Dungeon Hearts is a match-3 game, yet that observation didn't solidify until I sat down to write this review. From music to mechanics, Dungeon Hearts is so ingrained in traditional Japanese role-playing games (think Final Fantasy IV) that it's easy to look past its more conventional trappings, especially since it does such a clever job of dressing them up.
Much like Square's own Theatrhythm, Dungeon Hearts looks like an RPG but walks like something else. Instead of a rhythm game, a puzzler. But the greatest difference between these two titles is how developer Cube Roots' genre worship goes beyond surface level, resulting in something special and very addictive.
Dungeon Hearts (PC [reviewed], iPad)
Developer: Cube Root
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Released: March 28, 2013
Rig: Intel i5-2500k @3.30 GHz, 8GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 580 GPU
Like the most basic of Final Fantasy entries, Dungeon Hearts puts the player in control of four: A warrior, a white mage, a dark mage, and an archer. Each character has hit points, mana, and levels up, acquiring up to three spells that fall in line with their class. Instead of repeatedly clicking "Fight" in a semi-zombified state, the player must frantically drag icons across the screen in a mad dash to deal damage before damage is received. After a couple matches, the puzzle elements become a natural extension of the menu navigation you find in Final Fantasy encounters.
Instead of taking turns, Dungeon Hearts battles play in real time and occasionally "Oh God, stop going so fast!"-time. Once a difficulty is selected, a new, randomly generated game is set before the player. It's not exactly a roguelike, but having a different assortment of the 47 enemies each time keeps the game fresh after repeat plays. There are no towns or field map; it's war all the time in Dungeon Hearts. Even leveling your characters is a battle of sorts, as the player must quickly match three items as potential experience points literally fly away -- if you mess up on these sections, you'll find yourself on a downward slope of misery as the difficulty goes sky high.
Once engaged with an enemy, shapes of different sizes and four different colors (correlating with your heroes) slide from the right side of the screen (the enemy) to the left (you're party) in one of the four rows your heroes occupy -- and, yes, they did screw up! If harmful icons manage to arrive at your party's side, damage/ailments will be done. To prevent that, the player must match three icons of the same color, combining the icons into a diamond "Striker" that will clear out all harmful elements in a row. Higher level play revolves around combining Strikers and positioning them in clever ways for maximum damage (essential later on).
All the complications of a role-playing game are in Dungeon Hearts: stat buffs, ailments, combos, etc. This makes for one hell of a daunting first attempt, as the game backs up its info dumptruck and buries the player under ten tons of info sludge. Be brave because most of the different icons don't really matter and everything will fit naturally as you play the game. As long as you are quickly matching icons, positioning multiples of Strikers for increased damage, and destroying the enemy's harmful icons, everything will make sense in time.
With each game of Dungeon Hearts (which can last up to an hour, if you beat it), I found my comprehension, speed, and overall skill increasing in a way that you don't often get in an RPG. Once I reached this state, I could then analyze the RPG elements like managing party health and timing spells. Spells vary from summoning a shield to firing poision arrows. No crazy summons, but the spells do function in a way that brings to mind Final Fantasy VII's limit breaks. Each spell is its own fun little distraction that tests your accuracy, speed, and timing in different ways.
What didn't expand my enjoyment over time is the mouse controls that did more damage to my wrist than puberty. That I still had fun and worked through the discomfort, says a lot about how fun this game is and how much more fun it may be on iPad (though I've heard rumblings that the build isn't solid). As of the time of this review post, the achievements and leaderboards don't work on PC. Though it's far from a polished experience -- one game broke as I almost beat the final boss, a mighty feat -- and its controls are far from ideal (maybe a controller or keyboard controls would be better), I still recommend it on PC if you don't have an iPad.
Once a game of Dungeon Hearts is won, new soundtracks unlock (five total). This would a stick instead of a carrot if it weren't for how great of a musical score it is. Along with the graphics, the music is a clever homage to the days of SquareSoft but manages to have an identity of its own. I can extend that statement to the entire game. Dungeon Hearts takes the Final Fantasy worship that has inspired many a RPG Maker indie and does something far more inspired and enjoyable with it. On a positive note, Cube Roots has been very active on listening to feedback on social networks and even provided a noteworthy update four days after release.
Whether you are a fan of fast-paced, challenging puzzle games or an old-school RPG fan, Dungeon Hearts' charm will rub off on you. And if you are a fan of both of those things, you won't even mind its shortcomings, in time.