Summer Game Fest – Preview: Dungeon & Gravestone

By Antonio Guillen

I’ve been on a dungeon crawler kick lately, and fortunate for me it feels like the genre is experiencing a bit of a renaissance (see Minecraft Dungeons, Moonlighter, Children of Morta) With so many games dipping into the well it helps to stick out. Dungeon and Gravestone fits the bill with a simple but striking Minecraft-esque art style and interesting camera options.

In Dungeon and Gravestone everything from the classic medieval town hub, to the randomly generated dungeon corridors is made of blocks of pixels (think Crossy-Road). You peer down on the action from an isometric view but the camera ‘lens’ is unique in that you’re zoomed in and focused on everything center view while everything toward the edges of the screen has a distinct gaussian blur. Long story short when everything is in motion it looks like Lego blocks come to life.

The demo drops you into a small hubtown that features the classic tropes (tavern area to accept and turn in quests, various weapon and item vendors, etc.) The meat a potatoes of the game is entering the randomly generated dungeon and seeing how deep you can make it before your luck runs out. In classic, brutal rogue-like fashion as you make your way through each maze-like level of the dungeon collecting gold and items you’ll lose it all if you’re not careful.

You start out naked and afraid with not even a weapon swiping at enemy spiders with your blocky body in a vain attempt to make progress. You’ll need to avoid traps, find keys and open doors to find the stairs to the next level. Every 5 levels you’re given the option to push forward or take the aid of a npc to teleport you back to town. 

Things open up once you upgrade your starting body husk to a knight build and it appears that you can unlock stronger and more unique avatars down the road. What kind of perks, skills, or stats they might bring wasn’t clear. I quickly learned how precious loot is and decided to spend some coin for a teleportation item that would let me escape the dungeon at any point at will. Did I learn my lesson and use that item to escape when I was clearly on the brink of death? I rather not say.

A few glaring issues presented themselves in my short time with the game. The blocky aesthetic can be simple to a fault. The first few levels of the dungeon are consistently visually bland and it’s not clear if at any point you’ll be able to skip forward down to the more interesting depths.The world is on a grid and as you bound forward one square at a time enemies do the same, it’s hard to approach an enemy from the right angle with these restraints. Oddly the game features a blue health meter and a blue blood meter that acts like a timer, constantly dwindling down to what I assume is my death. I wasn’t able to test this as the meter refills with enemy kills and is fairly forgiving.

When you die you can leave a gravestone with a short cookie cutter or custom message ala Bloodborne that appear in other player’s dungeon runs. It’s an interesting online component in a single player game but seeing a message like ‘Look out for the big guy’ in a procedurally generated game means that the message isn’t relevant to your run.

Purchasing upgrades, like a stronger sword and shield, didn’t seem to make any impact on the gameplay. I found myself counting my swings to see just how long it was taking me to deal with skeletons. Progress overall felt very slow, so much so that I never even unlocked even the most basic of magic skills after almost two hours playing. There is a very odd randomly generated skill grid. Unlocking skills and stat upgrades seemed out of my control, another reason why after a few dozen runs the game didn’t feel rewarding.

I’m sure some of these issues can be patched according to player feedback, but cheap deaths are a big problem and need to be patched or it could ruin the whole game. Most of the time I died entering a new level with full health only to be met by multiple mobs ready to strike the moment emerged from the staircase. Too many times I perished though no fault of my own, not being given a second to react, heal, or strike back. 

It seems that the game’s random generation needs a little tweaking, and a few changes need to be made to keep the experience fresh. If combat does evolve over time I can see this being a treat for other fans of the genre. I look forward to seeing how this game grows in the future. I didn’t see anything on the dev’s website about a console release date. 

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