Guild of Dungeoneering is the kitten you wind up with a few weeks after you let the cat out. You’re not sure which tom got at her: the roguish Hand of Fate, the meandering Majesty, Munchkin and all its puckish appeal, or the charming Card Hunter. All you know is you now have in your possession a kitten of undeterminable parentage that has all the appearances of its potential fathers but doesn’t behave like any of them. What all this needless cat analogy means is that despite similarities with other games, Guild of Dungeoneering manages to do its own thing. Whether that’s good or bad is going to depend heavily on what you expect out of Guild of Dungeoneering and whether the minds at Gambrinous Games make any drastic changes in the month until it releases.
For those of you not familiar with Guild of Dungeoneering, it started out as a 1GAM entry designed by former one-man band, Colm Larkin, called Dungeon Delver. Larkin’s journey into game development reads a bit like a coming of age story; he ended up abandoning his first few projects due to his ambition exceeding his ability to maintain a full time job and pump out a huge game simultaneously. It wasn’t until he temporarily reined in his aspirations and approached development from a smaller scale in the form of 1GAM’s that he started to find the success and critical confidence boosts necessary to approach a larger project. As development grew, he picked up fellow programmers and designers Owen Canavan and Oliver Garland, composer Steven Gregan, and artist Fred Mangan to help add polish. Thus, Gambrinous Games was born.
Where their game Guild of Dungeoneering differs from many of its roguelite contemporaries is its focus on expanding the guild rather than forming intimate attachments to woefully finite creatures. This is accomplished through a particularly violent form of venture capitalism where you basically put Dungeoneers up to the task of committing home invasions in which they go into a dungeon, beat up the inhabitants, and strip the place of the copper piping. Dungeoneers are cute, preternaturally bald boxes of murder that you only have indirect control over. Like a caregiver directing toddlers with a set of car keys, it’s your job to entice these little paper pioneers from one tile to the next with the promise of wealth. Don’t get too attached to them, however, as it’s perfectly reasonable for one or two to die in search of greater glory for the guild. Like any good business, the Guild views the death of its employees merely as an obstacle to be overcome by throwing more grossly undercompensated sycophants at the problem, of which there is never short supply.
Guild of Dungeoneering forgoes procedural generation in favor of a much more devious and frustrating form of randomizing its levels. Each turn you’re given a hand of five cards, which can consist of rooms, treasure and monsters. You can play up to three of these before the turn passes and your brave little Dungeoneer goes plodding off on his own. Rooms are tricky in that adjacent rooms must have adjoining doorways in order to be placed, creating a sort of maddening, indirect path that lends the impression that you’re truly lost in a labyrinth. You can use gold cards in a bid to influence the movement of your Dungeoneer by bread crumbing them along towards the objective.
The baddies are cute and run the gamut of fantasy creatures, from goblins and liches to gnolls and imps. Bosses are handled in a novel way, where if you can get to them before a certain time they won’t be as strong. For instance, you may stumble upon a Fire Lord before he’s done drying from his bath. Monsters can be placed in rooms with the hopes that your Dungeoneer can bash them open like a fleshy pinata and harvest valuable implements of destruction from their inner cavities such as forks, battered pots, and sticks. Loot scales with the difficulty of the defeated monster and can be influenced by room modifiers.
These precious pieces of equipment go into one of four equipment slots: off-hand, weapon, chest and head. You can only have one of each, and will have to trade up as you progress through a level. These goodies affix nouns to your character, such as “Swift,” which in turn determine what additional cards will go into your Dungeoneer’s combat deck. Items are a pleasant mash-up of the banal and absurd, as though they all had been pilfered from a child’s “Let’s Pretend” wardrobe: swords, fez’s, shiny capes, forks, bows and party masks are just an example.
Combat is where you finally get to exercise some control over your Dungeoneer. It’s a turn-based affair where you’re given a choice of cards to play simultaneously against the enemies. You always get to see what your enemy is going to play, unless they’re affected by a status called “Conceal,” which allows you to plan out your strategy. You can attempt to categorize the cards as attack, defense, and healing cards, but the truth is there are a lot of altering factors that blur those distinctions. For instance, you may have a card that only guards against magical attacks, or an attack that can penetrate defenses, or a card that heals you and amplifies your next attack. Each Dungeoneer class comes with their own unique deck that can be further customized by the loot they find. In short, combat is slick, functional, easy to grasp, and barring any RNG frustrations, satisfying.
Dungeoneers come in a comical array of classes, such as the Mime, who can copy enemy abilities, the Shapeshifter, who has a mix of physical and magical attacks and defenses, or the Alchemist, who relies on healing to endure brutal attacks. There are enough classes to give you a sort of swiss-army knife approach to dungeon delving, where you need to make use of the best class for the job. Some of the classes are just outright better than other classes, and as you progress through the campaign, it becomes difficult to use some of the first tier classes like Cat Burglar or Apprentice.
If your Dungeoneer lives through the rigors of adventure, he’ll find himself stripped of any gear or experience gained from the outing. Fallen Dungeoneers are immediately replaced by the swiftest HR department that has ever existed, so there’s no fear of a diminishing roster. Regrettably, there’s so little fear involved with losing a Dungeoneer that it borders on robbing consequence out of a failure. Nothing is at stake – there are no levels, persistent gear, or differentiating characteristics beyond class that make Dungeoneers unique from one another. This makes it extremely difficult to form any real attachment to the little buggers, which is a shame because you want to be attached. A lot of care has been put into giving these little guys personality, whether it be the quips they make when prodded or moving around the environment or their wonderful hand-drawn style. Some sort of incentive to not haphazardly send your Dungeoneers to their deaths would do wonders to adding a feeling of weight and accomplishment.
With the Dungeoneers out of the running for any deep bond, you’re left with the focus of the meta-progression: the guild itself. Upon the death of your Dungeoneer or completion of the adventure, you’re awarded Glory, which can be spent erecting new buildings that unlock classes, blessings and loot. Guild of Dungeoneering lets you build up your base however you want, which is good, but gives no real incentive to thoughtful planning. It would have been nice to see something like adjacency bonuses from X-COM, or something that drives purpose.
The guild screen also feels a little empty. You can check your roster of Dungeoneers, watch them stand in rooms, go over your graveyard, and look at the various body parts you’ve hacked off of bosses as trophies, but there’s very little you can actually do besides work your way down the tech tree. It would be great if you could upgrade classrooms to introduce new, stronger, cards into class decks as a way to keep certain roles from diminishing.
The difficulty of the game seems to vary. Since there is no true way to lose at the game, it’s inevitable that you’ll win contingent on how many hours you’re willing to spend. The first eight dungeons or so are fairly straight forward with simple objectives like “Kill x of y” or “Collect the gem.” The difficulty unexpectedly spiked at a mission that had the rather mundane task of killing three poisonous snakes. These snakes have an ability that, if you fail to counter the initial damage, places a particularly damning damage over time debuff that almost certainly will kill you. Aside from that, the game has a fairly low learning curve and a generally gentle slope of a difficulty level. Inclusion of a hardcore mode, however implemented, would be greatly appreciated by players driven by challenge.
The art style is wonderful. It’s reminiscent of a more whimsical Edmund McMillen, or close to the aesthetic of Don’t Starve. The visuals are all provided by Fred Mangan, and they really are great. The color palette is grayscale with a few primary colors, such as yellow, red, and blue – not to be confused for a De Stijl deco piece. It has a stark simplicity that gives you the impression that you’re playing a pen and paper. All of the items look properly amusing, including the hats that sort of perch atop the head as though they were made for people without an exaggerated case of acute subdural hematoma. Everything feels very papery, and nothing looks out of place. Some animations would do well to break up some of the overall stillness, but everything has a very pleasant, tactile, feel thanks to some liberal use of hatching.
The sound is serviceable in terms of sound effects and general ambience. The big draw is the inclusion of some lyricized songs with humorous lyrics. Composed by Steve Gregan, these songs sound appropriately medieval and are delightfully hammy, meshing well with the overall tongue-in-cheek nature of Guild of Dungeoneering. Some of the voiced bits sound a bit muffled and odd, but not particularly out of place. Most of the instrumental pieces were well composed, with a fair amount of strings, piano, and winds. The sound effects felt a little lacking, and for some reason there was a lot less pencil-scrawling than you would expect in a game with its particular aesthetic.
During my play through of somewhere around eight hours, I encountered about four crashes and a bug that forced a restart twice. Keep in mind this was a preview build for PC, and I fully trust that these issues won’t be present in the final build.
Guild of Dungeoneering bleeds charm. The art direction is simply adorable, and the music gives it a great deal of personality. It’s a very closed-mouth-chuckle and self-aware game that feels familiar, yet refreshing. The combat and dungeon generation mechanics are solid, with a wealth of items, classes, and enemies. Yet, there still remains the question of how to get players invested, whether it’s in the guild they’re constructing or the working class Proles they regularly send to their doom.
Gambrinous Games hasn’t shied away from making large changes to the game before and still has a month until launch. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for there to be a few quality of life changes as they try to put the last bit of spit-shine into what is shaping up to be a perfectly good game that threatens greatness. For now, it stands as a fun, unique, title, but may need a last drive for direction in order to fully realize its potential. You would be well advised to remain cautiously optimistic for Guild of Dungeoneering, as even with its flaws it still amounts to a good deal of deceptively simple fun. Gambrinous, you have our attention.
Guild of Dungeoneering hits the shelves July 14th, 2015 for PC and Mac.
This preview build was obtained from the developer and previewed on the PC Platform.