It’s been a personal matter of regret that, after previewing and thoroughly enjoying Dungeon of the Endless last year, I never quite found enough time to set aside and sit down with the game following its final release.
So I made a point these last few weeks – inbetween playing through Dying Light, and revisiting Star Wars: The Old Republic for a catchup – of finding some time to squeeze in Amplitude’s wonderful roguelike tower defense/dungeon-crawler hybrid. I’m glad I did, because while the brutal difficulty curve remains, Dungeon of the Endless is a wonderfully satisfying genre mash-up that will chew you up, spit you back out, but keep you coming back for more.
Amplitude Studios first appeared on the scene back in 2012 with their excellent 4X sci-fi game, Endless Space. Endless Space took everything that hardcore strategy gamers know and love from classic sci-fi 4x games like Galactic Civilizations and Sword of the Stars series, and added its own unique dollop of world-building and subtle innovations to a genre that is currently enjoying something of a well-deserved comeback in recent years. Dungeon of the Endless, while being set in the same far-future universe, is quite a different animal however – blending familiar gameplay types to come up with something altogether unique, wrapped up lovingly in a beautiful pixel-art package with gorgeous lighting and atmosphere by the bucketload.
As with most Roguelikes, there’s no linear campaign here, and little in the way of storytelling beyond the initial setup. Crash-landing on a remote alien world, a hotch-potch of survivors from a former prison ship attempt to surive their newfound home with the (very) slim hope of escaping back to more familiar civilization. Every playthrough is different thanks to random dungeon generation, difficulty is high, verging on unfair at times; and as is par for the course, it contains a huge amount of RNG to increase replayability.
Where Dungeon of the Endless mixes things up is in its seamless blend of squad management and tower defense mechanics. At the start of each game, you’ll need to choose 2 heroes from a selection screen, with many options locked off until you meet the relevant criteria through playing the game. As we’ve come to expect over the years, each has their own strengths and weaknesses – some are geared towards combat, either melee or ranged; others gain bonuses towards movement speed, health and generation of one of the 4 resources in the game. Still others excel at buffing and debuffing, with abilities that can slow down enemies and help your allies – bolstered by the variety of different structures you can install on the nodes in many of the rooms. Dungeons consist of a series of inter-connected rooms closed off from each other by closed bulkheads, and most rooms contain primary nodes on which you can build structures that increase the amount of resources you receive for every door you open, and secondary nodes on which you can construct offensive and defensive turrets. You can’t just activate these rooms straight away, however – they need to be connected to a power source, and you need to ensure you have the sufficient resources to build.
Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a chest containing some loot, though it might not always be useful for the heroes you’ve selected on your current playthrough. You might also encounter merchants (I guess that business in ancient, unexplored alien dungeons must be more profitable than you’d expect – perhaps they just wait for their customers to die before looting back the equipment they purchased), ancient crystals that allow you to upgrade your existing node blueprints, and occasionally NPCs who can be recruited to join your little band of unfortunate heroes. But more often, you’ll encounter one – or more often a swarm – of enemies, necessitating a hasty to retreat to somewhere more fortified where you might stand a fighting chance.
Twists to the familiar gameplay come from two sources. Firstly, you can only progress to the next floor of the dungeon by escorting a crystal safely to the exit. It’s suicide to even think about picking up this crystal until you’ve managed to fortify your route to the exit, because the moment you do, wave upon wave of enemies spawn and descend on your party. The second twist – and an absolutely brilliant stroke of design – is that, unlike other Tower Defense games, you don’t earn a steady stream of resources from the nodes you control. Instead, you only gain resources by opening doors to new rooms – creating a knife-edge blend of risk and reward where the ever-present temptation to keep pressing further so you can upgrade nodes rubs against the increasing chance of your demise.
Tying the accumulation of resources to opening doors to unknown areas is what makes Dungeon of the Endless so wonderfully tense and moreish. It forces you to consider your next move in a way that few other Roguelikes or Tower Defense games do, and is something that could only ever have been accomplished by tying the two genres so closely to one another. Random generation means that every game is different, but as you gradually acclimatize yourself to the need for caution and adjust to the punishing difficulty, you gradually learn how to make slow but steady progress. Your first few attempts are likely to end in failure before you progress past the first stage, but eventually you’ll start to find yourself venturing slightly deeper into the dungeon with each subsequent game before your small party bites the dust, bolstered by a slowly expanding roster of playable heroes to choose from as unlocks gradually start opening up on the character select stage.
Of course, this random generation comes at the expense of story, though that’s the case with almost any roguelike you care to mention. The visuals and music do a great job of provoking a suitably mysterious and tense atmosphere, and little bits of lore are peppered throughout item descriptions – including some humorous references to other games and sci-fi tropes; but Dungeon of the Endless is about crafting your own story, small tales of surviving against all odds and through the various different options and approaches available depending on which characters you choose to take with you on each run. It’s about making the most of limited resources and developing your own narrative through the random encounters you’ll have on each run.
Dungeon of the Endless comes highly recommended to fans of the roguelike genre, though the heavy reliance on luck and tough difficulty will likely intimidate or turn off others. Less ambitious than Endless Space, but no less tactical, with more than enough character in its blocky, lo-fi visuals and atmospheric music to stand apart from the game with which it shares its fictional universe. A few more characters, and slight tweaks to drop chances so that loot is more appropriate to your chosen characters would be nice, as well as a little more variety in the various environments you inhabit, but there’s still plenty of game here, with hours of enjoyment to be found. Amplitude can seemingly do no wrong between this, Endless Space and Endless Legend, and if they can maintain this high level of quality and imagination throughout their upcoming games they could end up becoming a force to be reckoned with.