In Dungeon of the Endless, Amplitude Studios tries to combine tower defence, dungeon crawling, RPGs and real time strategy to create a new hybrid roguelike. Does this attempt to mesh these genres together create a compelling dungeon crawl, or should it stay in the depths?
The game tasks you as a crew of prisoners, whose prison ship explodes mid-flight. This sends you hurtling towards the planet Auriga, home of the Endless, who are an advanced ancient species who spread across the galaxy. Your escape pod crashes into what can only be described as a dungeon and it is your job to escape this underground complex and get to the surface. None of this information is really explained to you in game though, as you merely start the adventure by choosing two characters. This led to a lot of confusion when realising that the ‘Endless’ in the game title doesn’t actually refer to the dungeons that you play in, but the series that the game is a part of.
The Endless actually refers to the ‘Endless’ franchise, linking with Endless Space and Legend of the Endless, two 4X strategy games which featured the planet Auriga heavily. Unless you are already a fan of the series, you don’t come to this conclusion very quickly, as Dungeon of the Endless lacks a clear story, instead going for very occasional references to a larger tale which get lost under random witty remarks or you ripping your hair out in frustration. Until you make this connection, it might as well be yet another procedural generated, dungeon crawler with a pixel art style and roguelike elements. Fortunately, the game is more than that, trust me, but it doesn’t do a good job off the bat of establishing that there is any real overarching narrative or story in the game.
The basic premise of Dungeon of the Endless is that you have to get your ship’s generator from the spawn point to the exit of each floor. Sounds simple enough? Unfortunately for you, you have to balance resource management, hordes of aliens attacking you, the health of your squad and your own sanity as you try desperately to make it through a single level. Let me get this clear right now, this game is hard. Very hard. I still have not completed a run in about 7 hours of play. My initial thoughts on this game were that it was incredibly obtuse, infuriating and unfair, and that I didn’t want to play it ever again. I still think it is infuriating and unfair but I now have a desire to try and finish one playthrough, as there is an intense feeling of satisfaction whenever you clear a floor.
The lift dialogue is very stilted. Much like having a real chat in a lift.
In order to get to the exit, you have to navigate through a series of rooms to find the exit whilst trying to stop any bad guys sneaking in the back way and blowing up your generator. You can do this by building various modules, which can be used to generate resources or to stop enemies. They are split into two groups; major and minor. Major modules are mostly used to create resources like food, industry and science. These 3 resources are used to build other modules, research upgrades and to improve your squad members. Minor modules are the equivalent to turrets in tower defence games. You have offensive ones which fire lasers or electricity at mobs, defensive ones which debuff your enemies, and finally support modules, which heal your squad in battle or provide buffs. Dungeon of the Endless quickly becomes a balancing act of building major modules to generate more Industry, for example to build more turrets, or spending them on turrets first to reinforce a vulnerable chokepoint. On top of this, add another resource, Dust, which determines if you can provide power to certain rooms or not, and you can begin to understand how stressful a run of Dungeon of the Endless can be.
A run can be full of nerve racking decisions, as you debate on whether to provide a room with power. It may become a chokepoint from which many enemies may spawn or you may choose to light a room at the end of a long corridor of rooms, essentially shutting off one path for enemies and giving you a safe space to build major modules. You see, enemies in Dungeon of the Endless spawn based on whether a room is lit up or not. When you open the door to a room, you have the chance to spawn more monsters in unlit rooms, find some more Dust, or maybe recruit another squad member, which makes every door you open a possible gift.
On the other hand, it could cause panic as waves of enemies start to spawn from rooms you have left dark. Factor in that you can only generate more resources from opening doors, and you have a game which constantly pushes you into the unknown and puts you at risk in order for you to get to the end of the floor. It is a very clever way of keeping the player moving and makes you constantly aware of your own vulnerability, as this next door may spawn another 4 waves and you know full well you can’t last that long. Add in merchants, toxic clouds which slow your squad right down, rooms that don’t require power and special steles which provide your characters with random buffs, and every floor in a run feels very different.
Finding an upgrade artifact in the final room can be a right pain.
While the tower defence and dungeon crawling aspects play off each other incredibly well, the RPG and RTS aspects don’t work as well. While there is a diverse cast of characters, the game’s difficulty makes them very hard to unlock and many of them feel samey, with squad members sharing skills and having similar stats. You get the occasional standout like the mechanic, who can overclock turrets to make them shoot or debuff enemies faster, or the soldier, who can enter a defensive stance to tank enemies, but many of the melee characters simply blend into one archetype and rarely feel useful. You also have the problem of the characters not being very memorable, with a lot of them parroting back the same unfunny quips and only a handful sharing minimal story points which will only really interest Endless series fans.
In battle, you can order squad members into rooms but you can’t precisely move them to a certain place in the room, leading to characters simply standing in the middle of a crush of enemies and leading to their inevitable demise. Another problem is you can’t quickly drag your cursor and select all your squad members. Instead you have to hold Shift and select them each individually in order to have them follow a group command. The ability to clearly designate squad members as part of a separate fire team would be nice, especially when you are fighting multiple waves of enemies on multiple fronts. The sheer number of mechanics that the game loads off on you at the very beginning of the game but does not clearly explain also leads to many deaths and great frustration in the opening few runs, as you struggle to get your head round the RPG aspects of levelling up individual units while also figuring out how to prevent mobs spawning.
Another problem is that due to the game’s procedural generation, you can be prevented from finding places to upgrade your modules until the final room of the dungeon. This puts you at a distinct disadvantage going into a new floor as you are still using the equipment you started the game with. Also, due to the fact that the upgrades that you find are all randomly assigned, runs can be completely ruined by RNG as there have been some times during my time playing where I haven’t found a single offensive module upgrade until floor 4, which puts me at a major disadvantage. Combine this with the fact that on some floors it is very hard to tell if a certain path you are taking is leading to a dead end or a crossroad, and you can waste tons of industry defending a room which is of no strategic value to you. Again, this leads to much unneeded frustration during a run which can be already going to pot.
Being swarmed by aliens whilst on your last squad member is always terrifying.
In terms of the game’s presentation, Dungeon of the Endless’ soundtrack is very atmospheric, feeling suitably ethereal and mysterious whilst adventuring through the early floors, before becoming tense and electronic when you move your crystal to the exit and the hordes descend. As for the visuals, the lighting in the game is great, reinforcing the darkness of the dungeon as you quest through it and light up your path. As for the pixel art, it is very consistent and does the job at displaying the diverse flora and fauna present on the planet Auriga, but it doesn’t really push the boat out in terms of art direction. If you’ve played any sci-fi indie game in the last 4 years, you can get a rough idea of what Dungeon of the Endless looks like. All the squad members look different enough to one another but as mentioned earlier, their unfunny and repetitive dialogue in between floors and their samey design doesn’t make the cast particularly memorable.
The game’s multiplayer component is fun with friends, with each player taking the role of a squad member. However, with the game being stressful enough as it is when played solo, only tackle this mode with a dedicated group of friends. Otherwise, you may find your computer flying out the window.