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RPG Codex Review: Dungeon Rats
Review - posted by Infinitron on Wed 7 December 2016, 19:33:17Tags: Dungeon Rats; Iron Tower Studio
[Review by Darth Roxor]
Dungeon Rats – Slammin’ them dunks
Barely a year after Age of Decadence, everyone’s favourite pre-medieval vapourware developer Iron Tower Studio has decided to grace us with a new game – Dungeon Rats.
Dungeon Rats is the promised party-based dungeon crawler spinoff of AoD. It has been designed to profit from only one of the first game’s strengths – its combat system – while ditching everything else, to the great appreciation of Real RPG Players, and to the equally great lamentations of Shameless LARPers.
With a development time this short and a scope this narrow, can Dungeon Rats offer anything more than a mere slamdunk? There is only one way to find out!
Don’t be stupid, be a smarty
At first glance, Dungeon Rats looks and plays just like Age of Decadence, so veterans should feel right at home. However, there are a few tweaks and additions that set it apart from its parent.
The biggest changes can be found in the character system. Since the game focuses solely on combat, all civic skills have been removed – all that is left are combat skills, crafting and alchemy. Following this, the few instances of non-combat skill checks that have made it to the game are now governed by stats or the crafting skill (this includes lockpicking). A big change has also been applied to Charisma, which now has a tangible function, as opposed to a vague “reaction bonus” – the statistic determines how many companions can join your party (from 0 to 3). Character slots are maxed at Charisma 8, so it may seem useless at first to pump CHA all the way up to 10, but some of the followers also happen to be gated by individual Charisma checks.
Indeed, party-based combat is in. There are 11 pre-made companions of various kinds and trades just waiting for you to recruit them at specific places in the game. Except for a trio of bumpkins that are little more than a trap choice, the companions are fairly competent – they might even be better than your character, and thus are handy to have around. If there is one thing that some may find disappointing about them, it’s that they are basically walking character sheets, which don’t say a thing after their initial conversation. There is some truth to this, because they would profit from a quip every now and again, but on the other hand, who really gives a damn?
Still, you’re not forced to play with a party. In fact, going solo is a supported playstyle that even comes with its own benefits. Starting the game in solo mode sets your character’s Charisma to 2, as opposed to the default minimum of 4, and so gives you 2 free stat points to spend. Furthermore, skill points gained from fights are distributed among the party, so a lone character will be growing in power much faster than a larger crew.
Apart from solo mode, a few other things you can toggle before starting include ironman mode and game difficulty. There are three difficulty levels, and they affect enemy stats. “Nice Guy” (easy) and “Tough Bastard” (medium) reduce enemy attack and defence values by certain percentages, while “Murderous Psychopath” (hard) is a fair-and-square AoD-level difficulty that puts all combatants on equal footing. Personally, I find little reason to play below Murderous Psychopath considering this game is supposed to be all about challenge.
A few changes also made their way into the interface and mechanics. Perhaps the most welcome one is the addition of a set-up phase to every fight, letting you shuffle your dudes around and not get stuck in idiotically exposed positions, as it often used to be the case in AoD. Positioning and facing matter a bit more now as well, since flanking bonuses have been added, although I must say I didn’t really notice them all that much, since the combat dynamics remain as they were, i.e. get surrounded – get murdered, and you don’t really need flanking to enforce that. Another useful tweak that makes it easier for you to stay alive is a guaranteed first move for the player character during the first turn of combat, no matter your initiative (now displayed on a fancy initiative bar, too). It certainly helps against getting bumrushed and netted and chopped up for BBQ before you can even react. Dungeon Rats also has proper quick-use slots, where you can put small weapons and consumables, as opposed to the clumsy belt bags of AoD.
Finally, there haven’t been many additions to available arsenal, except for a small handful of unique items, but a big change hit crafting. First, you can’t craft metal items on the fly – for that you need a forge, and forges also have material limits, so you can’t produce blue steel gear in an iron smithy. Second, you can’t buy item schematics from blacksmiths – you can only add them based on looted stuff. The practical effects of these are significant, but not entirely positive. On the one hand, it makes you appreciate getting completely mundane items. On the other, the gear progression can get so linear that you might end up going through more than half of the game using the same loadout.
Dungeon Rats vs Aurelian Korps
Now that all this is out of the way, let’s talk about the meat of the game – da foightin’!
There is certainly a lot of it. All kinds of baddies will emerge from behind every corner to put a shiv in your butt. As with everything else in Dungeon Rats, most of the fights will be familiar to you if you played Age of Decadence. You will be outnumbered, sometimes outgunned, often standing in a blatantly disadvantageous position (even despite the set-up phase) and then pummelled into the ground, unless you use your wits and the tools available to you to tip the scales in your favour. But, unlike in AoD, you will spend about as much time fighting humans as you will fending off monsters. The way these fights, and the encounter design in general, are structured leads to plenty of ups and downs as you progress through the game.
On a general note, the encounter design could be described as “segmented”. That is to say, you will mostly proceed from one area full of a certain kind of enemy to another. At times, this segmentation can feel rather ridiculous, and some of the levels might as well have a bunch of signs posted around, such as “now entering Scorpion Villa, prepare your antidotes”. Furthermore, the segmentation can sometimes get tiresome as it puts you against series of fights that feel rather samey. Because of this, Dungeon Rats is best played in short bursts – enter a zone, clear the zone just as you start getting annoyed with the enemies exclusive to it, take a break, proceed to the next zone. But there is certainly no zone more annoying than the one at the very start – which is a series of fights against killer ants. Why was the game front-loaded with its worst part, I cannot say. Especially considering that the comparisons to the Temple of Trials in Fallout 2 practically make themselves with each new ant encounter.
When it comes to more specific aspects of the encounter design, these have to be divided into two categories – human fights and critter fights.
As one would expect, the game shines the most during the fights against humans. This is true because of all the reasons that made AoD combat great – humans are the most tactically diverse in terms of abilities, weaponry, armour, etc, which makes almost every fight against them unique to some extent. Furthermore, they use many more dirty tricks than before. While in AoD someone would throw a net at you every now and again, in DR nets are a constant threat, not to mention alchemical support like acid, grenades and liquid fire (nevermind that the AI isn’t very good at handling them). Some of these fights are so stacked against you that trying to crack them is a real pleasure, even if you have to reload a dozen times to try out different approaches. While I wish I could say something more about this encounter design category, I feel that I would just be repeating most of my points from my earlier review of AoD.
But then you have the monsters, which are more or less the anti-thesis to everything that makes AoD combat good. Sure, the first time a new monster type appears, you might be surprised by what it can do, and act accordingly to counter it. However, monsters don’t really go beyond 2 types (and even that is usually limited to “small scorpion”, “big scorpion”), and don’t present any tactical flexibility. They are simply one-trick ponies that stop being interesting dangerously fast. Scolopendras rush forward and hit you and poison you, and that’s it. Same goes for scorpions and ants. You’ve been to one of these fights, and you’ve been to them all, especially considering that the monsters usually aren’t mixed with anything else, following the encounter segmentation policy. Now compare that predictability to humans, where a guy labelled “swordsman” can just as well have a few pila handy, poison on his blade and a net in his pocket, which will all be unknown to you until you’ve seen him use it.
However, the monsters can get worse and drift even further from AoD combat design by having multitudes of immunities stacked on them. At one point in the game, you enter a zone that could be called Construct City. The constructs are the very embodiment of bad design in Dungeon Rats, although they’ve also been featured in AoD, but there they were not as prominent. You can’t knock them down, you can’t poison them, you can’t cripple their arms or legs, you can’t move them in any way, and you can’t manoeuvre around them, because they have AP up the ass, and all the combat areas including them are completely open. Meanwhile, what can they do? Bumrush and stab you in the face with two attack types, that’s all. The options you typically have against overwhelming odds are thus reduced to more or less two: stack up on the heaviest armour you can find (or craft) or spam all the alchemical stuff you have at hand. Apart from that, all you can do is take a rosary and pray to RNGesus.
The interesting thing is that most of these flaws, though always annoying to some extent, only become fully apparent when you do a solo playthrough. When you have more party members, you can still try to do something fancy, one way or the other. A lone wolf, on the other hand, is going to have to live with those limited options and just whack stuff with regular attacks until it dies. This can be the worst during the opening ant farm, when you still don’t have access to anything of worth (and let’s be honest, you’d have to be stupid to waste it on ants even if you had it), and, consequently, each fight roughly boils down to: x ants appear -> they start hitting you with poisoned attacks that also reduce your dodge -> you whack them with your shitty crude starting weapon -> it works and you move on to the next ant fight; or it doesn’t and you reload.
Like I said, though, some of the above problems can be avoided (or, at least, lessened) when playing with a party. As you may have guessed, having more dudes at your command can change the AoD combat dynamics significantly. Whether it’s chaining up an alchemical combo of doom with everyone you have, or employing old and tried tactics, such as one character hitting and running while another one facetanks provides a distraction, it’s all there. Character development also gets some shifts here, as, for example, an archer will no longer need to spend points in dodge if he has enough meatshields.
On a final note, it is interesting how playing solo can actually be easier than with a full party. There were many fights that gave me trouble during my first 3-man playthrough, but which I later steamrolled with a single character. I suspect a lot of this can be attributed to the fact that, when alone, you don’t have to keep anyone else alive, reducing the number of necessary reloads, and you can also make better use of chokepoints or bodyblocking.
Rats in the walls
The narrative side of Dungeon Rats doesn’t matter at all, and it’s very clear that this was a conscious decision. The story takes place in a prison mine belonging to House Aurelian. You are a convict sent to the deepest floor of the mine to dig after iron ore. But since you’re not dumb enough to accept that lot, your real job is to get out of this prison by killing everyone who stands in your way.
The gameworld, as it is presented, makes little to no sense at all, but criticising it for that would be unfair, as its chief function is to lead you from fight to fight. The story and writing are similarly insignificant, often even bordering on half-arsed. While this is acceptable for short texts that are basically “you enter the room, when SUDDENLY ENEMIES! [insert pop-culture reference/cheeky one-liner here]”, it can get really jarring when Iron Tower decides to delve into some sort of backstory for the mine. This backstory is delivered through a handful of shamelessly info-dumpy NPCs, which are not only terribly written, but also so well-informed and eager to share their vast troves of deep lore that you can forget about chasing any mysteries – everything is laid out perfectly in front of you. The background for the prison in Dungeon Rats could serve as an interesting premise for something, but that would have to take a different game with a different mindset behind it.
However, while it’s very easy (and advisable) to dismiss the narrative side of the dungeon as unimportant, the same can’t be said about the general level design, and here we arrive to what is perhaps Dungeon Rats’ greatest flaw.
The game is marketed as a “dungeon crawler”, but I really do beg to differ. When viewing player opinions about Dungeon Rats, you will often come across people saying that they “typically don’t like dungeon crawlers, but really like Dungeon Rats”. A hypothesis can be drawn from this – the game is actually not a dungeon crawler at all. And I will tell you why.
A successful dungeon crawler needs much more than just entertaining combat to work. It also needs a properly set-up dungeon, with all that it entails. It has to be decently labyrinthine, it needs a generous amount of optional content to explore, it needs some non-combat interaction, preferably puzzles of some kind, it needs traps, it needs secrets or mysteries to uncover, and it needs proper resource management. In a sense, the dungeon should be an entity of its own, even an enemy. Meanwhile, Dungeon Rats is anything but the above.
When the game starts, the tutorial tells you to “follow the [mine cart] rails towards your first fight”. This is Iron Tower’s latest game in a nutshell. You just go from room to room, clearing out baddies and proceeding along a linear path of pre-set fights. “Exploration” is limited to occasional single side-rooms, which you’d have to be stupid to ignore. Any meaningful non-combat interactions you can forget about, and the same applies to secrets, traps and puzzles, while mystery I’ve already covered above. There is simply nothing to do here but to go forth and destroy.
In this sense, Dungeon Rats has less in common with even the most basic dungeon crawlers, like Lands of Lore, and more with Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom. Indeed, DR is basically a turn-based beat ‘em up. You first choose one of the available characters (by dumping points into one of the weapon skills), then proceed on a never-ending railroad of fights against enemies that come out from behind the borders of the screen. The side-rooms with goodies you can go into are very reminiscent of the short side-tracks available in Tower of Doom too. Now if only DR also had the traps that are present in that game…
Dungeon Rats fails even at the resource management part, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be “brutally difficult”. Nets, whetstones and sources of poison are so handily available, you never have to calculate whether to use them or not. A few alchemical components are a bit more limited, but unless you go completely gung-ho, you should never run out of relevant consumables as well. The same is true for healing. Apart from ubiquitous healing salves (or roots used to brew them), DR also adds food rations – but don’t be fooled, there is no hunger management to be had here. Food rations only serve as a source of healing, where 1 ration heals 1 HP. Suffice to say, by the end of my solo playthrough I had over 500 spare rations, and I also never had to ration my rations during the 3-man party game.
This short tech chapter is more of a formality than anything else, because tech-wise, not much has changed from Age of Decadence. Except for some of the very welcome UI and general convenience upgrades, Dungeon Rats looks, sounds and plays exactly like its predecessor.
Also similarly to AoD, the enemy AI can be pretty stupid, although at least nowadays the foes don’t block each other’s paths as often as they used to. Still, as I said before, more enemies now have access to alchemical items like grenades and liquid fire, but the ways they use them leave a lot to be desired. They don’t care at all about friendly fire, and they will gladly hit multiple allies just to hit one of your dudes. Tactical application of liquid fire is alien to them as well, as it is simply used like a normal grenade, even if throwing it will set up a shielding firewall between the player and a bunch of melee enemies. They also can’t handle closed doors at all, which opens the way to all sorts of hilarious abuse, although supposedly this has already been fixed.
Finally, in terms of stability, the game is very stable, and over the course of my two playthroughs I had only a small handful of CTDs. Bugs can sometimes show up, however, especially when setting up liquid fire in narrow spaces.
I smell a rat
As you can see, there is not really much to tell. Dungeon Rats is, overall, a competently made combat romp using the Age of Decadence ruleset and engine. For the most part, it’s a fun little game, and some of its more difficult fights will give you adequate challenge. The fact that it costs barely 9 bucks and that a single playthrough will take you roughly 10 hours (+/- 2) also makes it easier to gloss over some of its flaws. In essence, if you’re a fan of AoD combat, you can practically get it blind.
However, the flaws are definitely there, and in some ways they are a huge step back from Age of Decadence, even despite the game’s completely different focus and design philosophy. It also bears repeating that Dungeon Rats suffers from a serious case of false advertisement, and, while enjoyable, it is definitely not a dungeon crawler. And although I don't have a problem with the formula itself, which could be described as "RPG Encounters: The Game", the term "dungeon crawler" carries with it a set of specific connotations that need to be met, and someone seeking it in this game could simply feel cheated.
To achieve what they've set out to do, Iron Tower would have to put in a lot more effort into Dungeon Rats because, to quote a classic, simply making your game all about combat does not a dungeon crawler make. Perhaps they should settle for a different label of some kind - "dungeon brawler", for instance, would fit right in.