There’s an old god trapped in a labyrinth, controlling its denizens and sending them after adventurers. Now it has fresh meat, new fools to make their way into The Living Dungeon.
Genre(s): Dungeon Crawler
Developer: Radiation Burn
Publisher: Radiation Burn
Release Date: November 2015
Played Full Single Player Campaign
Purchase At: Steam
It’s difficult to talk about The Living Dungeon’s plot and characters when there’s so little of it. At the start you hear one of the characters, a Stru—read lizardman—who tells us about the mad god trapped in the mechanical tomb, about those that delve into its depths looking for treasure, to worship the deity, to control it or simply choosing the labyrinth over another more dire fate. There’s an entire city built on top of the dungeon, a civilisation revolving around it. It’s an intriguing concept and one I would’ve loved to see further explored in the game. But sadly that’s not the case as the game is contained within the many levels of The Living Dungeons. The story is serviceable but not what keeps bringing you back.
The Living Dungeon features an expansive cast, each with their own—somewhat shaky—reasons for venturing into the depths and I expected to learn more about them, to see other sides to them but in its constant switch between points of view, The Living Dungeon never gives any of them time to develop. In the end they remain the wooden figures they seem on the board, lifeless and empty inside.
Adventuring in The Living Dungeon is what will draw you in and it’s an interesting concept. Every level, be it single or multiplayer, features 3×3 grid of tiles. Each of these tiles has flooring, holes and walls where you and your enemies move around much like you would in a board game. Players of tabletop games such as Betrayal at House on the Hill will find the style very familiar, with square tiles making up rooms.
Every character and monster, let’s call them figures, has a set of dice to roll every turn. These dice come in different colours representing different attributes or skills. Red is for combat, Blue is all about movement, Orange and Yellow are a mix of everything and Brown governs the dungeon itself. This last die is the most important one, as it allows you to rotate the tiles or flip them over. Each tile has a walled room side and an open one, with plenty of holes for all your enemies…or allies. It’s an interesting concept and any Dungeons & Dragons or Tabletop RPG player out there will just love to roll dice and move each turn. But while those games have rules in them that give the characters ways to deal with bad rolls, the dice in The Living Dungeon rule over your life. You can use some of your gems to reroll them, or use your limited selection of special cards for powerful effects, but a bad roll will often mean death or a wasted turn.
Then there’s the DM, the Dungeon Master, the malevolent force controlling the dungeon. At the end of each round, it takes its own turn, making massive changes to the level, such as flipping multiple tiles, add monsters or envelop an entire tile in the game-over-ing darkness. Should your character end its turn right next to a monster, or in the same line as a Sentinel (a big eye on four-legged) or inside a darkness-covered tile, they die and the stage restarts…sometimes. The Living Dungeon can’t make up its mind whether character death means mission failure or not, as it changes from level to level. It’s frankly frustrating. That and the one-off challenge missions where you have ONE turn to clear the board.
There isn’t any strategy involved. It’s more about dealing with the dice fate handed you and then pray your enemies don’t get the god-like rolls mine did, where they nimbly made it across the stage, shoved my character in a hole and proceeded to kill hem mid-air.
It wouldn’t be frustrating if it weren’t for the unskippable cutscenes and conversations you have to go through every time failure makes you restart the level. You can’t even save the game mid-level, to restart during a turn when things were going mildly ok, but back to the start. During my playthrough I also experienced tons of bugs and freezes, where the HUD simply disappeared or the AI never responded. These made one of the worst levels in the game—and the subject of most of my screenshots—one where you need to take gems from three teams, unbearable to replay.
Some levels have bonus objectives, but as far as I could tell there was no reward for completing them. So I didn’t bother most of the time, as the randomness I mentioned sometimes made these objectives too hard to even attempt.
Visually the game looks and feels like a board game, especially if you turn on my favourite mode: Tavern Mode. This changes the mechanical background, with thresholds and gears, to one of a taverns, with mugs, dice and cards on the table, and a nice roaring fire in the background. It reminds me of playing with friends and if I ever play this on multiplayer, acting as the DM, I’ll just use this mode. It’s nicer and seems to cause fewer bugs and freezes for some reason. Characters look wooden, lifeless and while that may be an issue in characterisation it just helps the tabletop vibe. Stiff shadows, static characters, it all makes you feel like you’re playing a board game and I love it.
The Living Dungeon’s soundtrack is an eclectic collection of songs, all very pleasing but don’t seem to follow a theme or seek to evoke a particular feeling. It ranges from soft pieces with beautiful harmonies to ones with heavy percussion, almost mimicking the sound of clockwork, perfectly fitting the background. The music is good, but nothing stands out. Voice acting is a mixed bag, with a couple of decent performances but most rather bland. My greatest issue with the voice acting is the audio quality, as some sound quite crisp and clear and others as if they were recorded using a cheap microphone.
The Living Dungeon has an interesting premise, in both lore and mechanics, but right now it lacks polish and balance. Its randomness plays against it and it can lead to very frustrating moments.
3.5/5 – Good!