Roguelike Highlights: Dungeonmans

Readers unfamiliar with roguelikes may wish to read my introduction to the genre, and possibly browse some of the other highlights. Also, as always, you can click on images to view larger versions.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a quick post calling attention to the Kickstarter campaign for Dungeonmans, a graphical roguelike with a decidedly humorous tone. Well, the campaign was a success and the game has now been out for a few months. I took a look, got sucked into playing a bunch of characters, and finally managed to win a game (although there’s plenty of room for more replays). Now I’m telling you about it.

The game’s humor is apparent immediately. The titular Dungeonmens (and lady Dungeonmens) are warriors who are specially trained to raid dungeons, crush monsters, and find shiny loot. And probably die in the process. They have silly stats like Stremf and Foom (magic power), and ridiculous explanations for the starting classes (the description of the Necromanser ended by telling me that I should be ashamed just for reading it). While humor is always a matter of taste, I found Dungeonmans very funny and even laughed out loud on a few occasions. I think my favorite parts are the flavor text for weapons and armor, which brilliantly mock the pathetic low-level gear that each character starts with.

The game begins with the founding of a new Dungeonmans academy on an unexplored continent, with a player’s first character as its first graduate, sent out into the world to crush some monsters. There are no quests in the game, barring an initial pointer towards the Convenient Scrobold Warren, so players simply explore the continent, enter dungeons, gather a bunch of loot, and probably die. But each Dungeonmans (or lady Dungeonmans) can bring special loot back to the academy to improve it permanently, giving bonuses to future graduates. So while individual characters are gone forever when they die, the player isn’t necessarily starting from scratch with a new character.

I knew about improving the academy when I played the pre-alpha build long ago, but I didn’t realize just how much of a difference it would make. Upgrading the alchemy lab and library allows new graduates to have potions and scrolls pre-identified, removing the need to experiment with them in the early game. Dungeonmens can also find ancient relics which will be researched and become powerful items for future graduates, and can store particularly powerful items in the academy vault so any future character can grab them. Junk items can be melted down for raw materials, which can be used to improve the academy’s starting gear or even to craft particularly powerful artifacts, provided the blueprints can be found. But the biggest boon is finding Proofs of Stremf, dropped by champion monsters. Returning these to the academy not only lets a Dungeonmans boost his or her stats, but will let all future graduates boost their stats as well. This means that new characters become more and more powerful as the game progresses.

This means that Dungeonmans feels different from traditional roguelikes. In a traditional roguelike, every game is the same, pitting the player against the dungeon (or a set of dungeons), and it is only the player’s knowledge and experience that improves each time. In Dungeonmans, the challenge is the continent itself, with each character helping to build up the power that future characters need to triumph. Victory comes on the shoulders of those who went before. It certainly provides a more compelling reason to start again after dying, with the downside that the early development of a new character is a little boring. Starting with high stats and good equipment, the early dungeons are a cakewalk, but still necessary to complete in order to gain levels and mastery points.

Masteries are the name for skills in Dungeonmans and are another high point. Themed after classes taken at the academy — and featuring great names like Advanced Crushology and Cryoscience — they can unlock the ability to use certain types of gear, provide passive bonuses, or grant active abilities that can be used in combat. These abilities remind me of a streamlined version of Tales of Maj’Eyal (with the caveat that I played Tales of Maj’Eyal a long time ago and it’s updated a lot since then). Abilities cost stamina, mana or both, and some also come with cooldowns, meaning that their cost is significantly increased for a few turns after using them, discouraging spamming the abilities except in emergencies. Strangely, the cost of abilities seems to increase as characters level up, making me wonder why one bothers to gain more stamina and mana when leveling up at all. But it does mean that smart management of resources remains critical even for powerful characters.

Most abilities are related to one’s gear; for example, characters can learn a bunch of special attacks for bows, and armor and shields give defensive skills that should be used strategically before a fight. Smart use of all of these abilities is critical to survival. Combat in Dungeonmans feels very different from most roguelikes; it’s closer to Tales of Maj’Eyal but still feels like it’s own thing. One big difference is positioning. In traditional roguelikes, players will often retreat into narrow corridors in order to face only one foe at a time, or to line up a damaging spell. In Dungeonmans, many enemies have the ability to move the player, making this tactic impossible — but players have their own skills for moving around the battlefield and relocating enemies. Also, similarly to Brogue, every enemy has its own unique behavior and skills, and requires a different strategy to defeat. A typical encounter might open with the player character jumping into a room full of enemies and performing a whirling attack, only to get pulled to a different place by a chain-wielding enemy. The player might then use an active skill to attack several enemies at once and push them away, then use the breathing room to down a potion or use a defensive buff. Let’s say this buff allows for counterattacks, so the player can now focus on one enemy at a time (using regular attacks, so stamina and mana can recharge) and count on counterattacks (ha!) to help out against the mob. Of course, a character focused on magic or archery would have approached this situation in an entirely different manner.

Dungeonmans also looks very nice. The visuals have come a long way since the pre-alpha build I tried back when the Kickstarter campaign was still going, with crisp tiles and unique art for every item in the game. While character and enemy sprites aren’t animated, abilities and spells have flashy animated effects that look very cool. There’s an original, high-quality soundtrack as well, and while the sound effects aren’t amazing they’re perfectly serviceable. In a genre dominated by ASCII graphics and simple tilesets, it’s nice to see a game with some good art.

If there’s a complaint I’d lodge against Dungeonmans, it’s that most of the cool stuff doesn’t appear until later in the game. Early on, it’s not clear just how much difference improvements to the academy will make, and the early dungeons all feel the same. In fact, after conquering a dungeon, I found that most of the rest nearby were now considered trivial, with the game simply popping out a pile of loot rather than letting me explore them. And that loot feels limited, since there are only a few tiers of equipment and only one item of each type in each tier; new characters are stuck using the same crappy (albeit humorous) gear. Finding the remains of a low-level dead character just gives a little experience, so there’s not much incentive to dive in again and exact vengeance (although I do like that the monster that killed the character gets promoted to the new boss of the dungeon). Later, there are many more varied dungeons, equipment is often heavily enchanted which helps differentiate items, and finding the remains of a fallen Dungeonmans will provide a bunch of cool items, some of which can be stored in the vault for future characters. But in the beginning, none of this is apparent, so new players might lose interest before discovering all that the game has to offer.

I tried out many character classes and built a few of my own (any character can learn any skill, which makes the game ideal for those who love coming up with a perfect build), and finally managed to conquer the big threat on my continent, but there are still a lot of things left to do and find. I never tried playing as a Southern Gentlemans or a Necromanser, both of which sound like they operate with more complicated mechanics, and there’s a lot of loot I never got my hands on. Dungeonmans features set items, a la Diablo and its ilk, but I only ever found two of these and they were from different sets. Fortunately, set items can be stored so future characters can find more pieces of the set. And while I ended up making a beeline for the final boss, I could have opted for one of several optional challenges instead. It’s also easy to set up new games: players can start an entirely new academy whenever they wish, or they can keep their current academy but generate a new continent to explore. There are also plenty of updates to come; towns are currently kind of useless but are slated for an overhaul, and new character classes, skills, and even some of the mysterious Masters Programs (which I did actually get to try, with my victorious character) will be added. Actually, now that I check, it looks like a sizeable update was released since I last played, so there’s already a bunch of new stuff in there!

Players looking for a roguelike that’s a little different may well want to try Dungeonmans. It’s simpler than many roguelikes, but that also means it’s easy to learn, with an intuitive interface that doesn’t require learning a lot of keys. And it’s devoid of filler; every enemy is a different challenge, each item is useful, and every skill can contribute to an effective strategy. Plus it’s funny, and we can always use more funny games.

Dungeonmans is available directly from developers Adventurepro Games, as well as on Steam. There’s no demo, sadly, but there are some Let’s Play videos available for those who want a little more information before buying.

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