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Dungeons of Dredmor victory screen.

Dungeons of Dredmor | The Review

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My fingers are sweaty. It’s late at night. I’m thirsty. I’m sitting there trying to decide what to do. I’m at about half health and surrounded evil robots with razor sharp slicing arms. My attacks are mostly bouncing off their mechanical armor and there are more robots than I can deal with. I can’t retreat because they have surrounded me. I try to bash through the weakest one, but it counters my attack and takes off another chunk of life… then the robots companions slash at me, again, and again, and again…

Congratulations! You have died.Dungeons of Dredmor

Any frequent reader of this blog knows that I play a lot of games. More than I should, in all honestly. In any case, one game that I have written about more than almost any other is Gaslamp Games’ Dungeons of Dredmor. It’s a turn-based dungeon-crawling roguelike and its cheeky sense of humor has captured my heart. I tried to do a role-playing write-up on it a few years ago, but I didn’t find it successful, and I decided that it’s time to give Dredmor its proper due.

Welcome to the dungeon

Dungeons of Dredmor puts you in control of a hero who, despite the advice from their friends and family, has decided to become a dungeon crawler. Your goal is to explore the dungeon, acquiring wealth, discovering powerful magical artifacts, and ultimately defeating the evil Lord Dredmor.

On your way to Lord Dredmor, you’ll fight through 15 levels (or just 10, if you are a scrooge who didn’t pick up the expansions) full of monsters, traps, and treasure. Each level is randomly generated for each playthrough, so it won’t do you any good to draw out maps marking the places of the best loot (Wizardlands notwithstanding). The levels and accompanying monsters are sometimes loosely themed, with a level devoted to ice enemies, another to fire enemies, and so forth.

I approach a monster zoo.

A monster zoo is not a zoo where monsters come to visit, but rather a room crammed with more monsters than you can shake a stick at, unless it’s a particularly big stick.

With the Conquest of the Wizardlands expansion, Gaslamp Games added the ability for you to adventure to the Wizardlands: short levels that you can use for getting more experience or items. Or, you can peer into Diggle Hell and try to take down the most nefarious of villains, Vlad Digula.

As you defeat monsters, avoid traps, and explore the dungeon, you’ll come across various items that will help you along your way. These items might be crafting materials, potions, new armor and weapons, or even useful mushrooms [Note: Nerdsworth Academy does not condone the use of psychotropic fungi]. And you’ll need it all to survive, since each level of the dungeon gets progressively more brutal, giving less and less room for error and increasing the probability that your character takes a dirt nap, forever.

Permanent death… also known as death

Dungeons of Dredmor is a roguelike, meaning that when your character dies, you have the opportunity to start the game over again. This adds a lot of tension to the game, especially when you find yourself in a precarious position, such as being low on health and cornered by a murderous rutabaga and a pumpkin-scarecrow.

Later in the game the tension is even greater, as a single poor decision could put your character into a position that you cannot get out of, and you have a significant investment into your character, both emotionally and in terms of time played. Do you drink your healing potion? Do you cast your big damaging spell, with the risk of killing yourself? Do you just auto-attack and hope for the best? The turn-based nature of the game makes it so that you have all the time in the world to make your decision, but you also have to live with that decision.

Do you drink your healing potion? Do you cast your big damaging spell with the last of your mana? Do you just auto-attack and hope for a critical hit?

There’s an option to turn permanent death off when you first start the game, but Losing is FunTM, and it allows me to take what I’ve learned and apply it to my next character. However, I could see that someone would want to play with it turned off, especially if they first start the game, or if they were exploring the latter levels.

Choose wisely

But I have left out the best part of the game: skill selection. At the beginning of the game, you choose 7 skills from a pool of 51 (with the three expansions included). These skills define the spells and abilities that your character will be able to level up throughout the course of the game.

After a bit of math, I calculated that there are over 115 million different combinations of skills. That’s more than enough to keep you busy for a while. At least for a couple of sittings.

51! / ( 7! (51 – 7)! ) = possibilities!

To me, this is the heart of the fun. Are you going to be a warrior and wade heroically (or suicidally) into your foes, your axe cleaving enemies in twain? Are you going to be a sneaky rogue, stealing from vending machines and disarming traps? Or are you going to be a wizard, throwing deadly fire spells at your enemy and drinking enough booze to destroy your liver? Or are you going to be some combination of those abilities? In Dredmor, you can!

Choosing skills in Dredmor.

Or you could be a vampire blacksmith geologist demonologist pirate, who has studied some promethean magic on the side.

While I have put a lot of time into Dredmor, half the fun is planning out new builds and giving them a try. Most of the time, there ends up being some kind of hitch that prevents the build from going all the way. For instance, one time I paired Communism with Master of Arms, and the result was not pretty: Communism has an ability that causes you to sometimes erupt into a blizzard of cold damage, which reduced the effectiveness of my Master of Arms abilities. The whole situation was incredibly counter productive.

But that’s the fun of it all!

As one would expect from a dungeon-crawling game, you gain experience as you progress through the game. Most of this experience comes from killing monsters, but you can also gain bits of experience from picking locks, disarming traps, or, my favorite own personal favorite, committing acts of heroic vandalism: smashing statues of Lord Dredmor. I don’t feel too bad when I crush them into pebbles, as having a bunch of statues of yourself in your house seems tacky. The way I see it, I’m doing Dredmor a favor.

Sometimes you need to level up a skill because you need a perk RIGHT NOW. Other times you'll want to plan for the future.

Sometimes you need to level up a skill because you need a perk RIGHT NOW. Other times you’ll want to plan for the future.

You level up when you gain a sufficient amount of experience, and leveling gives you a small boost to health and mana. You also have to choose which of your skills to level up. Each skill has between 5 and 8 levels, and each level grants you some type of bonus: be it additional stats, a passive ability, an active ability, or a spell to cast. So you choose not only what 7 skills to start with, but also the order that you level them up in. And having a plan for how your character is going to develop helps a lot, as it will give you the tools that you need to survive.

My only complaint with the skills is that often times it’s not immediately clear how the spells work. Granted, this unpredictability is some of the fun, especially when you’re first learning the game, but I wish that there were an “advanced view” that would allow you to see what squares the spell affects, what stats cause the spell to do more damage, and what the damage types were. As it stands, you’ll have to use a third-party source such as Dungeons of Dredmor Wiki in order to learn the inner workings of each spell or ability. The in game combat log is somewhat ineffective at this, as often the lines aren’t properly synced up with what is currently happening in game.

I love you for your personality

One aspect of Dungeons of Dredmor that sets it apart from other roguelikes, nay other games, is a sense of humor that permeates throughout the entire game. Any time you read a description, be it for an item, an ability, or a monster that is trying to kill you, there is almost certainly some bit of humor injected into it.

You should watch the number of diggle eggs you eat if you are trying to cut back on your cholesterol.

You should watch the number of diggle eggs you eat if you are trying to cut back on your cholesterol.

This humor is critical because it helps to ameliorate the game’s steep learning curve and brutal difficulty (most notably with permanent death turned on). Whether it’s a casual Lovecraft reference, a comment pointing out the weirdness of an item (such as a pork sword), or just a skeleton of a previous adventurer (with a note encouraging you to loot the body!), more often than not it’ll bring a smile to my face.

Overall, the writing helps to elevate the game above the competition by adding quirkiness and lightheartedness to a genre known for neither of those things.

Complementing this sense of humor is a cartoony art style. The two-dimensional world is colorful and vivid, despite much of the game taking place in a dungeon. Every item has its own art as an inventory item (but not on your character, alas), and the animated enemies range from diggles (featherless bird-things with drills in place of beaks) to zombys [sic] to evil robots to murderous vegetables, which obviously give more experience if you choose Killer Vegan as one of your starting skills. The music fits right in the with the art style, though I do wish there was a bit more of it, given the amount of time I’ve spent in the dungeon.

Inventory management and getting crafty

While the combat portion of Dredmor is fun and the progression system is excellent, I don’t particularly enjoy the craft system.

If you pick crafting skills, you’ll need to be on the lookout for crafting materials, and grab as many of them as you can. Often it will take a while to accumulate enough resources to make a new item, and unless you memorize what materials are needed, you’ll often find yourself with a bunch of extra crafting resources.

These resources I often just dump into the Pocket Dimension, a small room that you can access at any time and which acts as an expanded inventory. However, this means that you’ll end up spending time organizing your loot in the Pocket Dimension, rather than making progress towards Dredmor. I understand the want to keep a limited inventory, but I feel like it doesn’t add to the challenge of the game, only to the amount of tedium that you’ll need to endure, especially if you go a craft-heavy build.

The craft menu itself is also a bit of a bust. Your recipes are given as a huge list for each of the crafting disciplines, but the order doesn’t make much sense. The list will grow as you find more recipes throughout the dungeon, making the entire process a bit cumbersome. While you can filter recipes by whether or not you have the resources required and whether or not you have the skill required, but overall I wish the whole system were easier to understand and organize.

Technological diggles

Another thing that I like about Dredmor are the relatively low system requirements. I used to run the game on an old laptop that I had, and the game played just fine (with the exception of the character being slightly to one side, irritating the OCD part of my brain).

I find a statue to the Diggle God of Death.

Do not pray to the Diggle God of Death as a vampire. Don’t do it!

The only technical issue that I’ve had with the game is that occasionally I experienced crash-to-desktop errors. While these errors by themselves are not much of a problem, a couple of times this happened while I was moving down stairs, and for whatever reason the error ended up corrupting my character’s save file, ending my ability to play that character. Given the amount of time and care that I tend to put into my characters, this is quite a bummer.

Luckily, it has only happened to me maybe three times in 150+ hours of gameplay, so I find it reasonable. Also, I found that if I exit the game, it will create an auto-save backup that I could use to recover some of my progress, so at least there’s that.

The game also comes with Steam Workshop integration which allows you to serf the Workshop for mods. Whether it is new skill sets, new items to craft, more monsters to kill, or even just new decorations throughout the dungeon, there’s a lot of extra value to be had in the Workshop and I recommend that you check it out. All it takes is a single click to subscribe to the modification, and then activate the mod in Dredmor‘s load menu.

Final Thoughts

I’ve had a lot of fun in Dungeons of Dredmor over the last few years. Whether it is dreaming up new cockamamie builds, reading hilarious item text, or simply enjoying a few minutes of monster-bashing, the game has a lot to offer. It accomplishes a lot, and it does so in a way that is accessible and challenging at the same time, all while maintaining a consistent character that makes the game stand above other games. The permanent death that accompanies the game’s roguelike core amplifies the emotional peaks and troughs that you will experience while playing the game, and that makes it a blast to play, even when you lose, but especially when you win.

It really is the best value of any game that I’ve purchased in a long while and I recommend it to anyone who likes roguelikes, dungeon-crawlers, or Lovecraftian horror.

Diggles swarm around my female hero.

The diggles are swarming!

Dungeons of Dredmor and its three expansions, Realm of the Diggle Gods, You Have to Name the Expansion Pack, and Conquest of the Wizardlands, are available on Steam for about $11.

Pros

  • Accessible, easy to get into, but tough to master
  • Huge number of skills leads to great replayability
  • Steam Workshop integration adds even more
  • Cheeky sense of humor and fun art style
  • Low system requirements
  • Great value for your gaming dollar
  • You can be a pirate

Cons

  • Crafting interface is annoying to use
  • Inventory management adds to tedium, not to challenge
  • Spell and ability scaling is not described in game
  • Rare crash-to-desktop bugs can corrupt saves

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