God not only plays dice, but Satan apparently does too…
Dicey Dungeons is the latest game by Terry Cavanaugh, creator of indie darlings such as crazy retro platformer VVVVVV and one-more-try ultra hard semi-runner extravaganza Super Hexagon. Even though I was never a fan of mobile games, Hexagon is the only app I have on three different phones ever since it was released. This time the developer decided to try his hands at a deck building game: a kind of dungeon crawling experience not radically different from Slay the Spire. Slay enemies, collect attacks and defenses, conquer the boss. Instead of cards, as you may have guessed from the title, you have dices and that, well, makes a whole lot of die-fference. And no, that won’t be the last dice related pun you’ll see here so hang on tightly…
Snake eyes and sixes
The cruel twist of fate is that all the heroes of the game have been turned into dices/die by Lady Luck, a tyrannical ruler who enslaves minions making ’em fight against anyone who dares set foot in the dungeon. All the little dices are playing to take home their lifelong desire, but in order to do so they’ll have to survive five dungeon floors and a final boss. Still, after all that fighiting, the only prize will be one go at “spin the wheel” which, of course, won’t make them win anything. Here, luck is not only blind but also plain cruel. As soon as the first run is completed, a new character will be unlocked, with a full selection of six different dices. The best design choice Cavanaugh made is in giving each one a unique playstyle, with its own weaknesses and strenghts. There’s six episodes per contestant, which basically means that Dicey Dungeons will probably take you a good 20+ hours to complete. Not all episodes are, luckily, required to be finished to reach the end game, it all depends on how quickly the player adapts to the different styles of play.
All dices on deck!
Everything works like an average deck building game: receive attack cards by leveling up or in shops, along with spells, defense items, etc. Of course, everything hangs on the randomness of the dice rolls, a design choice that at times threatens to break the title. The game almost lost me a couple of times, having a bit of trouble being credible in its “depends on luck” principle. It’s never made entirely clear if the rolls are actively pitted against you or just random. There have been instances where it was abundantly clear the CPU adversary was receiving the exact dices needed each and every turn and that can get frustrating pretty quickly. Nobody likes games that make it obvious how unfairly the player is treated, that is one design flaw to be avoided at all costs.
Each playthrough (or “run” if you want to get technical) is pretty quick, done in 15 minutes more or less, so the game does encourage quick matches sandwiched between more time consuming titles. It’s that special brand of “just one more run”, when one ends up shockingly discovering that yes, thirty hours have been sank into the game. Talk about value for money! The art design is pretty hit or miss for most players, personally it was fine even though I was sadly reminded of Broken Age by Double Fine. The soundtrack by Chipzel is great, with pounding catchy electronic tunes that the artist is well known for. I think her main idea, though, was making short tunes for a sort of “mobile” game, so because of their short length, they can get repetitive after a while.
Another design choice that I’m not crazy about is the level map: on every level, the player chooses the path between fighting every single enemy or just getting to the final boss as fast as possible. Naturally, it’s not impossible to speed run, but, obviously, the more fights won, the more experience gained Most of the time, leveling up means gaining an extra dice, ergo an extra chance to attack/defend/regain health. That is gonna make the difference between a successful boss fight and an unsuccessful one.
If you were never good at maths, then Dicey Dungeons will be one frustrating experience since, beyond the basic attacks and defenses, calculating sums (and enemies’ health points) is required to successfully use ice and fire related attacks along with the different powers. The game never gets stale and the whole randomness – except for the few times mentioned – usually adds to the fun. I won’t spoil the final boss fight, I’ll just say it sets up the perfect ending and the message: it’s not really about the destination, but the journey. I was glad I did not give up after a few pretty bad runs.
Can you cheat at dices? Yes you can
I’ll have to ask Terry if this was a conscious design choice or not, but it is possible to retry battles every time. Just immediately quit the game (alt+F4) before the “you died” screen; the game puts you back right before the battle so one can switch attacks, restore health or even just skip the whole thing. I know it is usually frowned upon to “cheat” on roguelike games, but when the CPU is actively working against you, then I think it becomes only fair to use it, at least every once in a while.
Cavanaugh has done a lot of work on patching and balancing the game, so it’s clear the whole endevaour was one of love. Last Halloween he did a special limited version of the game with different rules and new monsters, some of it was very fun and it’s reassuring to know that it is always playable via “mods”. The developer said he took his time in making Dicey Dungeons, instead of pumping it out quickly like his last few games and the care distinctly shows. The title plays smoothly and everything connects in giving the player a perfect deck building system and a lighthearted humourous experience. A nice little gem, highly recommended.
The game can be found on Steam and Itch.io for 12.49$ which is a pretty fair price for the 20+ hours of gaming that it provides, also Switch and mobile ports are on their way. As I have already mentioned, if you like this style of gampelay, there are many other deck building games out there, even more complex than Dicey. What is true, though, is that none of them have the humouristic texts and situations that Cavanaugh designed, every one of them is tremendously serious in atmosphere and that can get pretty stale after a while. Still, Slay the Spire is a pretty good choice and remains one of my favourite of the genre.