Friday, April 5, 2013

Review: Dungeon Hearts

Developer: Cube Roots
Publisher: Devolver Digital

Dungeon Hearts has a really cool idea at its core: What if battles in RPGs took place entirely via a fast-paced match-three puzzle interface instead of the old menu-based way? It's an exceptional idea, but Dungeon Hearts can't quite pull it off.

In Dungeon Hearts, you play through a series of battles, one right after the other. At the bottom of the screen, there's a constantly-scrolling stream of tiles called the FateStream. The tiles have different colors which correspond to the colors of your four units, and mixed in to the FateStream are tiles that can damage your units or cause various status effects to affect them. When a tile gets to the end of the FateStream, it's gone, so in order to defeat your enemies, you have to quickly match tiles.

Your enemies also get tiles that appear at random in the FateStream, and if the tiles reach your characters, then they apply that effect, whether it's a straight attack, freezing, weakening, or some other debuff. Each unit has its own allotment of hit points, and when they run out, your game ends.

After each battle is complete, you're given another pile of gems to sort through, except that matching the gems in this area enables your characters to gain levels. Gaining levels strengthens your characters and unlocks special skills which can be used during combat.

Got all that? Good. The system itself is great and fairly easy to master, but the way the system is implemented is problematic.

First, the way your characters gain levels isn't very well-executed. If you mess up during the gem-matching portion after the battles are concluded, you may have gimped your characters for good. That's a problem, since levelling the characters unlocks skills, and some of those skills are as basic as a healing spell. If you've made a mistake and somehow not unlocked it, too bad!

There's also a tile that the enemies can use against you that's wildly overpowered: Life Drain. It continually damages the unit it hits while giving that life to your opponent. Now, these sort of spells and effects are in a lot of other games, but usually they have a set duration, like five or ten seconds. However, in Dungeon Hearts, Life Drain just keeps running until your unit dies, making it the most deadly tile in the game. Whenever you see one, you have to drop everything and desperately try and obliterate it or it's all over.

So if you do get hit with Life Drain, how do you stop it from killing you? Well, one of your characters has a skill that heals and clears debuffs. What if you didn't level up enough to get that skill? Too bad! More than likely, though, what will happen is that you used the skill and now have to wait for it to recharge. And what if that happens? Too bad!

How do you recharge your skills? By attacking with the appropriate character. What if no gems show up for that character? Too bad! What if the character who has the healing skill dies? Too bad! He also gets a resurrection skill, and if he dies, too bad! No resurrecting for you!

I don't like whining about fairness in games, but I have to say this: If you tie the strategy of your game into something that's completely random, that's not fair. That changes your carefully-constructed game into something like poker: You can think that you're a great poker player, but if you end up with the wrong cards in your hand, it doesn't matter how good you are. You will lose. That's how Dungeon Hearts feels sometimes.

So how could the situation have been improved? First, what about item drops that you can equip onto your characters, like shields that create immunities or absorb damage? What about a more generalized way of levelling your characters? Say, you match the gems, and then can pick who you want to upgrade and what you want to upgrade on them? That seems fair to me.

When Dungeon Hearts works, it's incredible. It's fun to play, the gem-matching is a ton of fun, and it's an idea that really hasn't been tried before. I would love to see this idea expanded upon and given a narrative so that it's closer to a real RPG. However, as it currently stands Dungeon Hearts feels like 75% of a great idea. The matching mechanics are just fine, but there needs to be more player agency and strategy. Since it's only 75% of a great idea, it gets a score that averages out to... 75%.

Final Rating: C

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