For years, I am ashamed to admit that Dungeon of the Endless was one of those strange games I loved much more than I actually played. I longed to play it though, to be good at it – nobody is actually good at it – or at least to truly understand it. I was drawn in by the stylish French sci-fi, the elegant, elongated pixel art, this El Greco futurism with a brutal tower defence twist. But I felt frozen out. And now I’m finally in, I don’t really know why I was so afraid. I think I was probably fretful about being overwhelmed, but in Dungeon of the Endless being overwhelmed is actually the central thrill.
I see that now. Today, Dungeon of the Endless has finally arrived on smartphones, which means that this bewitching game will have a huge new audience to win over. The port is not bad, I think – it’s the game I remember, with all the DLC, but I should warn anyone else like me with long-sightedness: the text can be pretty small and I can struggle to make out the more frantic action.
Nonetheless I think there has been love spent here. Dungeon of the Endless is a game about exploring deadly underground mazes, to first find the exit to the next area and then get your crystal from the starting position to the exit. You control a handful of characters who auto-attack anything in the current room they’re in, but even with auto-attack, I was still worried about fiddliness. Selecting characters can be fiddly on a touchscreen, and how would the game handle Dungeon of the Endless’ two signature moments, opening a door to somewhere new and possible horrid, and lighting a room once you’ve cleared it out?
A tap and a long press are the pleasing answers. Tap a door to open it and your selected character goes through. (You can select all characters quite easily by double-tapping a character portrait.) Then when you’re in the room and you’ve emptied it, a long press of the screen will bring the lights on, which will stop new enemies spawning.
It will bring the lights on if you have enough dust to power the room, of course. This is part of the genius of Dungeon of the Endless. Scarcity. You never have quite enough stuff. Never quite enough dust to keep all the rooms on the map lit – which means that you risk incursions from baddies spawning in the darkness. Never enough of the other resources to level your characters as much as you would like, or create little factories in each room, of deck the floors out with turrets to whittle away at your foes.
This all comes into sharp relief once you’ve found the exit to each level. You’re this close to victory, and yet now is when Dungeon of the Endless chooses to kick you in the knees. You need to go back to the start and then lug that crystal to the exit safely. The crystal’s heavy, so the lugger will be slow and will not be able to fight. And the moment the crystal moves, enemies start to spawn everywhere. So you juggle: you pace out your light and your factories and you make the most of your resources and you decide where you can afford to place turrets and which of your team is better at carrying the crystal and which of the team has the skills needed for defence.
It’s brilliant, this final desperate dash. It gives each level a sense of proper climax. And when it falls apart – as it often will – you can trace the disaster back to a flaw in your thinking.
So yes, the text is a bit too small, but Dungeon of the Endless has arrived on smartphones at just the right time. I am properly inside this game now, properly committed, swiping and tapping and panicking through this stylish French future.