The dungeon crawler subgenre of role-playing games has a long and proud history that stretches right back to the dawn of gaming.
Dungeon Travelers 2 perhaps doesn’t deviate particularly significantly from the more well established conventions of the genre, but it executes them with such polished competence that it becomes clear shortly after starting to play that it is a game that has had a great deal of thought put into its mechanics.
But how did we get to this point? Let’s take a look back at the history of the genre, and how it relates to Dungeon Travelers 2 in particular.
We’ve been traveling dungeons since people first discovered that computers can be used for entertainment as well as calculations and productivity solutions. The earliest example of such a game is regarded to be a game called pedit5 for the PLATO computer assisted learning system back in 1975. Since home computers were yet to become a part of everyday life for the general population, pedit5 was played on mainframe computers via terminals.
While primitive, we can already see the genesis of the genre. In pedit5, players take control of a single character who explores a single-level dungeon, battling monsters, casting spells and accumulating treasure. It was closely based on the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role-playing system, which was first released a year earlier in 1974, and consequently was still quite new and exciting for those looking to engage their imagination to explore fantasy worlds and defeat terrifying monsters.
pedit5 had little in the way of goals other than amassing 20,000 experience points and then escaping the dungeon, but one of the defining characteristics even of the modern dungeon crawler is less of a focus on narrative than in many other role-playing games, and instead a focus on mechanics. Indeed, in Dungeon Travelers 2, while there is a narrative, after defeating the “final” boss, practically an entire other game’s worth of dungeons opens up with minimal story, instead simply challenging you to explore, fight and power your party up to your heart’s content. There’s no real “end” to this post-game scenario save for the goals you set for yourself, so it’s all about immersing yourself in the experience, experimenting with the mechanics and finding out what builds work for you. pedit5 was the same in many ways, although rather harsh with its randomness: there was no re-rolling of your initial stats, for example, and encounters in the dungeon were random, often confronting you with monsters well above your experience level rather earlier than you might have liked.
Dungeon crawlers didn’t go first-person until a few years later. In 1979, Richard “Lord British” Garriott — he who would later go on to develop the Ultima series, some of the most influential RPGs throughout gaming’s early history — released Akalabeth: World of Doom for the Apple II. While primitive, both in terms of visuals and mechanics, Akalabeth is immediately recognisable as the first of the modern, first-person dungeon crawlers. It features grid-based movement and turn-based interaction as well as more than a little inspiration from both the growing Dungeons & Dragons scene and J.R.R. Tolkien’s influential fantasy works. Indeed, Akalabeth is a bastardisation of the title of the third part of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.
Akalabeth subsequently begat Ultima in 1980, but already it was clear that Garriott’s ambition for the series was considerably more than just simple dungeon crawling; he wanted to build worlds. Meanwhile, the foundations he had set in place with Akalabeth were picked up in the same year by Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead, who put out the first Wizardry game under Norman Sirotek’s Sir-Tech label, which continued to publish the series throughout the later stages of its life.
Wizardry was noteworthy for a number of reasons, most significantly the fact that rather than playing a single character, as in Akalabeth and Ultima — and indeed pedit5 — it allowed for the creation of a full party of virtual adventurers to take on the game’s challenges together. These characters could be one of four different races, three different alignments and four basic classes — and in a convention that is kept by many modern dungeon crawlers even today, it was possible to upgrade these classes to “elite” versions with additional abilities by reaching a particular level. Wizardry handled this by making the “elite” classes essentially cross-class characters: a bishop, for example, was simply a priest with the ability to cast mage spells.
Dungeon Travelers 2 actually does something a little similar with its character development system: at level 15, you unlock an “intermediate” class that builds off your character’s base class, while at level 30, you unlock an “advanced” class that allows the character to further specialise. What’s particularly interesting about how Dungeon Travelers 2 executes this is that all of the abilities from the base classes are still available as the advanced class, and in some cases the advanced class changes the role of the character in the party significantly, not unlike how Wizardry’s elite characters could fulfil multiple roles. We’ll talk more about this a little later.
As computer and video gaming started to pick up speed, so too did the pace of dungeon crawlers being released: it seemed that this was something people enjoyed playing, and with good reason! After all, a computer-based RPG allows you to indulge in the sort of epic quest that might take months or even years of tabletop play without having to rely on other people being available or amenable to the idea of sitting around a table pretending to be elves and wizards. While computer and video games have never quite nailed the actual “role-playing” part of role-playing, what they have always been good at is doing things with numbers. And there are a lot of numbers to crunch in roleplaying games.
1985 was a key year for dungeon crawlers, seeing two important releases. Of these, The Bard’s Tale is probably the most well known. The Bard’s Tale expanded on Wizardry’s formula with full colour graphics and environments other than dingy old dungeons that could be explored from a grid-based first-person perspective, adding a bit of variety to the experience. It also made the interesting decision to take character creation out of the hands of the player, instead only allowing them to select a race and position for a new character, then building a party from the squad they had created. This meant the game could be a bit different for everyone who played it, and much of the challenge came from finding the best way to make use of these variable abilities of the party members.
In the same year, Philip Price released Alternate Reality: The City, the first in an ambitious series of first-person role-playing games that unfortunately never quite came to fruition. The game saw the player being abducted from Earth and taken to an alien world which, oddly enough, seemed to resemble medieval Earth, only with a few more monsters wandering the streets after nightfall. The eventual aim of the game was to find a way off the planet over the course of several data disks, but we only ever saw the first of these: The Dungeon.
Alternate Reality was noteworthy in the genre for simulating the single player character in probably the greatest amount of detail any role-playing game ever has: not only did the character get hungry and thirsty, but different foods took different amounts of time to digest and provide benefits, poisons took varying amounts of time to course through the player character’s veins and considerations such as getting enough sleep, food and drink would directly affect the character’s stats. So, too, would the things you engaged in, however: attacking civilians wandering the streets would cause the city watch to start taking a rather violent interest in you, but fighting off monsters after nightfall would help train your strength and skill with a blade. You could even learn magic spells if you were so inclined, but it was a difficult path to follow.
While something of an outlier in the genre in that it was way more ambitious than the systems of the time were feasibly able to handle, Alternate Reality still provided some interesting lessons that continue to inform role-playing games in general today.
1987’s Laplace no Ma, released by HummingBirdSoft on MSX, PC-88, PC-98, Sharp X68000 and TurboGrafx-CD, is an interesting title. Not only is it an early example of a Japanese developer taking an interest in the genre — HummingBirdSoft had previously released a dungeon crawler called Deep Dungeon for the Famicom Disk System — but it’s also an example of such a developer breaking from the established Dungeons & Dragons-inspired conventions that had so far defined the genre to date.
Specifically, it took place in Massachusetts in 1924 rather than the typical Tolkien-inspired fantasy world, and featured horror tropes we take for granted in our games today, such as the obligatory spooky old mansion. What’s more intriguing than the setting is the variety of character classes on offer, though: no fighter, mage, thief here; instead, you choose from Dilettante, Medium, Detective, Scientist or Journalist. Some of these, such as the Medium, perform fairly standard RPG-style feats, but others, such as the Scientist (who builds machines to perform techniques) and the Journalist (who takes pictures of monsters, providing the only means of acquiring money in the game) are distinctly unusual and unconventional. A lot of modern RPGs are hesitant to break from the “holy trinity” of tank, healer, damage dealers, but Laplace no Ma was an early example of a Japanese developer doing just that.
And it’s worth noting that, although in many ways Dungeon Travelers 2 is quite conventional, it takes a few cues from Laplace no Ma and its ilk in that it has a selection of distinctly unconventional character classes alongside its more conventional options. The Maid class, for example, proves to be a surprisingly essential addition to any party thanks to its ability to restore TP (used to cast spells and use techniques), while the Spieler class and its subsequent evolutions promise some of the most devastating offensive power in the game at great, great risk, both to the Spieler herself and indeed, at times, the party as a whole.
A year later, SSI released Pool of Radiance, the first official computer adaptation of what had, by then, become Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Pool of Radiance took everything that the dungeon crawlers of the last few years had tried to do and put it all together into a comprehensive package. You could create your own party of adventurers, as in Wizardry, or run with a premade group, as with Bard’s Tale. There were areas other than dungeons to explore from a first-person perspective such as towns and overworld areas. It also broke with the conventions of the genre by switching combat to a turn-based isometric tactical display, allowing both player characters and enemies to move around during combat, giving additional strategic options for both sides to attempt to take advantage of. It also launched the “Gold Box” series of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games, which would be a mainstay of SSI’s lineup for many years to come.
By now, many of the most common conventions of the genre were firmly in place, so while it is tempting to explore each and every dungeon crawler from pedit5 right up until today, in the interests of brevity let’s fast forward a bit and acknowledge some of the more recent examples of grid-based dungeon crawlers, particularly on console platforms.
And no discussion of dungeon crawlers would be complete without mentioning the Etrian Odyssey series on Nintendo’s handhelds. Deliberately channelling the feel of the older Wizardry and Bard’s Tale games, Etrian Odyssey and its sequels are challenging games with a lot of flexibility for players to fight their way through as they see fit. The series also makes eminently sensible use of the DS and 3DS touchscreen by allowing the player to make a map of their explorations — in fact, it’s essential to do so, as in a particularly sadistic nod to old-school dungeon crawlers, the game won’t map itself, unlike many other modern titles.
Dungeon crawlers were historically a fairly Western phenomenon, though modern Japan is very much in love with the genre. Etrian Odyssey is an early example of how a Japanese developer fused a more “JRPG” sense of game design with the conventions of dungeon crawlers, most clearly seen in the FOEs that wander the dungeons. Taking the form of enormously powerful monsters that move as the player does — and track them down if they come within range — FOEs are effectively “superbosses” that require a decent amount of preparation to be able to take down. The idea of extremely powerful enemies that will likely splatter you across the nearest wall when you first encounter them is a distinctly Japanese thing to do, and Etrian Odyssey does it well. Dungeon Travelers 2 has plenty of moments like this, too, though they don’t wander the dungeons and instead appear in set locations that you get plenty of advance warning of. That said, you get no indication of how powerful the “foe you sense on the other side of the door” is until you start fighting them — and particularly if you’re exploring some of the game’s optional dungeons, they’ll be considerably more powerful than the standard enemies that lurk elsewhere.
So let’s talk in a bit more detail about Dungeon Travelers 2‘s mechanics, because it takes quite a few cues from the genre’s history as a whole, as we’ve already seen.
As previously mentioned, Dungeon Travelers 2 unfolds in two distinct parts. The main story takes about 50-60 hours to beat and will likely take your preferred party of characters up to around the level 50 mark. In doing so, you’ll get a good feel for how they all work and what makes a good party composition. There’s no way you’ll have maxed any of them out to their full potential, but you will have encountered all the main systems the game has to offer: exploration, combat, character progression and equipment customisation.
Exploration is kept pretty simple from a mechanical standpoint. Like most other dungeon crawlers, Dungeon Travelers 2 uses grid-based movement on maps that make use of a single, uniform tileset — though different floors of an individual dungeon might use different tiles. As you explore, you’ll come across doors, some of which are locked and require a particular item to open, others of which require a switch elsewhere in the dungeon to be flipped. The early dungeons are pretty straightforward in their layout: despite looking distinctly maze-like on the map screen, there’s usually a clear, single route to take in order to progress onwards. As the game goes on, though, a number of more subtle mechanics are added to exploration, most notably the addition of common genre conventions such as one-way passages, hidden doors (which can be revealed by casting a Light spell or using a Flashlight item) and puzzle sequences that allow you to open some doors but not others at the same time using switches.
Combat, meanwhile, is strictly turn-based and sees your party, which can contain a maximum of five members, lining up in two rows: one of up to two, the other of up to three. Likewise, the monsters will come at you in groups of no more than five, and have a front row and a back row. Weapons have a particular range that they’re most effective at — short swords, for example, are most useful when used at short range (front row to front row) while longbows can retain their effectiveness at long range (back row to back row). The turn order is shown at the side of the screen, and once a character or monster’s turn is complete, the position they shift to in the order is determined by a combination of their explicit Agility stat and their hidden Speed rating, which mostly comes from equipment. The game makes use of an enmity system similar to an MMO, so monsters can have their attention attracted by large amounts of damage or enmity manipulation skills, allowing tank-type characters such as Valkyries to take the brunt of the damage. Physical and elemental resistances are also extremely important, affecting damage to a huge degree as well as the ability to resist status effects: each of the game’s negative statuses are associated with a particular element, so raising your resistance to that element also makes you more likely to shrug off, say, poison.
A key part of growing your combat effectiveness in Dungeon Travelers 2 is through character progression, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Levelling up is important in that it increases the characters’ (non-customisable) base stats along with their maximum HP and TP, but of arguably greater importance is the acquisition of Skill Points (SP), which can be spent on either unlocking new abilities from any of the up to three character classes the character has at any time, or powering those abilities up. You have a strike a careful balance, especially in the early game: powering up an ability too much too early will make it impractical to use, since aspects such as cast time and TP cost also increase alongside its effectiveness. There’s a good degree of flexibility to build characters how you want, though, and with the Level Reset system returning all your previously spent SP when you reset to level 1, 15, 30, 50 or 90, you can respec pretty easily — for free, even, when you reach any of those thresholds for the first time.
The other part of bumping up your characters’ effectiveness in Dungeon Travelers 2 is the equipment customisation system. While wandering the dungeons, monsters aren’t the only things you will encounter. There’s a bear who sells ramen, a penguin that sells ice cream and a sheep blacksmith, and as you explore you have a random chance of encountering these friendly NPCs instead of a combat engagement. The blacksmith, coupled with the protagonist’s ability to create “Sealbooks” of monsters after the party has defeated nine of them, is key to progression, particularly in the mid to late game. By combining up to five Sealbooks with an item of equipment, you can both increase the base effectiveness of the equipment and attach up to four different passive abilities to it, randomly selected from the Sealbooks you used for the enchantment. In doing so, you can customise your equipment in various ways, either to plug the holes in a character’s effectiveness or to make their strengths even stronger. In doing so, you can give underleveled characters a fighting chance when you’re attempting to catch them up to your main party by providing them with highly effective gear.
Dungeon Travelers 2 does a good job of gradually teaching you all these mechanics over the course of the main story. There’s an explicit tutorial section where you can get (somewhat sarcastically delivered) lectures on the game’s main systems, but for the most part the game is a case of “learn by doing”. It’s easy to correct mistakes, since basic equipment comes thick and fast, and although your encounters with the blacksmith are determined by random chance, if you spend enough time in a single dungeon you’re all but guaranteed to run into him.
And it’s a good job the game spends all this time training you, because once you beat the final story boss and get into the Otherworld Chapter — the “post-game” — you’ll need to use all that knowledge and more to get your characters fighting fit for the toughest things in the whole game. While there’s no real end to the Otherworld Chapter except for your own satisfaction (or perhaps a Platinum PSN trophy) there are some clear goals to aspire to in the form of the Evil God bosses who lurk at the bottom of each dungeon. Level 99 and enormously powerful, these horrors will absolutely destroy an ill-prepared party, and in order to prevail against them you’ll need to maximise your characters’ destructive and defensive potential as much as possible through both experience level advancement and equipping them with suitable gear. The rewards are eminently worthwhile, though; besides the sense of smug satisfaction you get from defeating a superboss, they also have some rather nice loot to make your party even more effective and able to take on the other horrors the Otherworld has to offer.
Dungeon Travelers 2 is one of the most mechanically dense dungeon crawlers out there, yet it manages to carry this off in such a way that it never feels impenetrable or inaccessible. While I’d hesitate to recommend it as a first dungeon crawler for anyone new to the genre — that honour would probably go to something along the lines of Experience Inc.’s excellent but comparatively simplistic Demon Gaze — it’s definitely not a game anyone should only feel is suitable for crawler veterans. In fact, it’s perfectly possible to have a completely satisfying experience with the game by only playing up to the end of the main story and then stopping.
But then most players will probably find they have a taste for the wonderfully crafted, interlocking mechanics in the game by then, and they won’t be able to resist just a little peek into the Otherworld Chapter. And 150 hours later they’ll be on the 30th floor of the Tower of Bogomil wondering if they’re quite ready to go and face Angra Mainyu for the first time. I speak from experience.
In the next article, we’ll take a more in-depth look at Dungeon Travelers 2’s narrative, themes and characterisation — because in a subgenre not exactly renowned for its storytelling, Dungeon Travelers 2 actually does some interesting things.
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Dungeon Travelers 2: The Royal Library and the Monster Seal is available now for PlayStation Vita. Find out more at the official site.