I enjoy beating games, particularly when they have a good story and especially when they have a dramatic finale.
But sometimes it’s nice to have a game on hand that you can just dip in and out of pretty much indefinitely. Arcade-style games fill this niche pretty nicely, but it’s also cool when you find something with a bit more in the way of “persistence” — something that you can continue playing over time and continue to discover new things about.
Recently, I fired up Dungeon Explorer by Hudson for the PSP, a spiritual successor (and, technically, prequel) to the company’s 1989 PC Engine/Turbografx classic of the same name. And… I think I’m going to be playing this game for a long time.
Dungeon Explorer is a polygonal isometric perspective action RPG that features both single-player and local ad-hoc wireless play for up to three adventurers. The meat of the game is in its single-player mode, however; in multiplayer you cannot earn experience and level up, but instead you’re rewarded with considerably better item drops that can then be taken back into single-player mode.
But more on that in a moment. Let’s look at the setup first; the story is fairly generic fantasy fluff for the most part, though it does at least put your activities in some sort of context.
The narrative runs thus: Once there were monsters, and monsters were bad news. The good people beat back the monsters and sealed them in a conveniently placed nearby dungeon, but as people tend to do when there isn’t a common enemy to fight, promptly descended into civil war when the mercenaries that had been hired to assist the kingdom with suppressing the monsters suddenly found themselves unemployed. The king was assassinated, and his successor managed to convince everyone to stop being such little shits to one another, ushering in a new age of peace. Naturally, this was a cue for the dungeon to become unsealed and monsters to start flooding out again.
Enter You, an adventurer of indeterminate class and origin (until you select both during character creation, of course) who used to be on the mercenaries’ side and indeed someone who was present when the dungeon was originally sealed. You know the truth of what happened that day; the sorcerer you were tasked with accompanying on his mission to seal the dungeon inexplicably locked himself inside after you left, so part of your mission is to discover exactly why on Earth he would do something so obviously stupid. In the meantime, it’s up to you to live your life as an adventurer (which is obviously different to being a mercenary) by completing quests, upgrading your equipment, exploring the dungeon and kicking all manner of monster booty.
Dungeon Explorer does a decent job of setting the scene with its introductory quests, though these do suffer somewhat from repetition as you explore the same identical plains pathway and nearby cave several times before you’re let loose in the dungeon proper. Once you discover “the Rift”, things get much more interesting.
Dungeon Explorer’s titular dungeon is actually eight different dungeons, each named after a planet. Each dungeon has twenty-three levels, and each level is split into a set number of areas, with a boss at the end of each level. The final level for each dungeon (apparently) has 99 areas, and the eventual goal of the game is presumably to complete this monstrous challenge for all eight. It’ll be a long time before you get anywhere close to that, though.
The dungeons are randomly generated, based on a number of different tilesets. Progression through them is dependent on you destroying “monster generators” in each area, which continually spawn monsters until you get rid of them. You’re given a set number to clear in each area, though there are usually more than you “need”. Once you’ve destroyed your quota, you can move on to the next area once you find the exit. When you reach the final area, there’s a boss to fight, and once that’s dead, you finish your run and are graded on your performance according to your clear time, number of kills, types of kills and a few other stats besides.
There are several different character classes to play, each of which has its own specialism, weapon and skill loadout, and role in the party. Regardless of the class you play, you have a basic weapon attack (which may be ranged in the case of some weapons); more powerful “Weapon Arts”, which cost AP to use and unlock gradually as you develop your proficiency with a particular weapon type; and very powerful, aimable “Job Arts”, which also cost AP to use and unlock as you develop proficiency with your class. Basic attacks and Weapon Arts are unleashed simply by pressing the appropriate button; Job Arts must be aimed using a cursor called the Art Sight, and this is where some of Dungeon Explorer’s more interesting mechanics come in.
Dungeon Explorer is designed to be played in a party, whether you’re playing the single-player mode or fighting alongside friends in multiplayer. Key to success is making use of a number of cooperative features, the first of which you’ll learn is another type of Art called Big Bang Arts. Here, you and one or more of your party members all put your Art Sight on the same target, then someone fires off one of their Job Arts. At this point, an on-screen meter appears and you have to accurately time a button press to correctly perform the Big Bang Art. If you succeed, considerable damage of a specific element ensues. If you fail, the Art normally still fires, but does less damage.
As you progress through the early quests, you’re introduced to some other techniques you can make use of. Another important one is use of a feature called the “Party Field”, which uses energy you build up in a meter by defeating monsters. Should a character become afflicted with a status ailment or incapacitated in combat, they can call for help and the party as a whole can use a proportion of the meter to help them recover. The twist on this is that all the party has to “agree” to do this by tapping a button; in single-player, you only have to remember to agree yourself, since your AI partners will always be up for it, but in multiplayer you’ll need to communicate and let each other know that you need help. It’s an interesting mechanic that provides a fun twist on cooperative gameplay.
Further along still, you’ll be introduced to a mechanic called “Chains”, whereby you cast a specific Job Art on a party member, then they cast the same Job Art back on you, and you are subsequently tethered together with an energy beam that you can then use to clothesline everything in sight — at least until one of you either runs out of AP or performs an action other than moving.
The combination of these different techniques — and I’m sure there will be more to learn as the game progresses, too — gives Dungeon Explorer a lot more interest and depth than you might initially assume. At the outset, if feels like a competent enough, if rather shallow hack and slash game. But as more and more options become available to you, it becomes much more enjoyable to play.
It’s a highly customisable game, too. You’re not locked in to your initial choice of character class by any means; after progressing a short way through the main story, you can change your job at any time, and even unlock additional jobs by meeting various prerequisites. You can also customise the many recruitable NPCs as you see fit by providing them with equipment, fiddling around with their skill loadouts, changing their jobs and even renaming them if you want to. About the only thing you can’t do with NPCs that your main character can is distribute bonus stat points on level up.
The game eschews a Diablo-style “loot whoring” system in favour of a more limited selection of highly upgradable and customisable weapons. By providing the local blacksmith and alchemist with materials, you can upgrade your weapon and armour with various stat increases and infuse them with elemental energy to give you an advantage against the foes of a specific dungeon. All the “elements” in the game have the same planetary names as the dungeons rather than using a more traditional elemental system, which makes it somewhat less intuitive to begin with — but also a bit more interesting than just traversing “the fire dungeon”, “the ice dungeon” and suchlike.
Progressing through the main story is dependent on you completing quests from the local adventurer’s guild, which generally give you some sort of specific objective to complete in the dungeons. These vary from “acquire these specific items from random drops” (which can take a while) to “perform this specific skill in conjunction with this NPC” (which is quite a bit more straightforward) — though often you’ll have to complete these objectives while also clearing a specific dungeon level. Once you complete all the quests available to you, you’ll get a “Special Quest” that advances the main story.
Sometimes you’ll run into a seeming roadblock in that a quest requires you to complete a specific dungeon level that you haven’t unlocked yet. When this happens, you’ll need to make use of the gems you acquire to power up the slates that give you access to the different dungeons. Deeper levels require more “points”, but more valuable gems are worth more points at once. While not on a quest, you can run any dungeons you’ve unlocked as many times as you like with whatever combination of NPC party members you desire, so you can grind to your heart’s content — or try to acquire the gems you need as quickly as you can.
As an action RPG dungeon crawler with randomised dungeons, Dungeon Explorer is, of course, an inherently repetitive experience. But it is structured in such a way to be eminently friendly to handheld play, at least in the early hours. The quests are generally relatively quick to complete (with the exception of those based on random drops, which can vary enormously) and some are even time-limited. And even the early dungeons are set up in such a way that you’re not chained to your PSP for hours at a time unless you want to be — some levels have several short, small areas to traverse, while others might have a single larger map before the boss encounter.
Of course, this changes somewhat by the time you reach the aforementioned 99-floor 23rd level of each dungeon — but if you’ve progressed far enough in the game for this to be a consideration you’re probably already taking it fairly seriously so a longer play session likely won’t be an issue for you. For those playing a bit more casually, you’ll find an experience that is eminently friendly to “lunch break play”. I speak from experience.
Dungeon Explorer isn’t revolutionary or super-exciting in any way, but what it does provide is a solid, well-implemented and surprisingly varied action RPG experience that will keep you busy for a good long while. There’s a lot to do in single-player before you’ll have seen everything the game has to offer, and for those able to convince some friends to play with them, the multiplayer provides a slightly different twist on the core experience. You can even make use of Game Sharing to play with friends who don’t have a copy of the game themselves — an oft-forgotten benefit of this particular generation of handheld consoles.
All in all, if you enjoy the fine art of making numbers get gradually bigger over time while poking monsters with various implements, Dungeon Explorer is a fine addition to your PSP library. It’s not a game you’ll want to binge on, but it’s not really designed to be that, either; rather, have it constantly on the back burner while you play other things, and you’ll be surprised how often you find yourself coming back to it.
An ideal example of a handheld game, in other words — and one I see myself enjoying for quite some time to come!
More about Dungeon Explorer (PSP)
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