Diablo-like dungeons on rails!

  • 1 What’s this all about?
  • 2 Why is this different?
    • 2.1 Return 2 Games and mid-core game
    • 2.2 Game manifestos are fine and all, but what about gameplay?
      • 2.2.1 The Dungeons
      • 2.2.2 Equipment and deckbuilding
      • 2.2.3 Card variants
      • 2.2.4 A streamlined way to hack and slash
      • 2.2.5 Replayability
  • 3 What do you think, Andy?

1 What’s this all about?

Book of Demons is a minimalist Hack & Slash dungeon crawler, where you decide how long a game session will be. In other words, imagine the dungeons from games like Diablo or Diablo II and taking away some of their bloated design; so that you can slay baddies day in, day out.

The main game loop is that: guide your hero (Warrior, Rogue or Mage) through the dungeon, chugging potions, activating abilities, slaying bosses and finding loot. Get back to town, heal and repeat.

I will proceed to write about why this game is different in my view, discuss some of its design decisions, larger view of the developer team and game design as a whole. Lots of this game’s specific mechanics will be covered under the header “A streamlined way to hack and slash.” As always, if all you want to know is a simple review and opinion, skip to the header “What do you think, Andy?”

2 Why is this different?

2.1 Return 2 Games and mid-core game

There’s lots of interesting design choices about this game, but I want to focus first on the ideal behind developing team Thing Trunk. BoD is part of a suite of games called Return 2 Games, that the devs explain like so (emphasis mine):

Return 2 Games is a series of unique mid-core games inspired by the golden days of PC gaming. There will be 7 games in total, each unique in terms of genre and theme, but all sharing the same grand vision. Each R2G title is a tribute to a single hit game from the 90’s: a reimagining of a single universal story for a brand-new audience, using modern means and innovative gameplay mechanics.

Our goal is to bring back the experiences and universal stories of those hit games and make them accessible to everyone – both casual and hardcore players. We are also simplifying and/or straight-out changing the mechanics and compressing the experience of the original games into extremely short gameplay sessions. This way the games can be enjoyed by people who don’t have much time (like grown-up fans of the classic games, or casual players accustomed to playing Angry Birds).

So, what exactly is a mid-core game? Basically, the space that exists between the hardcore and casual audiences. Thing Trunk’s Filip Starzyński explains/defines the following as characteristics of mid-core games:

  1. Low minimum hardware requirements;
  2. Easy to operate;
  3. Ease of access;
  4. Doesn’t require good reflexes;
  5. Easy to learn, hard to master;
  6. Respects player’s time;
  7. Doesn’t punish for early mistakes;
  8. Enjoyable from the first playthrough;
  9. Short repetition cycle;
  10. Clear objectives and progress;
  11. Visual readability;
  12. Easy to come back to;
  13. Avoid niche themes; and
  14. Deep engagement

It’s necessary to keep this larger view in mind when discussing this game.

2.2 Game manifestos are fine and all, but what about gameplay?

BoD attempts to capture that magic of early Hack and Slash games, but without fluff. This is all about traversing the dungeons with little regard to grand narratives, instead focusing intensely on a few core mechanics of the genre: HP/MP management, enemy herding and weakness exploiting.

2.2.1 The Dungeons

Calling the maps “dungeons” might be a bit of a stretch, given that these are more like mazes. Generally speaking, the dungeons in BoD are a series of corridors connected together. There’s branches, circuits and dead-ends of course, but at any given time the player has—mostly—only two choices of direction.

This might seem like a step down, but it’s not. A pared-down dungeon means you can very easily read how much of it you’ve already explored. This is intended, and is made more explicit by leaving footprints on the path indicating whether you’ve already been there (and golden footprints indicate that you’ve at least walked all possible paths in a particular branch).

2.2.2 Equipment and deckbuilding

Here’s a warning: deckbuilding here doesn’t mean what you probably think it means. But it’s a good design element.

In short, everything you need in BoD is represented as a card:

  • Red cards are consumable items;
  • Blue cards are magic spells; and
  • Green cards are “passive”

That’s about it. The beauty of this game is that cards are used to tie together several mechanics so that it’s easy to build one’s equipment—the deck in deckbuilding. How?

Red cards are consumable items but they are not consumable themselves. Instead, they hold “charges” that resemble your inventory; for instance your regular potion holds a maximum of 4 charges, which means you can only use 4 potions unless you find more in the dungeon.1

Blue cards represent spells in a general sense: powerful effects that consume MP: healing, magical spears, summoning a golem are all lumped into this category.

Green cards are your standard equipment. BoD doesn’t concern itself with exactly what you’re carrying into battle, there’s no “which of these two helmets is better” questioning. You can carry as much or as little equipment as you wish as long as (a) you have enough MP for them, and (b) you have available space in your deck.

Let me restate that: MP serves a double purpose: it’s a magic budget as well as your “equipment” budget.

This, to me, is another great simplification. Your “build” is easy to figure out, as long as it’s a maximum of 10 cards and you have enough MP to “pay” for your passive equipment.2

2.2.3 Card variants

All cards come in three flavors; in increasing order of rarity: vanilla, magical and legendary. While there may be several magical variants for each card, there’s only one legendary variant per card.

Magical and Legendary cards have additional effects, like an extra point of HP or lessened reloading time. Generally, these will be better and costlier than their vanilla variants.

Additionally, all cards can be upgraded twice with the appropriate materials and money. Upgrading a card generally improves the card’s effects and makes it more expensive to equip/recharge.

2.2.4 A streamlined way to hack and slash

But what about the dungeon crawling itself? Here, in my opinion, lies most of the game’s best ideas and a few of its weaknesses.

Before delving down, the dungeon itself must be (procedurally) generated. While most of it is done automatically, the first choice a player needs to make is “How long are you planning to play?” The idea being that maybe you can only dedicate 15 minutes to the game, or maybe you wish to test your mettle for an hour or more. The game introduces its Flexiscope ™ system that creates a series of dungeon floors, treasure and monsters to match the desired length. A single series of dungeons generated this way is known as a game.3

Once the dungeon is generated, it’s go time! Like other games in the genre, it’s meant to be controlled mostly through a mouse and a few keys on the keyboard.

Now, that in and of itself isn’t bad. Click here and the character will walk there. The main problem lies in attacking: in order to hit an enemy, you need to either click on it, or click and hold to keep attacking. Of course, this leads to lots and lots and lots of clicking, especially when the enemy tries to Zerg Rush you.

But maybe that’s the only major flaw of this system. Let me discuss many other good ideas:

  • You can get poisoned, but generally you can shake it off after a while and before it takes its full impact on your HP. At some point your HP orb will glow and clicking it will rid you of the poison;
  • Most treasure shines and in order to collect it you only need to hover over it, reducing clicks;4
  • You can get stunned, and in order to get back to your senses you need to play a micro-game of “picking up” 4 stars that circle on the screen;
  • Some really hard hits from enemies will “bump” off your cards, disabling them temporarily, until you click on them again.

The dungeons themselves are designed to be traversed quickly with “minimal” backtracking5 and you can see without a map if you’ve already been there. All floors have small indicators as to how many important features there are to discover—major treasure and bosses, mostly—so you can decide if it’s worth it to delve deeper or not.

When there’s 5 or fewer “things” left in the dungeon, you will get a special indicator as well as marks on the screen pointing to their location. Completionists will find this a good aid, since there’s no ambiguity as to whether there’s a small cache of coins of a random enemy left.6

Say you need to get back to town to heal! Option 1 is to keep a Town scroll handy; option 2 is to wait until you go up or down a floor—not necessarily beating it—and pressing the “Go to town” button. That’s it, no hours of traveling, no need for worrying about distance. Just click a button, heal, and back to slaying!

With all these options, what is there about risk? Well, through your travels you will find a few key items, “ingredients” that will be preserved in a magical cauldron for you to use between games. What use are they? Generally speaking, they are brewed into money, runes—upgrade materials—cards and HP/MP upgrades. Neat, isn’t it? And the more ingredients you add to the cauldron, the better the prizes get. So it pays to wait and hoard as many ingredients as possible. However those ingredients are lost on death, so you need to consider when to cash in. The more you use the cauldron, the more it costs to extract its treasure, so don’t go there thinking that you can just cash in every 2 or 3 ingredients. You can do it, but it will quickly become cost ineffective.

2.2.5 Replayability

Generally speaking, the game has lots of it, in the sense that you can play essentially the same game with some variants.

There’s 3 characters, each can be used to complete the campaign, which features 3 major bosses.

After completing the campaign, Freeplay is unlocked, meaning that one can just create a new dungeon and play through it normally.

After completing the campaign, Master Quests are unlocked, which are essentially the boss dungeons, but harder. Each boss has 3 levels of mastery to achieve.

Freeplay also allows one to unlock the later difficulties, offering great rewards and the risk of losing money and cards. Generally speaking, a harder difficulty means:

  • You’re forced to have a few cards in your deck at all times;
  • Every miniboss will “block” the usage of a few cards (chosen at random from all your library, not necessarily from your deck) until you beat it; and
  • The risk of losing money and cards on death.

So there’s lots of challenge waiting for anyone who wishes to prove their mastery on the Paperverse. It all centers on the same few mechanics, but they are solid enough in my opinion as to validate its existence.

3 What do you think, Andy?

Book of Demons is a great thing to exist and it delivers on its promise. It’s easy to pick up and even after leaving it for over a year and a half, it’s easy to get back exactly where I was. The mid-core design philosophy means there’s no grand story, complex character development or overtly complex systems; which I greatly appreciate when I don’t have a lot of time for playing.

However, the mid-core design doesn’t mean it’s bad, or simplistic. Save for a few things, it offers new ideas and is ultimately a fresh love letter to classic Hack and Slash games. The card system strikes a balance of complexity so that it’s easy to experiment with loadouts—sorry, decks—without getting bogged down in minutiae that ultimately is not really appreciated.

Three playable characters with some overlap in their card libraries mean they are not 100% different from each other, but that’s not really needed, given that their playstyles and exclusive equipment do give rise to different approaches to dungeon crawling.

As for the Return 2 Games promise… let’s say that I’m not yet fully invested into it, given that there’s only one published game out of the 7 promised—eight, if you count they are making another game adjacent to BoD—and they took more time than planned. But given that Thing Trunk has already delivered on a product that does align with their published manifesto, I’m on the verge of giving them my money and hoping for the best. They definitely represent some of the changes and trends that this industry seem to have lost: a focus on the player, a focus on fun and a focus on solid mechanics.

  1. Worth mentioning another design element that I love: the game keeps track of which items are at full charge so that those items won’t drop. This is meant to discourage hoarding consumables or to encourage actually using them.

  2. The beauty of this system lies in that the “payed” MP is merely blocked off, but not consumed. This means that in a pinch I can unequip, say my mana amulet to get a few extra MP for casting.

  3. At every size, the game presents a time estimate as to how much it will take to complete. Supposedly, this estimate learns from the player, but I have yet to test this claim thoroughly.

  4. And pressing down the Alt key, all treasure on the ground is explicitly marked as such and able to be picked up only by hovering

  5. A relative term. Of course, large floors will require large corridors in any direction, but generally you don’t need to backtrack a lot in the sense that you can easily determine if a particular path is “done.”

  6. FYI, the game rewards you for getting all treasure and wiping the floors of enemies.

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