While Unexplored finds itself in plenty of company on Nintendo Switch - the console is currently inundated with various takes on the procedurally generated roguelite - Ludomotion’s cyclic experience manages to offer something a little bit different. Yes, it’s top-down. Yes, it’s a dungeon crawler. And yes, it’s permadeathed up to the nines, but beneath those ubiquitous terms lies some treasure worth searching for.
Procedural generation, as we know, can be something of a poisoned chalice for roguelites. Randomised dungeons can yield clever combinations of curious corridors, treasure-filled chambers and enemies aplenty, but by the same token they can also serve up dull and uninspiring designs that make exploring their worlds a bore and a chore. Unexplored offers a refreshing alternative to this in the form of cyclic dungeon generation.
So rather than building a web of explorable branches, Unexplored constructs every unique map in an interconnected circle. It’s a neat approach as it ensures every locked door you encounter has another accessible exit point or switch nearby. With a map that fills itself in as you push further, you never feel like you’re lost or that you’ve traipsed halfway across a dungeon only to find yourself swearing loudly in an empty dead end. Each map has a set of steps that lead down to the next level in the Dungeon of Doom, and you can ascend and descend as you please once you’ve found each one.
Of course, just because each floor map flows naturally doesn’t mean every map is particularly engaging. It’s the curse that follows every game that relies on a form of procedural generation, and it affects Unexplored just as much as you’d expect. Some floors can be jam-packed with enemies, while others feel barren and uninhabited. It’s an issue that can affect the game’s difficulty as well, with floors throwing you into almost unwinnable scenarios while others fizzle out due to underpowered encounters.
However, when Unexplored’s myriad parts come together, it gels with a synchronicity that rewards dedicated explorers and patient warriors. Its combat model isn’t made for fast and intense battles; instead, it opts for a more balanced experience that requires you to use distance and angles to defeat your enemies. This tactical edge provides a welcome new dimension to the classic dungeon crawler, although the slower pace it demands won’t be for everyone.
You can carry up to two weapons at one time, with each one locked to ‘RZ’ and ‘LZ’ respectively. As befits the game’s simple top-down aesthetic, you carry your weapons in front of you, with each tool offering a different kind of strike. Spears offer greater distance when thrust forwards, but it can leave you open to attacks from the side. Daggers can bleed enemies quick but require close-quarters use. While originally designed for PC, mapping character movement to the left analog stick and aiming to the right makes for a balanced experience that ensures if you do die (which you will, often), it’s almost never because of a lack of dexterity and control. The menus (which you bring up with 'L' and 'R' can be a little clumsy with the Joy-Cons, but they're far from unusable.
It does have its downsides, specifically the brief cooldown that you have to endure everytime you swipe your primary weapon. From swords that arc around your avatar to daggers that can be flung for ranged griefing, that tiny cooldown window can make the more intense battles - where you're mobbed by a group of knife-wielding kobolds or a swarm of angry bees - a frustrating exercise. Switching to your secondary weapon (which can also be a shield, should you find or forge one) can help mitigate this but the same cooldown mechanic applies, so without any form of dash or evade move you have to rely on a careful use of the right stick to defend or attack successfully.
There’s also an impressive amount of customisation to contend with. You can play through three difficulty levels, a well as taking on the hardcore Desolate mode or the much more forgiving and action-packed Arcade mode (ideal for players that are newer to this kind of game). You can even customise your cycloptic hero, or just generate his particulars at random. This being a roguelite, permadeath will linger behind every ambush or poorly-timed strike. And while it’s frustrating to lose all the weapons you’ve forged or the potions you’ve collected, you will retain your gold so you can spend it on hints at the opening tavern or buy some extra basic supplies. There are also in-game perks you can permanently unlock should you perform a certain challenge during a run, adding more incentive beyond the danger of permadeath.
The main game is bolstered by three DLC packs - the LOTR-esque Mithril Run, the Aliens-style Ripley Run and the Cthulu-channelling Dark Ritual - so there’s extra content to crawl through should the endless nature of Unexplored ever fail to captivate. These packs were free on PC, but regardless, it’s great to have every bit of extra stuff collated into the same package on Switch.
The loading times before the start of each run take a little too long to complete on Switch, but once that bar has finally filled it doesn’t take long to traverse through each successive floor. There are occasional moments where the game will briefly pause as its engine generates more sections of the map for you to explore, and while this is annoying, it usually occurs outside of combat.
While its overly simplistic art style isn’t going to linger long in the memory, Unexplored's unusual approach to balancing combat and map generation certainly will. There’s very little story here to be had, but like any great dungeon crawler, the real adventure is the one you write yourself. With plenty of scope for weaponsmithing and all plenty of permanent perks to unlock to help negate the sting of its permadeath, Unexplored: Unlocked Edition offers danger and delight in equal measure.