Being the dry January period when new game releases (not including ports or re-releases) are hard to come by, it’s a good time to look back over hidden gems you might have missed in 2021. Even then, chances are that Dungeon Encounters will still fly under your radar. Announced and released in October, the busiest month of the calendar littered with blockbusters and game-of-the-year contenders, it was a game that publisher Square Enix seemingly sent out to die with the blandest Ronseal-style title and a marketing budget that you could’ve rustled from down the side of the sofa.
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But there’s good reason not to skip over Dungeon Encounters, especially if you know its pedigree. The game’s director Hiroyuki Ito is a JRPG veteran at Square Enix who helmed the likes of Final Fantasy 6, 9 and 12. But his greatest legacy is the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, first introduced in Final Fantasy 4, which has been a signature part of the series’ turn-based battles since (and even given a real-time twist in Final Fantasy 7 Remake).
Naturally, the ATB system figures heavily in Dungeon Encounters as you anxiously wait for the time gauge to fill up for each of your adventurers to make their move. But there’s also a new layer, as each character also has physical and magic defences that must be perforated before you can really do damage.
The damage dealt is another part of strategy left up to how you equip your party member, who can essentially be whatever you want them to be provided they have the proficiency points, which increase as they level up. For instance, a sword can deal a handsome fixed value of physical damage while an axe offers a random amount of damage with a chance that a single swing could do triple damage. Alternatively, you could consider weapons that hit multiple targets at the expense of lesser fixed damage.
It’s these strategies that make each battle in Dungeon Encounters feel riveting, though believe it or not, its bare-bones appearance also works wonders. Sure, it doesn’t have the razzle dazzle of a Final Fantasy summon, characters and enemies are instead represented with beautiful static hand-drawn art that flash or shake when hit while numbers come up and bars drop to indicate the damage – it’s a clean efficiency that prevents fighting hundreds of these battles a drag. The dramatic heft is further carried by the score, electric guitar renditions of classical music, from Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ to Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, while Bizet’s ‘Farandole’ makes for a terrific Victory Fanfare.
Just like with battles, exploration is also a literal numbers game, as your position is marked by coordinates while enemies and locations such as shops, rest points or stairs to the next floor are displayed as two-digit numbers. Yet the placement of these tiles, as with the paths of each dungeon floor do build a sense of the world, letting your imagination fill in the gaps just as you would when sitting around for a D&D night with little more than a pen and paper, such as the way one area has its paths coil around each other while in another an ominous mist renders all squares invisible until you’ve walked over them.
There’s a satisfaction to lighting up each tile, and for every 1000 traversed you’re rewarded with an ability point (with bonus points awarded when a floor has been covered 100 per cent). Unlocking and equipping abilities is what transforms the game, or just makes your life much easier. Some provide basic necessities in battle like healing and reviving but then there’s also one that makes your melee weapons viable against annoying flying enemies.
Even more interesting are abilities that change how you navigate the dungeon itself. Why search for the stairs to the next floor when you can drop down to a floor or several directly beneath you? Rushing ahead is filled with its own peril, especially as new mechanics lie ahead to trip you up or literally swallow you whole the deeper you go, though there’s also the chance of finding even better abilities or recruiting a more powerful character that’s been wandering the depths – such as a large Totoro-like named Sir Cat. Seriously, this game is filled with bizarre quirks and surprises.
The worst that can happen when you overreach is having your party wiped as they remain where they fell, requiring you to form a back-up to head all the way down for a rescue mission. It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds once you make use of shortcuts as well as abilities that help you avoid battle, such as shuffling enemy tiles from your path.
Nothing will however prepare you for the sheer nightmare of being sucked in by a Black Hole or falling through a surprise bottomless pit, both scattering your party members to random destinations. If you thought retrieving dropped souls in Dark Souls was nerve-wracking, you haven’t lived until you’ve sent a sole under-levelled adventurer down to the 90th floor or further below to find your wandering comrades. Indeed, it’s the borderline trolling scenarios where the game is at its most fiendishly memorable, your acts of folly and daring recklessness becoming the stories that you tell more effectively than any lavish passive cutscene can do.
There really is just so much depth, surprise and possibility in Dungeon Encounters, anchored by its timeless battle system, all of it coming from design that’s pared back to its bare necessities that it makes me wonder just how other games would fare if you stripped everything back but their core mechanics.
Take another game from Square Enix’s 2021 slate, Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy – take away its blockbuster production values, from its cutscenes, voice-acting and that wonderful 80s licensed soundtrack, and what would we be left with but mostly holding the analogue stick up to move and occasionally getting thrown into some perfunctory combat. You might say that’s the same for a lot of games where gameplay winds up becoming secondary to the other more superficial elements. After all, how often are we more drawn to a game because of its graphics and the cinematic storytelling rather than how it plays? More often than not, it’s these distractions that end up becoming the main selling point.
Certainly, not every game should be like Dungeon Encounters and it’s not a game for everyone, but it is an exquisite exercise in innovation through constraints, how zero expectations liberates creativity, and how a pauper’s budget can yield a far richer experience than the publisher’s more expensive offerings.