Truly, I had no expectations going into Dungeonland. In fact, I opted to test it out solely because of my profuse love for action RPGs.
I had heard through the grapevine that it was a "hardcore" action RPG that was completely lacking in story, and instead, played out entirely through repeating randomly spawned dungeons, similar to a rogue-like.
I was very, very surprised by the results.
Developer: Critical Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive AB
Release: January 29, 2013
Rig: Intel i3-2370M, with 8GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 555 GPU
Let me start off immediately by confirming the challenging nature of the game: indeed, this is a "hardcore" dungeon crawler in every sense of the word. Exemplified by the fact that Dungeonland's lowest difficulty setting is "Hard," this game will throw the kitchen sink at you, go to a hardware store and put every other appliance on credit, then throw more at you, while sticking you with the exorbitant bill.
As previously mentioned, the game plays out like an isometric ARPG (like Gauntlet, with a more pronounced RPG flavor), based in various randomly spawned dungeons. There are three "themed" levels out right now at launch, with more on the way, and a special "Dungeon Master" mode that I'll get to later.
The basic premise involves you taking on a dungeon with two other players. Each player can choose between one of three classes, all of which cater to the standard fantasy class tropes -- Mage, Assassin (Thief), and Warrior. You don't have to necessarily stick with this trifecta, but you'll have a much easier time utilizing their team attacks (which are triggered by doing things like laying a fire wall down with a Mage, and throwing knives through it with the Assassin to light them on fire) with a well balanced party.
Anyways, back to the difficulty. Unlike any ARPG I've ever played, Dungeonland can get really ridiculous. For instance, two enemy spawn machines might be placed right next to each other right near the entrance to a map, creating around 50 enemies right at the start of the level, killing your party almost instantly (that actually happened to me on more than one occasion).
Another common situation involves randomly spawning elites dropping right on top of you. Because of these entropic surprises of doom, you'll want to opt to play with friends, but you can also go at it alone with two other AI partners.
But the main problem with the latter solution is that the game is even more unforgiving once you get past the base difficulty, and at that point, the AI becomes absolutely useless. Often times, the computer controlled AI will rush to revive you even if it means certain death, and since everyone shares lives, you can fail a map completely through no fault of your own. While it's great that the game actually requires amazing teamwork and human interaction, it's a shame that there couldn't be some form of single-player mode that accounted for people who may not want to play with others.
Instead, you'll want to opt to play online (with drop-in/drop out support) or locally (with full controller support!), which works out great, given the rather bustling community, solid netcode, and the incredibly well implemented couch co-op.
Speaking of co-op, although the game initially features restrictive party options, once you start unlocking things, everyone will look, feel, and play differently -- kind of like Borderlands 2. There are sub-classes, weapon options, perks, full coloring options, and more. Provided you're willing to slog through and grind up coins, you can unlock some really interesting options here.
In a stroke of brilliance, the whole team shares all of the pick-ups, from health to gold to potions. Of course, this works both ways, as everyone in the party will also share lives, and thus, share their failure and the potential curse of the weakest link. So it's really, really important that you either go in with friends that have action RPG experience, or have the propensity to make new friends online because you're not going to get very far with the AI.
So what's the point of the game? Well, to beat everything on the highest "Impossible" difficulty, unlock everything, and keep playing the game. If you're willing to put up with the insane challenge and the grind, you'll find a lot of content to last you at least twenty hours, if not more. Just keep in mind that any failed run will result in a very paltry amount of coins, meaning it could potentially take three to four runs to unlock even the most menial of upgrades.
This is one aspect I didn't really enjoy, as sometimes you just get outright screwed, and it feels like a waste because you barely earned anything for your efforts. While I didn't mind the challenge in the slightest, it would still be nice if it felt like you were making some progression all of the time to keep you motivated.
Once you start to burn out on standard quests, you can opt for the game's Dungeon Maestro mode, which allows you to play the role of the dastardly DM while other unsuspecting players go through your fun house. You can choose before-hand what traps you want to use, and earn new ones with repeated play.
Online with strangers, this isn't really that enjoyable, as part of the fun is screwing over your friends and hearing the reactions for singling out someone in particular. Even then, I didn't find myself getting too attached, as it takes quite a bit of effort to set up each game, and often times, my group just wanted to go back to questing together and earning more character upgrades.
From a visual standpoint, Dungeonland is incredibly bright, with its unique usage of purple pastels in particular, but there's something about the design that doesn't really grab me. I'm not sure if it's the character designs or what, but it never transcended that "new IP" look during my time with it, even if I had a blast playing it. The music is fitting to the game's carnival-esque theme, even if it doesn't transcend into classic territory.
Performance wise, the game can run on just about any rig out there, but even though I far exceeded the recommended requirements, I still ran into a few framerate snags here and there. It's nothing major to worry about for sure, but the game could benefit from a few performance patches. Graphically, the game isn't really demanding, so you should have no issues.
Despite a few issues I have with the game, most notably the idea of grinding a bit too often early on, this game is a steal at $9.99. If you see it on a sale and remotely enjoy ARPGs, you need to pick this up immediately.