Review: Dungeon of Elements

Skinny: Despite a baffling concept and incredibly rough around the edges, this cross-genre oddity is a playable gem.

Developers at Frogdice have decided that the best thing to do for their recent game was to combine elements of casual puzzle games with that of role-playing games (RPGs). The result is something that’s as playable as it is bizarre, and more than a little rough around the edges. But just how far can a strange concept and good intentions get you? The answer: pretty far! 

I Don’t Even… 

After the Indiana Jones-esque title screen, you’re plunged into a fantasy world were alchemists battle monsters in dungeons (or circus tents) by throwing oversized pill capsules filled with magic smoke at them. It’s as if Dr. Mario got drunk and fell asleep at the Renaissance Fayre! Nothing about it really makes sense, and it feels like the entire game’s mechanics have been crow-barred to fit around the idea rather than the other way around, resulting in a baffling Frankenstein’s monster of a game. 

Further aesthetic foibles includes a handle of the music tracks which err on the side of embarrassing: noticeable only for how grating they are rather than any effective aural illustration of environment or atmosphere against some other more standard ones. 

The UI is also a little strange. The fact that your avatar takes up a good fifth of the screen just to stand there doing nothing seems like wasted potential. And the only reason we can find for the ability to change camera angles in the camera view at the bottom is to better make out obstacles on the board. Otherwise, the camera is are just an awkward addition that doesn't really achieve much by the way of assistance. 

Whilst it is disingenuous to diss an indie-game for the limits of its production values, it’s difficult to avoid noticing them and wondering what on earth the developers were thinking. But this is something that only lasts for as long as first impressions do, giving way to a game that's far more than the sum of its parts and proof that you should never judge a game by its looks.

Don’t Come For the Production, But Stay for the Strategy

Regardless of all the negative things I could continue to say about Dungeon of Elements, I can’t avoid the fact that beyond the unpolished perimeters, it's actually an incredibly absorbing and strategic affair. Although, in essence, it’s derrivative of puzzlers and other attempts at puzzle/RPG cross-overs like Square Enix's attempt, it’s by no means as flippant, easy, and as throw-away as the majority of them. This game is one you enter for the long haul, and you should expect some challenging play verging on infuriatingly difficult, not some casual and disposable distraction. 

Lining up combos, trying to figure out what to do with unwelcome pill colours, deciding whether to us a horizontal AOE weapon over a vertical one, thinking how to get around obstacles, all make for some very intensive thinking and problem solving. Throw in some surprising bosses and some varied level design, you absolutely cannot say that this is not enjoyable and playable: that would be an outright lie. 

Actual Constructive Criticism 

There are, however, some genuine shortcomings of the game, outside of shallow critique. For instance, the pacing of the levels isn’t great. Towards the middle you start to feel that you’re just grinding through puzzles not getting very far in the game’s story or difficult. As you almost lose interest, you're suddenly rewarded with a dramatic twist and invigorated gameplay. But it’s a shame that the difficulty curve and speed of progression doesn’t quite hold you throughout, especially as the game ultimately proves itself to be addictive and engaging when it’s at its prime. 

Furthermore, although there’s plenty of gameplay hours, with about 30 puzzles taking about five minutes each to solve for a novice player (if you don’t fail and have to restart too many time), the game is sadly quite short. Once you get to a point where you can really sink your teeth into it, and are finding the puzzles maddening but satisfying, you realise the game is pretty much at its end, and it’s a little sad to see it come to a finale. 

The main problem, though, is the alchemy system. It seems to want to form an integral part of the game, but ends up being very limited. You quickly learn the benefit of upgrading weapons to add more damage, AOEs, reducing cool-downs, and slowing down the speed of pills. But you soon find that later in the game you don’t really make much use of the system, bar some handy power-ups which do prove somewhat helpful but only in later levels. It just doesn’t have the depth and complexity to make how you use it a game-changer, therefore not reaching its potential.

"Well worth the time of any puzzle addict gasping for something different, difficult, and stand-out from the rest of the crop."

Conclusion 

But for all its flaws, the game is actually the spirit of indie games at its purest. FrogDice have taken an odd and awkward concept, found a demand for it through crowd-sourcing, and, despite its rough edges, have made a great little gem despite limited resources and sheen. Certainly well worth the time of any puzzle addict gasping for something different, difficult, and stand-out from the rest of the crop.

Dungeon of Elements is available to buy DRM-Free direct from http://frogdice.com. You can also vote for the title on Steam Greenlight.

Our Rating
7
Skinny: Despite a baffling concept and incredibly rough around the edges, this cross-genre oddity is a playable gem.

Featured Columnist

Bearded British game-bear. Likes his JRPGs accompanied with a G&T. Lives in London, UK. Also writes a lot about theatre and film. *jazz hands*

Published Nov. 27th 2013

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