2021 was a pretty good year for the dungeon crawler. Aside from Wizardry, there was stuff like the extremely stylish Undernauts: Labyrinth of Yomi, the not-as-deep-but-still-unique Live In Dungeon, and this game: Dungeon Encounters.
This was a real surprise of a game that suddenly appeared and vanished from collective memory just as quickly. It’s an RPG by Square-Enix that got fuck all in terms of any kind of advertising or promotion; Song Summoner for the iPod got more exposure. For some of you, this piece may very well be the first time you’re hearing about Dungeon Encounters. The game simply appeared, and didn’t have the privilege of being buried under the constant news of Final Fantasy XIV, Final Fantasy VII Remake, or that Avengers game nobody gives a fuck about. But, if there’s anyone who will champion an unloved dungeon crawler, it would be me.
One of the main selling points of Dungeon Encounters is that it is a game directed and put together by Hiroyuki Ito, the man responsible for Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battle system. He also directed Final Fantasy VI, IX, and XII, but this is not nearly as important as creating the ATB. Dungeon Encounters is all about the ATB. I’ve never met Hiroyuki Ito, or read any interviews he’s done, but based on this game, he comes across as the kind of guy who would like Wizardry more if there wasn’t so much fucking plot in the way.
Dungeon Encounters is a game distilled down to its essence. If there’s a plot, it means nothing. You can’t even create your own party; you are simply given a list of pre-made characters whose bios are a couple sentences long. Honestly, it feels like this base level of personality was done as a compromise for what little marketability this game has. Otherwise, they exist as blank slates with no mechanic difference between them. Every character, regardless of appearance, can equip the same weapons, the same armor, the same magic. You pick four characters from a list, then send them out into the dungeons: a stained paper-map with blank squares for you to fill out. Battles are static avatars making sound effects at each other over a still background image. That’s it. That’s the whole game.
As I’ve said before, there are two things that make a dungeon crawler good: the slow, yet rewarding progression through a tough environment, and creating a party to go through said tough environment. Dungeon Encounters only contains 50% of what makes a good dungeon crawler, yet that doesn’t take away from how good this game is. This extremely lo-fi RPG that manages to be completely addicting; needing to fill out the next floor, then the next floor, then the next floor, then it’s three in the morning and where did the time go? It’s literally a game about watching numbers go up, and it is somehow utterly compelling.
What really hits that pleasure center of my brain is not just its mechanics, not just this addicting need to explore and increase numbers. No, Dungeon Encounters’ art assets feel like an absolute afterthought, with Panther men fighting alongside stereotypical wizards, a high schooler magically appearing in this world, a robot, and a how-are-you-not-being-sued version of Totoro. The characters you are given all look like they come from different, non-existent games. Growing up in a poor family, I didn’t really get to play with the same toys a lot of other kids did. My action figure collection came from garage sales and extremely discounted variant figures nobody wanted, like Arctic Commando Spider-Man or some shit. I was lucky to even have the toys, so forget about ever having those elaborate playsets I would always see in commercials, where Batman would shoot a Nerf dart at a pile of precariously stacked cups that his enemies would always happen to be standing on. So instead, I would have to get creative, with paper towel tubes, those little tables that come with your pizza, the side of my bed that had a wooden frame, and that one rug with all the buildings and roads on it.
Because I had such a disparate collection, my imagination would have to work overtime. I had to come up with a context for Wolverine teaming up with a bootleg Transformer, an extremely tall Robin (as in Batman’s sidekick Robin), and a three-inch Mega Man I got for five bucks to fight a Ninja Turtles Foot Solider, another Robin that I designated as the evil Robin (I really liked Robin as a kid, proving that I have never been the alpha in any relationship I’ve ever had), a bootleg He-Man, and a random Star Wars character I was given as a gift. This was how I had to play as a kid.
Dungeon Encounters gives me that same vibe. I’m given all these random pieces to move around fighting other pieces on a paper map. There’s no overarching plot, so you have to come up with your own. Playing Dungeon Encounters is like playing with toys when you’re a poor kid. Much like a kid with no money, the game feels like it was made on an extremely small budget, and yet it’s all the better for it. And also like a kid playing with toys, Square-Enix’s marketing department responded to the game’s completion with a “that’s nice, dear” before going back to watching TV. This is a game that requires an imagination, which is a nice change in a sea of games that think for you. Another thing that popped into my head while writing this is that Dungeon Encounters does come across as an inverse Wizardry. Wizardry gives you its plot and tells you to make the characters within it, while Dungeon Encounters gives you characters and tells you to make the plot.
I guess that’s really the best way to explain a game like Dungeon Encounters: like a mismatched toy collection. It doesn’t look as impressive as the rich kid toy box full of every single G.I Joe, but you’ll probably end up having a lot more fun with a caramel-colored Batman and a dollar store “Transmorpher.”