I'm a defensively minded player. I tend to turtle in strategy games, in shooters there's no greater joy for me than holding a chokepoint and gunning down foolishly aggressive opponents, and yet tower defense has never really appealed to me. It seems a perfect fit, as tower defense games are basically nothing but defending a position, but they all have a very stagnant feel to me. There's no sense of impetus, progression is often little more than incrementally greater firepower. There's something a little flat about tower defense to me. At the beginning of this year, Amplitude Studios shocked new life into 4X strategy for me with Endless Legend, and now they've managed it with something I never liked it the first place.
The game is Dungeon of the Endless, the third game in Amplitude's Endless universe. This time it's a more intimate experience, taking place in the claustrophobic confines of a twelve floor dungeon filled with denizens and specimens that will be familiar to players of Endless Legend. We're on Auriga, after our escape pod crashed underground. You pick two heroes from a small selection with more unlockable later, and you're off. In truth this isn't a tower defense, but tower defense does make up the bulk of gameplay. The objective is to find the exit on every floor, and then move your escape pods power crystal to it so you can carry it to the next floor, because you'll need the precious energy it provides to operate the turrets and traps that will see you to the surface.
You generate most of the same resources you do in Endless Space and Endless Legend. Industry is used to build resource replicators and turrets, Science is used to upgrade them and research new ones, whereas Food is used to heal your heroes and increas their level. Resources are gained each turn, but the twist here is that a turn won't end until you open a new door, into a new room, a room potentially filled with all manner of skittering creatures, and and failed, screaming experiments. Or it could be a new piece of gear, or enough precious Dust to power a new room.
Every time you open a door, any rooms that are left unpowered have a chance to spawn a wave of monsters that will then do their best to wreck your day. It's these two really quite simple decisions that alleviate the stagnation that I feel in tower defence. Opening doors is tense, it's dangerous and it's very often the last thing on earth you want to do if things are looking rough. It's all that, but it's also a sense of agency and progression. Every door is a room closer to the exit, it might be the exit. It's active. Where most tower defence is about waiting for waves of cannon fodder to run at you, DotE is also about dungeon-crawling, exploration and squad based combat.
The squad in question can be four strong, with new heroes found in the dungeon hired with food to expand, or replace, your original two. There's around twenty heroes at the moment, and they're all very colourful. There's a dapper two-legged insectoid, there's a walking riff on Duke Nukem, and there's even a woman occupying the same physical space as a demonic war god from an alternate dimension. I like her the best out of those three. Naturally they all have their strengths, weaknesses, and quirks, and building an effective team is a fun meta-game in itself.
It's also a gorgeous game. It's reasonably standard pixel art, but the design is amazing in everything from the dungeon itself, and it's inhabitants, to the individually striking heroes. It's recognisably Endless despite the vast visual gulf between it and it's sibling games. I love the way that Amplitude have chosen to aesthetically interpret the shared universe of the Endless games differently with each release. It's like seeing the same world through a seperate filter, with differing levels of magnification. Music too is excellent, it's palpably anxious when things are doing badly, and quietly tense, though equally lovely, in the games more muted moments. I'm an especially big fan of whatever trickery they've pulled to make the lighting so absolutely beautiful, and with lighting playing such a major role in gameplay it's great to see such attention to detail.
I'm struggling to find problems with this game to be quite honest, most of my complaints are to do with multiplayer funcionality. Whilst playing with others is a great deal of fun, there are some strange decisions such as players having seperate researches, meaning that when you research or upgrade a module only the player who did the research gets it. This can lead to some needlessly frustrating coordination between players. Thankfully I've been playing multiplayer with friends using voice chat so it's as easy as asking to keep track of who has what, but even then sometimes I've instinctively placed down a module that a friend has a better version of. With a game that demands efficiency, this can be very frustrating and I'd like to see research applied on a team level. There's also no way to save an online game, meaning you have to complete the game in one run. It can take well over an hour, or even two and not everyone has that luxury, though for all I know it could be there are technical limitations that don't allow for saving online.
Replay value is also high. By beating the game and fulfilling certain conditions you can unlock new escape pods which affect the game in various ways. One causes no weapons to drop at all, but makes your heroes smarter, and increases resource generation, forcing you to utilise turrets and traps to far greater effect. Another let's you start with a full compliment of four, heavily armed heroes, and there's even one that makes the dungeon infinite for those that want to test just how far they can get.
If you like rogue-likes, get this game. If you like tower defence, get this game. If you like RPG's, get this game. If you like games, get this game. If you don't like games, there are worse places to start. I'm beginning to really like Amplitude Studios.