Ever since last summer’s Gamescom, I wanted to write about Amplitude’s Dungeon of the Endless, but it never seemed to be quite the right moment. The game has been available via Steam Early Access since end of last year and recently hit beta status, which means that it is basically feature-complete now. Multiplayer and game balancing are still notably absent, but the current state of the game is complete enough to write down some impressions representative of the finished product.
Dungeon of the Endless could be described as a tactical Sci-Fi roguelike with tower defense elements. You control a motley group of criminals, whose prison ship has crash-landed on a strange planet. Left to their own devices, they need to navigate the maze-like structure in search of an exit while at the same time protecting their ship’s power core from the planet’s insectoid denizens. From your starting position in each level, you move out and open the dungeon doors, hoping to find the exit. Each new room might contain something beneficial to your cause, like extra resources, treasure, new characters for your party or a friendly merchant peddling his wares.
Alternatively, there might be bloodthirsty monster hordes lurking behind that door. While opening new doors makes the game feel like it is turn-based, monster and hero movement is in real-time. Combat is also completely automated and fought according to your characters’ stats and equipped gear. Random monster assaults from previously opened rooms keep you on your toes and increase in ferocity the further you proceed. Every newly opened room grants you resources that can be employed to build support or defensive structures, as well as research new tech or level up your heroes.
As soon as you find the current level’s exit, you can choose to either explore the dungeon some more, or carry the power core to the next level. That’s the point where you usually think “I should have invested some more in defensive structures”, because as soon as you move the power core, the aliens start an all-out assault on your team. The whole gameplay is built around a structure of risk versus reward. Sure, you could open every door on a level to max out your stats and resources, but the resulting flood of space vermin could overwhelm you. Gauging when exactly enough is enough, that’s the big underlying strategy, and it might take you a couple of games to wise up enough and know how far you can go.
There are also persistent unlocks to find and secure for future runs. Characters you meet in the dungeon can be recruited, and if they manage to survive long enough, they’ll become available as starting heroes as well. There’s quite a wide range of those, such as melee-focused, gun-toting, or scientist heroes, which don’t excel in combat but help with resource collection or research. You can also unlock different spacecrafts to start in, but this feature has been introduced just recently and I wasn’t able to get my hands on one of those yet.
As mentioned above, game balancing is all over the place. The random element in basically every new room keeps things unpredictable, and there have been a few runs where I was defeated after merely ten minutes. Sometimes you’re showered in loot, other times it’s alien goo instead. I’m not sure exactly how Amplitude are going to introduce balance into all of this and, truth be told, I don’t care much. Dungeon of the Endless is a lot of fun as it is, not despite but maybe because of the failure and horrible space death that can happen to you. It certainly makes every small victory all the sweeter.
The game feels noticeably light-weight compared to Amplitude’s epic and sprawling 4X games, Endless Space and Endless Legend. It’s almost like a lunch-break title you can dive into for a few minutes at a time. It’s good to see Amplitude branching out some more and not just focus on one genre. It also sports a surprising amount of humor: you can for instance expect to find a tutu and wear it as armour, and allegedly there are pugs hidden in the dungeon. Pugs in space!
Dungeon of the Endless also happens to be a gorgeous game. The highly detailed pixel art environments are simply beautiful. The characters do lack a bit of detail, but that’s just the game’s style, and it fits perfectly. Lighting is employed to heighten the sense of discovery, mystery, and ultimately pure terror. As soon as you grab that crystal and head for the exit, previously powered rooms start to lose power and lights will go out all around you. It’s a simple trick with maximum impact, and it really ramps up the tension while you’re struggling not to be eaten by space bugs. The game’s option menu is currently a bit sparse, with nothing more than volume sliders and the option to change resolution. Remappable keys as well as a windowed mode would be appreciated. However, considering that the game can be controlled completely with the mouse, that oversight might be negligible.
If you’re worried about the game’s Early Access status, rest assured that Amplitude’s way of handling this particular release model has been nothing short of exemplary so far. If you own any of their early access games, you’re entitled to vote on the next features to be implemented and thus shape the game to your liking. I really wish more developers would adopt a similar model of open development instead of going silent for months. If you’re interested in the development process, you should probably head over to the Amplitude community forums, where design documents for all of their projects are freely available. It’s pretty neat stuff, and seeing a game evolve this way is pretty engaging in its own right.
Is It Worth Your Money (Already)?
If you like a healthy mixture of resource management and dungeon delving in a science fiction setting, Dungeon of the Endless is the game for you. Co-op multiplayer is yet to be implemented, and I can imagine that it’ll be a strong selling point on its own. However, the single player portion is feature-complete and absolutely worth playing, and the $9.74 price tag is more than fair for an early access game. The “Founder Pack”, priced at $14.99, gives you some neat extras for both Dungeon of the Endless and Endless Legend. This is early access done right, and well worth supporting.