Terry Cavanagh is known for making some tough games. If you’ve played the likes of VVVVVV or Super Hexagon, you’re no doubt familiar with his unique brand of simplistic and punishing game design. That design is on full display, albeit in a completely new form, with his latest project, Dicey Dungeons. Here, instead of your reflexes, your strategic skills are put to the test as you have to get a bunch of living dice through some punishing gauntlets of chance-based hell. It’s cute, it’s infuriating, and it’s dangerously enjoyable.
Dicey Dungeons takes place in a bizarre game show run by the embodiment of fate herself, Lady Luck. Each of the six contestants has come to the game show in pursuit of their greatest desire, which could supposedly become theirs if only they can ‘win’. The catch is that participation in the game show requires each participant to be turned into a playing die and to battle their way through a series of treacherous, shifting dungeons that are ruled by chance. And, in the off chance that they actually make it to the end of an episode, there’s always another episode they have yet to endure before they totally win.
Though the narrative is mostly just there as a framing device for the endless runs you’ll be making, it nonetheless introduces a lot of fantastic character into what can seem – on the surface – like a somewhat shallow game. Lady Luck plays the role of game show host well with her charismatic, but subtly villainous personality and the sort of goofy, kids’ book-like humour and illustrations go a long way towards giving Dicey Dungeons its own distinct flavour.
Gameplay takes the shape of a turn-based RPG with roguelike and deckbuilding mechanics smartly woven in. Each episode you run through sees you going through six floors of gradually more difficult enemies which culminate in a tough boss fight. Along the way, you pick up gear from shops and defeated enemies, and you’re usually given a fair bit of leeway to decide what path you’ll take to reach the exit of each floor. You don’t have to defeat every enemy or open every chest, so your strategic skills are put to work as you constantly weigh the costs and benefits. Do you fight that enemy so you can access the upgrade anvil behind it, or do you instead rush for the exit? Do you fight the Snowman first or the Banshee? There are no wrong answers, and the outcomes are always to some extent dictated by random chance, but your choices always have consequences that affect you later down the line.
When you’re in combat, your actions are dictated by a series of cards which each need certain dice numbers to activate. Some cards need even numbers, some cards need doubles. Some need several dice deposited over several turns, while some need rolls that fall under certain maximum thresholds. You roll three dice by default at the start of each turn, and it’s your job to figure out how to best make those count with your current hand. Sometimes you have a turn where the dice all go your way, and you knock out the enemy completely before they even have a chance to act. Sometimes the opposite happens, and you can do basically nothing but take some hits and hope for a better turnout next turn.
Success, then, is heavily dependent on your ability to set up a proper deck. You can only have a max of six cards in your hand at once, which keeps things simple and easy to manage while also making each card that much more important. Your stock of six cards doesn't give you a whole lot of room, so you really need to think hard about whether you really need another offensive card when one which grants you some health restoration might be a better option. Your hand is also something you need to keep iterating on as the run progresses. If, for example, you’re planning on taking out a Snowman next, it might be good to swap in a few cards that can inflict Fire damage to take advantage of his weakness.
No matter how good you are at building a deck, you’ll inevitably still take a lot of damage, and this is where the Limit Break feature comes in. After taking enough punishment, your character can trigger a special ability which can drastically change the tide of battle. The Warrior, for example, gets an ability that doubles the next action you take, while The Witch can roll an extra three dice that turn. None of these moves feel game-breaking on their own, but they certainly can be in the right circumstances, which keeps every fight that much more interesting.
The same idea applies to the litany ‘hidden’ mechanics in combat, which can sometimes have drastic effects on outcomes. For example, one card lets you combine two low-value dice into one high-value die. If the two dice add up to more than six, however, you’ll get one die with six and one with whatever the remainder is. Little things like this are never spelt out for you, but you’re sure to discover them as you play, and this slow-growing knowledge base gives you better chances on subsequent runs. It might all sound a bit complicated, but this combat system manages to strike a remarkable balance between simplicity and complexity. It always feels tough, but never insurmountable.
A big part of what keeps things from getting too bleak is the breezy and concise nature of each run. There are no extraneous elements here. Each floor only has a few enemies and rewards to interact with, and you’re levelling-up your character again after every two or three fights. If you take your time, it still only takes maybe twenty minutes to go from the first floor to beating the boss, and the difficulty curve along that journey is almost perfectly judged. Losing, then, feels less like you’re getting kicked all the way back down the mountain and more like a minor setback. It doesn’t take very long to get back to where you were, and you probably learned a thing or two to make the trip back a little easier this time.
On its own, the combat system would be addictive enough, but things get really interesting when you realize how differently each character plays from the last. The Robot, for example, doesn’t start each turn with three dice. Instead, they manually pull a new die with every tap of the right trigger, and the number on each new die is added to a ‘CPU Meter’ next to the cards. If the number on the meter goes over the limit, all the cards disappear and you can’t use any remaining dice. If it lands exactly on the limit, a ‘Jackpot’ is triggered that lets you pick from a series of bonus actions which don’t require any dice to use. Each of the six characters has a totally different playstyle like this, which instils Dicey Dungeons with a huge amount of replayability. Things never completely diverge from the basic function of using dice rolls to activate cards, but Cavanagh has thought up some impressively creative and fun ways to iterate on that core idea.
Speaking of replayability, each character has a total of six episodes to conquer, each of which has a ruleset which is more difficult than the last. For example, The Thief’s second episode sees him starting every battle with a curse debuff, which gives each card a fifty per cent chance of failing. It goes away after it triggers once, but having that curse hanging over you each battle makes you approach actions in a totally different way. Much akin to how the six characters expand how you think about the combat system, the six episodes expand how you think about playing each character, as the tweaked rulesets demand that you demonstrate mastery of the unique strengths and weaknesses of each class.
In case you haven’t gathered, Dicey Dungeons is the kind of game that delights in making you uncomfortable by forcing you to try new things. Something which works well with one character could be catastrophic with another, and one episode’s rules may completely torpedo the hand which carried you to victory last time. This focus on constantly prodding you to try new methods and new play styles is a big part of what makes Dicey Dungeons such an addictive and enjoyable experience, as it’s constantly finding new ways to reinvent itself. This is all the more impressive when you consider how repetitive the core gameplay loop proves itself to be. You’re always going through the same motions of rolling dice and playing cards, but tweaking a few rules here or there makes for a game which can feel almost completely different. Suffice to say, there’s quite a bit of gameplay variety here, enough to fuel dozens of hours of play.
This enjoyable, ever-evolving game design is supported by some exceptionally well-executed presentation, which helps make Dicey Dungeons appear like a real treat as the hours fly by. Marlowe Dobbe’s storybook visuals bring a sort of friendly and cartoonish charm to the experience that sets it apart well from its peers. Cutely drawn enemies congratulate you after you win a battle. Even though the dice are all technically fighting for their lives, they always have big smiles on their faces as they go from one fight to the next. These visuals are inviting and encouraging, always inviting you to come back and try one more run. These chipper visuals are then backed by an amazingly catchy soundtrack from Chipzel, which mixes House and Hip Hop elements to make for some killer tracks.
Terry Cavanagh has done it again with Dicey Dungeons; this is easily one of the best roguelike titles you can currently purchase for the Switch. Loads of gameplay variety, fantastic music, a high skill ceiling and friendly visuals make this a thoroughly gripping and fun experience you won’t want to miss out on. If you like roguelikes or card games, we’d highly recommend you pick this up as soon as you can – and even if you don’t, we’d still encourage you to check it out regardless.