Dungeons of Dreadrock Review: Mired in Mysteries
Dungeons of Dreadrock developer Prof. Dr. Christoph Minnameier wanted players to “relive memories of oldschool dungeon crawlers, like Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder,” when he created his game. While Dungeons of Dreadrock does have aspects in common with those titles, it reminded me much more of a different game: 1989’s Adventures of Lolo on the NES. It, too, is an action-puzzler viewed from a top-down perspective. The two even share a few gameplay similarities, at least thematically. More on that in a bit.
It’s a Journey, not a Sacrifice
Dungeons of Dreadrock opens at the uninviting maw to the eponymous cave. An unnamed sister and brother have braved the treacherous weather to get here, all so the brother, who was chosen by the elders of their tribe, can defeat the Dead King who resides at the bottom of the one-hundred-floor cavern. This happens every year, and none of the boys ever return. When the brother unsurprisingly fails to return the next day, the sister, overcome by grief, breaks tradition and goes after him. Women aren’t even allowed to touch swords without angering the gods, so she ventures in with only her wits to protect her. Fortunately, you find your brother’s sword shortly after entering.
Much like the titles that inspired it, Dungeons of Dreadrock isn’t interested in holding your hand. The first few floors provide a gentle introduction to the game’s grid-based combat and puzzle-solving antics, but you’re pretty much on your own, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. You’ll occasionally find scrolls with gameplay advice, but these are just general gameplay hints, not answers. Some are riddle-like anyway, so…“hint” might be doing a lot of work in that sentence.
Death Behind Every Door
The goal of each floor is to make it to the exit. You’ll do that by manipulating switches, killing enemies, throwing rocks, using teleporters…you get the idea. Once you get past the few dozen or so floors, it becomes much more difficult to reach the exit. Dungeons of Dreadrock’s handcrafted levels are built with all kinds of surprising devices and traps. The most obvious answer is usually wrong, and you’ll be using items and your surroundings in ways you hadn’t even imagined.
I recalled Adventures of Lolo because of that design choice. Much like Dungeons of Dreadrock, it also had no handholding and a protagonist who was severely disadvantaged. While Lolo had its fair share of enemies, more than anything, it was about solving the room. You often needed to use enemies as obstacles, lure them to their deaths, or devise movement patterns to completely avoid them. Traps hid around every corner, and the smallest of steps could get you killed before you even knew what happened. All of that is true here as well. For these reasons, I like to think of Dungeons of Dreadrock as a spiritual sequel to a fun little series that died off back in the 90s.
Reminiscing aside, Dungeons of Dreadrock’s mechanics are more complicated. For instance, there are several times that you’ll have to tread back and forth between two or three floors. Sometimes, enemies follow you from one floor to the next. Traps on one floor might be the answer to the next floor’s puzzle. You never have to go that far back, but these forced instances are delightfully jarring, especially when you’re fleeing for your life. It adds to the feeling that you never really have a solid grasp of the situation.
Hint: Fire Is Hot
Speaking of enemies, you’ll encounter quite the inventive lot on your journey into darkness. Zombies can be felled with a quick stab, but speedy little goblin-like things pose a greater threat, especially in numbers. Minotaurs charge up and sprint at you, closing the distance between the two of you uncomfortably fast. A speedy dragon can sear you to death from the other side of the room. Just wait until you meet that jester guy that moves multiple spaces at a time and likes to throw switches and steal keys. He’s just the best. I might have derived a little too much pleasure in killing him.
It might sound bizarre, but these kinds of games are at their best when they make you feel stupid. You’ll breeze through one floor only to step into the next and get a fireball in the face. Confidence quickly becomes your worst enemy. The best way to stay alive is to assume that any and every action will get you killed, which is generally pretty accurate. There were multiple times that I struggled and struggled to get through a floor, only to realize the answer was right there in front of my stupid face. My husband could hear me groaning and laughing from the other room.
Fortunately, there’s a hint system if you happen to get too stuck, and yes, I had to use it a few times. Each floor has multiple hints, so you can choose the level of help you want to receive. It’s a smart design because you can’t ever get stuck, but you can still derive some enjoyment from solving the puzzles. The last hint spells it out for you if you just can’t figure it out.
Dungeoning on the Go
Dungeons of Dreadrock’s narrative is straightforward. You can see the ending coming from a mile away. That’s fine, though. It serves its purpose, which is mostly to give you a reason to do things. That said, there are fireplaces strewn throughout the dungeon. This lets you take what feels like an inappropriate nap, but you dream in real time. It provides a little more depth to the story and provides some hilarious fourth-wall-breaking moments.
There’s little music to speak of, which works well for this dark, creepy dungeon. You’ll mostly hear your footsteps and whatever the enemy is trying to do to kill you. Their squishy death sounds are gross, though. There’s also a small amount of solid voice acting. Graphically, the game’s pixel art looks great. It’s a fine fit for this style of game. While it’s worth your time to play any version of Dungeons of Dreadrock, it feels tailored to the Switch. Its pick-up-and-play-when-you-have-a-free-moment style of gameplay makes perfect sense here.
Just One More Floor…
Dungeons of Dreadrock probably isn’t a game you’re supposed to marathon but that didn’t stop me. Much like my time with Lolo back in the day, I just couldn’t put it down once I started. I finished it in two separate play sessions. My apparent addiction aside, there are a few shortcomings worth mentioning.
First, it doesn’t take that long to beat. Once you’ve cleared all one hundred floors, there’s no reason to come back. Now, that’s not exactly a criticism. I wish there were more because it’s just a fun game, but it’s an appropriate length for its price, and it certainly won’t wear out its welcome before you’re done.
I did seem to have an easier time the further I got into the game. The puzzles became more intricate and more involved, but the tricks tend to get reused. For example, after you’ve blocked an environmental hazard with an enemy a few times, you’ll think to do it again in the future, even if that doesn’t seem like the obvious answer. I might be giving myself too much credit here, but maybe I just got better at the game and so it felt easier the longer I played. The final boss, too, could have used a twist or two. It mostly requires common sense, and whether you paid attention at all…
Dread? More Like Delight
A creative and clever experience from start to finish, Dungeons of Dreadrock simply should not be missed. It’s a brilliant little puzzler and an endearing homage to both dungeon crawlers and action-puzzlers. Just be prepared to die, and remember, there’s no shame in getting a hint or two (or five).
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed), Steam, Mobile; Publisher: Prof. Dr. Christoph Minnameier; Developer: Prof. Dr. Christoph Minnameier; Players: 1; Release Date: May 12, 2022; ESRB: E 10+ for Everyone 10+; MSRP: $9.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.