/Scraps: Master of Dungeon

From earlier this month, here’s another review, forever damned to un-publishability, of  a game that I didn’t care for: it’s not bad, but it’s not inventive or interesting or engaging, either.

While unwieldy, Master of Dungeon‘s  title can be forgiven: it’s descriptive and accurate — this is, in fact, a dungeon-crawling RPG. And the specific misuse of English gerunds in the game’s marketing (“Feel the thrilled battle of beating!”) marks it as an Asian product (in this case, South Korean), even before the chibi-sized sprites drive the message home.

Master of Dungeon‘s choppy syntax may be part of its Engrish charm, but in a game with so many systems at play, it’s a nuisance. There’s an in-game economy, of course, with a handful of merchants and mongers in a hub town hawking wares, but there’s also item crafting and deconstruction, two different upgrade systems, and an expansive in-app purchasing scheme. There are two problems here, the first of which is that the writing in Master of Dungeon is butchered badly enough to render any tutorial or instruction inscrutable — the only way to get the hang of these mechanics is repetition and trial and error.

This introduces the second problem: it won’t take long to figure out that the systems that govern your ability to gear up and kill demons (money, recipes and materials for crafting, upgrade stones, loot, etc.) are totally disconnected from one another. The issue, in its most basic form, is that the loot you scavenge in Master of Dungeon‘s, uhh,  16 six-level dungeons will often be an order of magnitude better than any gear you can buy or craft on your own, which really sucks the wind out of those secondary and tertiary mechanics. There’s no tension or synergy in the finer details of resource management.

This bothers me, but it also sheds light into Playbean’s goals and aspirations. While perhaps structurally similar to Diablo or even Etrian OdysseyMaster of Dungeon isn’t really about fine-tuning a build or perfecting a strategy, nor is it truly about exploring — the repetitive dungeon layouts, constantly re-spawning enemies, and bog-standard fetch quests that keep players in one area for long periods of time see to that.

Master of Dungeon is, very simply, a game about killing.

And combat is really where Master of Dungeon shines. You’ll have up to eight hotkeyed abilities and a basic melee attack at your disposal, and the interplay between the two is remarkably fluid. There’s no formal combo or chaining system, but it seems like one would be appropriate: responsive attacks, smooth animations, and short cooldowns encourage quick, seamless combat.

The constantly re-spawning enemies (and the quests that call for, say, 25 spider webs or 40 slain cave wolves) lend themselves to Master of Dungeon‘s rhythmic, rolling combat. Especially later in the game, dungeons aren’t so much cleared as they are navigated, with waves of enemies waxing and waning, but never really stopping. The result is, like so many of these types of games, a brightly-lit Skinner Box — there’s something innately satisfying about kiting a huge mob of creeps and dismissing the lot of them with a few well-timed area-of-effect spells.

And then doing it again. And again. And again.

Master of Dungeon was designed to have a long tail: each dungeon and most quests can be repeated as often as you want, and it’s not uncommon to find armor in shops level-restricted at 400. The skill tree is built to match. Each skill is restricted both by the player’s level and through a fairly common branching system: to unlock the mage’s spell Thunderstorm, for example, the player must be level 30 and have invested at least five points in the prerequisite, Lighting Shock. This is effective and basic, if not altogether original, game design; it’s just that the numbers don’t work.

By focusing on the endgame so heavily, Playbean has severely stunted the early and middle sections of Master of Dungeon: it simply takes too long to learn new skills or develop new strategies. The game gets a lot of mileage out of its responsive controls and smooth animation, but combat quickly becomes rote and repetitive while you wait for newer spells and skills to become available. Thankfully, the narrative beats often enough to push the game forward even when your character’s progression has come to a standstill; unfortunately, it’s as boilerplate as the rest of the game.

There are systems in place to bear out the massive amount of content, but the simple truth that the mechanics aren’t interesting enough on their own to prop upMaster of Dungeon‘s languid pacing. Master of Dungeon is mechanically and systematically shallow, but the granular experience is executed well enough to provide the pure, reptilian joy of burning, cutting, freezing, mauling, electrocuting, and otherwise maiming a dozen goblins at once.

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