Like most dungeon crawling RPGs, Excave builds its core upon slashing and fighting your way through waves of enemies in multi-floor dungeons, collecting various weapons and healing items, all while trying to escape with your bounty. The risk-reward tension combined with the thrill of the unknown awaiting you on each floor is what makes the genre so appealing, and this game's addictive elements excel at fostering that “just one more level" mentality. What Excave lacks in presentation and length, it makes up for in weapon variety and strong base mechanics.

The story here is on the minimalist side, with only brief exposition through text before entering the main menu. In Excave's fictional kingdom, a magician's laboratory has been abandoned after some horrible discovery led to the place being overrun with monsters. It's up to our two unnamed heroes to brave the infested lab and rescue the magician deep within, who holds the secret to stopping the dangerous creatures. After being rushed through the basic narrative, the player is brought promptly to the main screen where they can browse the item shop, see the blacksmith, manage their inventory, or head into the dungeon. You can find papers in each dungeon that cryptically tell the story of what caused this calamity, but these take up precious inventory space.

The item shop holds essentials for your adventure (such as potions, simple weapons, and keys), the blacksmith is responsible for repairing broken weapons and appraising mystery ones, and the inventory management is where you'll outfit your protagonists for their journey. One hero is a lad who excels with melee attacks, while the other is a colourful young girl who is better with ranged attacks; you'll be taking one or the other into the dungeon to do battle. The basics are as follows: take a hero in to collect items and try to unlock paths deeper into the dungeon. At any time you can hold X to escape back to the kingdom, but if you run out of HP you'll be returned home and all of your found, unanalyzed weapons will be lost as well as a random piece of equipment. You may retrieve the equipment upon returning to the point at which you died, but be cautious, as you can only ever regain what is lost from the most recent death. Items you can find on your quest include mystery weapons and equipment, healing items, magic tomes, and food items that increase a certain stat for a period of time.

The in-game economy can be difficult to figure out at first. Enemies seem to drop money inconsistently, and when they do it's never much. There are also “artifacts" that you can sell, which can be either entirely worthless or extremely valuable; whether you keep a hold of them to find out is a risk you'll have to assess yourself. But far and away the best way to earn money is by finding mystery weapons, analyzing them at the blacksmith, and selling them. For instance, a Great Sword of Ice sells for 433 g, but it costs 200 g to appraise it, resulting in a net profit of 233 g. Gold is important to have in order to buy healing potions from the shop, which are crucial for surviving the more difficult levels. Even when you figure out the best way to earn gold, it can be frustrating trying to get enemies to consistently drop items at all, let alone the items you need.

As an example, it seemed that during one playthrough of a dungeon enemies dropped more items than we could possibly hope to hold, but on a subsequent try, item drops were frustratingly scarce. That being said, it feels incredibly rewarding to finally get that one weapon or piece of equipment you've been searching for. It's also a nice, forgiving touch that weapons don't break permanently when their durability is depleted; you can have them fully repaired for a price by the blacksmith.

Though there is a levelling and stat gain system, the lack of any sort of indicator as to how those stats are growing makes becoming stronger more of a guessing and grinding game. There's no experience bar and you're not told when a stat increases; rather you're left to pay close attention to when and by how much your attack, max HP, and defence increase. This made strengthening characters feel less satisfying than usual in RPGs, and Excave would benefit greatly from allowing players to view and interact with their heroes' stats. In addition, player movement speed is not indicated in any way on any screen by a number. This is a shame considering building off of the (almost annoyingly slow) base movement speed is an important aspect of making sure your character can make it out of a dungeon alive.

Inventory management is an important part of any RPG, but in Excave the limited spaces in your characters' pouches makes it a constantly troublesome priority. In the dungeons, the lower screen displays your found and equipped items, and this can be managed with either the stylus or the D-Pad plus Y. With only 16 spots for general items, three spaces for equipment (which enhance max HP, movement speed, or attack), and two spaces for usable items (such as swords, shields, and keys), we often found that we filled up on found goods much too quickly. As a result, whenever enemies dropped items we had to weigh the benefits of tossing something we knew was useful versus not knowing how good the item just dropped was. Obviously this mechanic is not novel and can be fun given the circumstances, but the small inventory space coupled with the aforementioned inconsistent item drops from enemies makes managing what you've got somewhat frustrating.

Beyond inventory limitations, a gripe we have with item management is that there's no dedicated item slot for keys. We sometimes found myself surrounded by enemies and needing to open a door, and to do so needed to place the key in my shield slot. This leaves you without a shield when you need it the most, and it was responsible for more than a few cheap deaths. Additionally, feeding your character healing items can be done by sliding them into his or her mouth on the touch screen, and while this is a good idea, getting the food exactly to the right spot in a pinch can be difficult. The area in which the food can take effect when dropped could stand to be enlarged, as trying to simultaneously heal and run from enemies is much too difficult.

The dungeons themselves are laid out such that you fight through subsequent floors of a certain coloured dungeon in order to reach the boss and obtain the key for the next coloured dungeon. Each level is largely straightforward in its layout, though the visual presentation is rather bare bones, so the similarity of the areas means it sometimes becomes difficult to remember where you have and haven't been already. A floor map which was revealed as you moved about the area would've been appreciated, but most levels are small enough that this doesn't become a significant problem.

Overall there are five main coloured dungeons, each of which are split into two or three smaller ones; some floors have silver and gold doors that are unlocked with keys only obtainable in the item shop. These doors usually open up shortcuts that offer an easier path to the next floor, or reveal chests with valuable weapons or equipment inside. These doors do add a degree of replayability to the dungeons that have them, as it's pretty fun to go back through and see what you might have missed. Unfortunately, sometimes all that awaits you beyond a silver door is a double of an item you already have - at the very least these can be sold for some gold.

The visual and audio presentation, while not spectacular, is inoffensive at worst and oddly charming at best. The environments are a bit bare and all very similar, but there's a good degree of variety in floor structure and level design. While there's not great diversity among the game's soundtrack, the tunes are catchy and non-intrusive. The enemy design in Excave ranges from uninspired (coloured blobs) to bizarrely funny (ladybugs that attack by sneezing). We nevertheless found the silly coloured blobs to be a charming enemy type, especially when we happened upon a room with 30-something of them. The weapon types are varied and interesting, with some weapons being element-based (and certain enemies taking more damage from certain elements). Unfortunately, Excave doesn't use the 3DS's 3D effect at all. This seems like a missed opportunity considering how well the effect would've worked with this particular game.

Excave's combat isn't revolutionary, but for the most part it manages to be somewhat non-repetitive. The learning curve is moderate, with some earlier enemies requiring nothing more than mashing A to defeat, while others seem to attack rather erratically and require more tact to bring down. The boss battles are all somewhat similar, yet still different enough to be interesting and difficult; fortunately, by diversifying your characters, exercising caution and using all of the allotted resources, you can overcome the final floors of each dungeon and claim some nice loot. It does seem that some of the magic tomes are a bit overpowered and make certain boss or midboss fights much too easy, but this can sometimes be welcomed if the dungeon was a particularly arduous slog.

Something that Excave excels with is encouraging players to experiment by trying to find the best way to beat a level. For example, we became stuck on a particular floor and kept dying with the axe-wielding male character; after switching to using a bow with our range-based heroine we found the level much more surmountable. It can become easy to get stuck and find yourself grinding for that one weapon that can help you progress, though; this is due, again, to the inconsistent manner in which enemies drop weapons and equipment. There are also a couple of points at which the difficulty spikes out of nowhere (especially toward the latter half of the game), but it's nothing that can't be cleared with a little planning and persistence. Even with that in mind Excave isn't particularly long (the average player could likely clear it in a few sittings), but at just $5 it provides a decent amount of entertainment for the price.

Conclusion

Excave is a game that doesn't take its presentation and narrative terribly seriously, unlike some other RPGs, but this doesn't take much away from the experience. The game's strengths lie in its simple combat which manages to stave off repetition, the array of weapon types, and the diversity of ways players can tackle each dungeon. While it is a bit on the simple side and has some elements that make exploring more difficult than it needs to be, the journey is still mechanically engaging and definitely worth the effort, especially if you're a newcomer to the dungeon crawler genre, have a little extra cash, or both.