can spawn in it. Lighting a room requires Dust, which can be thought of as Energy, but you have to ensure a clear path is created back to the Energy Crystal. So not only do you have to explore this dungeon but must also properly plan your routes. If a route is full of openings or isn’t properly adorned with turrets, then monsters can waltz right into your Energy Crystal.
Oh, but you just can’t build turrets willy-nilly thanks to limited resources. What happens if a certain route doesn’t lead to the exit? What happens if you build generators to produce different resources while deploying turrets to guard them and suddenly, that’s not the route you need to pursue? Simply destroying turrets is viable but it doesn’t give back all of your resources so you have to plan somewhat carefully. And if you play on Easy or above, resources can’t exactly be spent wherever you want. Further levels see monsters actually breaking down doors, even if you haven’t opened the way towards that specific area.
Then there are your party members. Other heroes can be found in the dungeon and you must hire them using Food. Each has their own calling card. My particular favourite was the “possessed” mage Mizi Kurtiz. She wasn’t possessed per say but had a demonic war hero that existed and alternated between two planes of reality (I think). Mizi’s abilities don’t make her fun to play with others but she could be a wrecking ball on her own. Her passive skill Bad Company reduced the defenses of other heroes in the room with her. On her own, she gained a substantial +15 Attack Power. Further leveling her up would unlock skills like Battle Madness for more Attack at the cost of not being able to move and Hellfire for damage over time to monsters (and other heroes) in the same room.
"The game further mixes all this up with the turret types. Turrets start out as your standard DPS-dealing fare but soon you’ll research technology like healing units, defense-bolstering units, repair units and whatnot."
These skills make Mizi a veritable one-woman army. Use them and watch as the monsters fall. Often times I’d leave her to guard the Energy Crystal while other heroes quickly rushed back and she was more than capable of holding off waves of foes. Other times, she would stand at chokes with turrets and stop any advance from a specific region. Mizi was also good for scouting ahead in case I wanted to leave my party behind to protect the Crystal.
And she’s only one of several heroes present in the game, each belonging to a different faction and coming with standard skills like Got Your Back for Crew heroes and Pack of Dogs for Prisoner heroes. You can encounter Native heroes on the planet like Lady Joleri Tulak, a hero with a mount that deals some good damage but whose skill reduces the probability of Dust appearing on floors. Then there are bonus heroes Esseb Tarosh, a special hero that debuted during Amplitude’s fourth anniversary; Rosetta Q, a machine that excels in battling multiple enemies at once thanks to Enlightenators; and even cameos from Team Fortress 2 heroes like Dell the Engineer, Pat the Pyro, Misha the Heavy and Kaspar the Medic.
The game further mixes all this up with the turret types. Turrets start out as your standard DPS-dealing fare but soon you’ll research technology like healing units, defense-bolstering units, repair units and whatnot. Poison monsters with damage over time, reduce their defenses or just increase the attack of heroes in the same room – these are all possible through different turrets. You could even build Dust Generators, expensive pieces of equipment that will light certain rooms if you don’t have enough natural Dust.
Monsters become stronger as you go higher into the dungeon so units and generators must be upgraded accordingly. This is done through Science – find a terminal, invest enough resources to research an upgrade (which depends on the terminal in question) and wait for a few turns for it to manifest. Producing Food and Tech may seem paramount in the early going but it’s Science which will allow for greater benefits from your units and generators, keeping you in it for the long haul.
"However, it’s in combining these various elements that complex mechanics and narratives begin to emerge over the long term."
Items are also an important part of the experience – various weapons and gear of different rarities exist throughout each floor. Many of them are straightforward stat increases, which are essential for boosting a hero’s regenerative capabilities and DPS. Some come with different skills like the Bandleader’s Baton granting +4 Attack to all heroes in the same room with Iron Fist or the First Aid Kit providing health regen to heroes in a powered up room with Placebo. These stat increases and skills are fairly typical for any rogue-like title.
The risk in locating these items is what makes things interesting since you’re creating more paths for monsters to get to your crystal. The item in question may also not be worth the trouble – it could be a duplicate of something you own, a lower rarity tier, a weapon that can’t be equipped by any unit and so on. However, if you locate a Merchant, then any excess loot can be sold off. In exchange, the Merchant may have something useful for you. Of course, it’s possible to recruit a Merchant to your cause by building a shop for him.
At first, the entire experience may seem one-note. The exploration, unit-building and leveling make the game feel more managerial, especially when combat is fairly hands off. For that matter, the interface doesn’t even feel super-intuitive. Many times I would get annoyed with selecting a hero to view their character sheet but accidentally opened up their skills menu instead. Quickly equipping items also felt like kind of clunky as did building turrets on spaces that overlapped with generator ports.
Breaking down the game’s various elements definitely make it seem repetitive and Dungeon of the Endless could feel more tuned towards shorter bursts of strategizing and dungeon-crawling than your average heavyweights of the genre. However, it’s in combining these various elements that complex mechanics and narratives begin to emerge over the long term. Everything else feels like a backdrop, a tool for facilitating this story-telling, creating stories that are familiar but play out uniquely in their own ways.
Seeing Mizi make a strong last stand at the Crystal, obliterating dozens of enemies before finally falling, only having her demonic companion as company; the various stories between certain characters in elevator conversations, interspersed with cynical humour and charm; the environmental story-telling that indicates a world gone wrong while simultaneously making faint call-backs to Endless Space and Endless Legend; or something as simple as facing never-before-seen enemies and learning how to deal with their attacks – the various elements in Dungeon of the Endless intertwine to create interesting experiences.
"However, Dungeon of the Endless feels truly risky, like a real labour of love that was never meant to find wide acceptance."
If tedium starts to set in, it’s always possible to unlock different heroes and use them in new playthroughs. New escape pods also exist for players to start the game with. These offer different kinds of modifiers on the overall experience. The Infirmary Pod, for example, reduces the cost of healing and doubles hero HP. However, healing is no longer done at the end of a turn, passive skills that provide health regen offer defense bonuses and all items with health regen skills are replaced. There’s also the Drill Pod which allows for endless floors to traverse and no Food, Science or Industry modules at the beginning.
Seeing strategy RPGs manage their genres in strange new ways isn’t unique – Disgaea combines a deep turn-based combat system with tower-stacking as a puzzle mechanic, various means to “exploit” or break the game to become more powerful in the process (like the Dark Assembly), and great characterization. Fire Emblem has evolved over the years to create a robust relationship system to go with the strong weapon triangle system (which itself has undergone refinements over the years), not to mention infusing each of its games with unique characters and experiences over dozens of maps.
However, Dungeon of the Endless feels truly risky, like a real labour of love that was never meant to find wide acceptance. It’s like a daring shot at something only the developer could love, taking on a life of its own and becoming a sterling example of counter-culture, perhaps falling prey to many things typical of these genres but steadfastly doing its own thing. Perhaps it’s worth experiencing then, whether you’re a fan of RPGs and tower-defense titles or cracking a seemingly limitless veil of experiences in a quirky mashup.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.