Card Dungeon – Review

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Platform: iOS
Developer: Playtap Games
Genre: RPG/Boardgame
Price: TBC (Estimated £1.99/$2.99)
Release Date: 1st October 2014

At first glance, Card Dungeon bears a striking similarity to Blue Manchu’s fantastic Card Hunter. In actuality though, the games are vastly different in terms of gameplay. Card Hunter sees your three man team fight through single room battles using a set deck of cards; these cards are allotted by the equipment attached to the heroes and combat feels like a traditional SRPG. In Card Dungeon, your hero is very much on his own, forced to scavenge for cards from lootable objects. The combat comes across as a tabletop roguelike as you traverse large dungeons. The comparison is easy to make but deriding one game for resembling another when they are both massive homages to the same source is missing the point somewhat.

Defining the gameplay is a rather troublesome task; visually it looks like a stunning and faithful recreation of boardgames of yore. Characters are literally paper-thin and are supported by traditional plastic bases, the cards are convincing in design and bear the wear and tear beautifully. The lack of dice-rolling, replaced with eight-directional movement and exploration of long corridors that open into mysterious rooms hidden behind the “fog of war” are reminiscent of traditional roguelikes. However, very little can be accomplished in game without utilising the card combat that bears the hallmarks of CCGs with rarities, varied effects and humourous flavour text. It’s the synergy between all the genres that defines Card Dungeon for me; the sum of the parts make it unlike anything I’ve ever played.

True to the roguelike blood running through its veins, Card Dungeon is punishing. You’ll start with a basic understanding of the mechanics and whatever experience you may have from games of its ilk but that’s all; it grants you no favours when you struggle and the subtle nuances of truly succeeding are garnered only through hard work and clever tactics. Whilst I’m generally not a fan of difficult games, especially those that mistake frustration for challenge, there’s an ingenious balance here that ensures you’re always advancing via your knowledge if not through the game’s levels.

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You begin with three set cards; a melee attack, a long range shock spell and a summon. You’ll make pretty decent progress with these cards alone, electrocuting distant foes and stabbing the rest but just as you begin to get over-confident, Card Dungeon throws a major curve-ball that dramatically increases the tension. Each card can only be used a few times before they start to wear, the corners scuffing and the text fading with each use until it’s moth-eaten and dogeared. Once it’s destroyed, it’s totally unrecoverable; suddenly you’re down a card just when you needed it and the horde is closing in fast. You can make do with your other offensive options but once they too start showing signs of damage then the panic sets in, mistakes get made and in this game that proves to be fatal.

Luckily, there are a large amount of lootable items scattered throughout the dungeon; chairs, mushrooms patches, slime puddles and the obligatory chest all offer a chance to find a new draw. The range of cards available is rather impressive, some taking the form of equipment that provide permanent bonuses whilst worn and others fit in one of the three action slots. This is another moment the multifaceted gem of a game shines, finding a great card when you’re fully decked out requires a sacrifice regardless of whether you keep or leave it. Do you discard a good attack that only has a few uses left in favour of something weaker but in good condition? Can you afford to wield a healing spell instead of an offensive option? You’re constantly strategising as a single poor decision can leave you utterly defenseless, desperately sprinting from container to container hoping it bears your salvation.

Ultimately, it’s one of the best options on the platform regardless of which of the three genres we’re discussing. It offers a huge amount of hours in the first playthrough alone and with the massive variety in creatures and the attacks they use every replay stays interesting. The perk system is promising too, with successful heroes unlocking more variety in the characters you control. While the camera can prove a little clunky at times, it’s ironically impressive to see the pieces in full 3D so you’ll quickly forgive it, if not for the visuals then definitely for providing one of the most compelling and addictive iOS games I’ve played in years.

Probability 0 – Review

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Platform: PC
Developer: Droqen
Genre: Platformer/Roguelike
Price: £4.99
Release Date: 12th June 2014 (Steam)

When you’ve played over 4000 different games in your lifetime, finding something that leaves a lasting imprint on is a rare outcome. Of the recent years, I’d count Hoplite and Super House of the Dead Ninja firmly among those standout titles. SHotDN is possibly the fastest paced game I’ve ever experienced, controlling a whirling dervish spinning violently through a procedurally generated tower. Hoplite’s slow-paced strategy exemplifies a strict rule set condensed to perfection, punishing a single step out of line. The games have almost nothing in common, so surely combining the two would have no chance of a successful offspring.

Maybe, then, it’s appropriate that you could also be left with Probability 0.

Everything in P0 is broken down to core basics. The visuals are painted from a palette consisting almost entirely of black, a somber chiptune plays quietly in the background interspersed with a crunching midi thunder roll. Your aim is equally blunt; descend into the depths using all the limited means presented to you. 

For the most part, you’re forced to utilise guerrilla tactics; your melee attack’s range is woefully inadequate and throwing stars in such short supply that every encounter is a life or death situation. Avoidance is by no means simple either, with balls of spiky death awaiting missteps and only a certain distance you can fall before suffering major damage. Risk versus reward is a major factor in every action, as such devising your movements is a luxury that has its cost; with the screen on a constant rise, panicking can override all well made plans. Even the hardiest gamer will throw caution to the wind at times and attempt a rapid descent that ends terribly.

Should you manage to defeat the prerequisite number of foes, a task that starts off as just manageable before quickly growing out of hand, you’ll max your experience. Much like Hoplite’s temples, leveling lets you pick from a set selection of temporary perks that prove invaluable for beating your previous best. They may appear basic initially, with simple choices like horizontal shuriken throwing and increased melee strength but in further stages the ability to punch through solid walls or negate fall damage are integral to highscore runs.

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Probability 0 is an incredibly tough game, something it likes to remind you of via background messages relaying your slim chances of surviving. Ingeniously, these gloomy phrases represent your health bar; always fluctuating, you’ll never have an exact idea of how much punishment you can still take. The tension is overwhelming at times and a real cool mind is necessary to master the depths, something that won’t be done even with hours of gameplay under your belt. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of game modes included, most noteworthy being Karma mode that uses points earned during normal gameplay as currency to purchase perks at the beginning of the game.

It’s a unique experience with a huge draw to have just one more dive. Whilst it’s easy to place the influences, there’s absolutely nothing like it and the dark, brooding cavern reveals itself to be a very tempting place to spend your hours.

Cavern Kings – Preview

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It says a lot for Vine’s partially Kickstarter-funded latest project that I actually believed it was a new Vlambeer production for a while. Cavern Kings cites the aforementioned developer’s Super Crate Box as a major influence and it really shows. If you take a single screen out of context, you’d be hard pushed to convince anyone that it wasn’t a sequel; I mean this with the utmost respect of course – Vlambeer are renowned for fidelity in controls, concepts squeezed down to core perfection and highly polished indie visuals. It’s no surprise that many developers want to emulate their style, succeeding at that is something I’ve only seen Vine pull off.

Taking the arena-based, pixel perfect action of SCB and combining the wanton destruction and over the top aesthetic of Nuclear Throne, Cavern Kings manages to feel unique despite obvious parallels. You move from screen to screen populated by fantastical minions armed with two randomised weapons that change between sessions, one melee and the other a more traditional firearm. Traditional really needs to be taken with a pinch of salt; one visit saw me armed with a pneumatic drill and a harpoon gun that’s inertia upon firing would propel me across the screen. A second attempt provided me with an extending boxing glove reminiscent of Tom & Jerry cartoons and a sawblade-launcher. Every life feels unique with procedurally generated layouts and enemy encounters, so that even familiar weapon combinations don’t leave you feeling over-confident.

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The environment is almost entirely destructible, fluidity being a major factor of gameplay. Linger too long in one arena and the omnipresent ceiling will begin it’s crushing descent, preventing you from grinding through the easier encounters to power level. While breaking through screen boundaries is a necessary maneuver to survive, the fragility of order is a major double-edged sword. A stray shot can create a shortcut for advancing hordes or send treasure out of reach, but it can also create trenches for defence and pitfalls for your foes. At least, that is, until the bosses find you. Reminiscent of Castlevania’s screen estate devouring elites, they’ll force you to adapt to new tactics with their sheer appearance. Being a game epitomising the joy of discovery though, some things are best left to first-hand experience.

Cavern Kings is penciled in to release in December 2014 but the Beta demo is available here to whet your appetite:

vine.itch.io/cavernkings