Here’s a thought – what if ‘Wizardry’ was given the Social RPG treatment? It would still retain the first person dungeon crawling perspective and problem solving but would now include easier battles and a monster fusion system akin to ‘Puzzles and Dragons’. The offspring of such a fusion would be Dungeon Monsters.
Firstly, this is not the same Dungeon Monsters game by Alexandre Mindard that’s been available on the apple watch, instead being referred to in advertisements as ‘Dungeon Monsters RPG’ to prevent confusion. As freemium titles go, this particular game has some very good ideas straight out of the gate, ripping off the Social RPG industry leader in most regards and adding free-roaming exploration to that games on-rails dungeon crawls. It’s not quite the ‘rebirth of the 3D first-person dungeon crawler’ that developer Mana Cube claims (not with ‘Coldfire Keep’ and ‘Legend of Grimrock’ available) but it is a rare free to play treat.
Graphically the title uses a breezy, cartoon style that implements 2D illustrations over 3D dungeons to excellent effect. The textures on the locations you visit have been painted to match the style of the characters and this gives everything a Saturday morning cartoon vibe that gels with the light and breezy gameplay. Due to the nature of collecting and training a wide range of monsters there is a variation in quality of their design, with some being pretty inspired whilst others are cliche at best or ugly at worst (without breaking from the overall visual style). It’s a little bit of a shame that so much of the home screen is taken up by a needless banner that shows us the title of the game we’re already playing, but good use of layout in dungeons and functionality of menus makes playing with a thumb easy.
Sound and Music are of a reasonably high quality, though largely uninspired in execution. The game makes good use out of bombastic tones at its outset and this pushes the gamer to keep playing and moving forward through the campaign, but after a while causes them to turn it down or off as the length of the session continues. Sound effects are crisp and do the job they were meant for without bringing any sense of world to the locations you visit. Dripping water in the distance that intensifies in volume and eventually leads you to its source or the distant cry of a monster you’re yet to encounter are small additions that add a great deal to immersion in a game of this type.
Mana Cube have actually gone out of their way to include a story for their campaign mode that sees you in the shoes of a somewhat flippant and reluctant hero who has been chosen to undertake a number of tasks, starting with making his way to a castle to rescue the king, accompanied by a woman made of light who may be goddess. The pair banter their way through chunks of the game and each location logically feeds into the next, adding a dimension to play that’s story-light but enough to give the world a distinct flavor.
If you enjoyed the gameplay in ‘Puzzles and Dragons’ then there’s a very good chance that you will love this game. It lifts wholesale the concept of making a party of four elementally themed monsters, one of which is denoted as the leader, and strengthening them through the collection and fusing of other monsters you’ve defeated to add levels to your team. Monsters come in a variety of rarities from common to ultra rare, and in addition to being gathered through exploration can be drawn blindly by spending friend points (pushing the Social RPG angle, as does having an empty party space for a friend to join your party) or premium currency, that’s always available in a freemium game such as this. Unlike the freemium darling, battles in this game take the form of first person encounters with groups of enemies and tapping your party selects which character will attack and on which target, allowing for a small amount of tactical choice. Sadly tapping the screen blindly also usually works, with the party triggering in the order you set them. The real focal point of this game comes in the form of its exploration of areas. Each dungeon is set on a square grid with a set number of exploration points linked to a candle that when extinguished terminates the journey early, losing you the mission. Carefully budgeting this means that you’ll pay a lot more attention to movement than battles, though sweeping the screen to move does sometimes lead to wasted turns as you mistakenly hit the wrong control. A virtual pad may have alleviated the stress of this, but for the most part sweeping left and right to turn and up to move works just fine. Most dungeons have a locked door that forces you to find a key (silver) and many also have a special golden door that contains higher level treasures. Getting in requires finding a gold key in that or another dungeon and risking the worth of the loot against the chance of getting caught short in actions later. Dungeons can span multiple grids, making clever use of teleport spots, and the game has a few more surprises in store in its later levels. In addition to a lengthy campaign there’s also a regular number of special event dungeons that appear for limited times and contain rare themed monsters.
Overall, this is an interesting title with a fun exploration mechanic that makes for good decision making and puts a nice focus on movement over combat. Dungeons are laid out in an interesting manner and some of the games design is fantastic. Sadly the heavy lean on Social and Freemium aspects do sour the experience after a while and you’ll find that you return to the game less and less over the months until its just sitting untouched on your screen. I’d really like to see the team at Mana Cube take the basic game on display here and turn it into a pay-once experience that’s tightly plotted and allows them to really go to town on their level design, because there’s so much potential under all the padding.