It’s been a while since the commercial games industry has heard from Terry Cavanagh (the man behind VVVVVV in 2010 and Super Hexagon in 2012), but it was certainly worth the wait. His latest title, Dicey Dungeons, is quite likely his best work yet. It’s commonly billed as a roguelike deck-builder that uses dice alongside cards, and since I’m aware that half the audience just recoiled from reading that description, it must be stressed that there’s so much more to enjoy here than rolling dice. This is an exceptionally original and charming title that exists in a rare overlap between thoughtful strategy and lightning pace.
It most resembles Slay the Spire, but that’s still an inadequate comparison. For one thing, with the exception of one of the six playable characters (all of whom are anthropomorphic dice, of course), the use of “cards” has been vastly oversold. In-game, cards are more accurately referred to as equipment and can be fitted into a six-piece grid to form a static “hand” that’s made available each turn – not much different from the inventory system of a small-scale RPG, really. Each card has slots for dice that are rolled each turn, which will determine their effectiveness and behavior. Most equipment can only be used once per turn, while others are reusable to take advantage of the extra dice awarded on level-up.
From that moderately interesting baseline, Dicey Dungeons explodes creatively. Each character has a unique limit break and special ability that range from the mundane (adjust die values) to the chaotic (repurpose equipment into once-per-turn “gadgets” with various uses). As a result, each character plays dramatically different from one another. In addition to one who treats equipment like the cards they’re assumed to be, there’s also one who manually dispenses dice in blackjack fashion, receiving a bonus for landing on the maximum, and losing equipment for going over it. The hardest character uses a six-slot spellbook to store her equipment, which must be invoked onto a four-piece grid with specific die rolls before it can be used.
Standard RPG status effects are present, often cleverly warped around the dice mechanics to form an integral part of the battle system. “Frozen” reverts dice to 1, “blind” hides their values, and “shocked” disables random equipment, to name a few. Perhaps most importantly, equipment is defined not just by how it’s used, but by when. More powerful tools will demand specific values, those within a certain range, or only even or odd numbers. To accommodate this, there are several utility items that perform tasks like duplicating or dividing dice. Constructing a hand that synergizes well and minimizes unused dice across as many combinations of rolls as possible is an unexpected joy for the strategic mind, and it reveals the true genius of the gameplay.
Despite its name and literally everything about its description, Dicey Dungeons is actually not that chance-based. Manipulating the odds is a core mechanic, so scenarios where you’ll be at a loss solely because of bad luck will happen only occasionally. Furthermore, while roguelikes are partially defined by semi-random generation, it’s even more “semi” here than usual. The game is divided into episodes with different rules – six for each character – and within each, only the ordering of events changes, while the available equipment and enemies faced are always identical. It’s not an ideal system, as it robs the roguelike of its most addicting quality (“maybe I’ll get really lucky this run”), and if you’re stuck on an episode, it’s going to get stale quickly. Still, it avoids a lot of the frustration that many consider inherent to the genre, so it’s an understandable trade-off.
At first glance, turn-based combat may seem a major departure from the retro twitch gameplay of Cavanagh’s most notable works, but it’s not as drastic as you’d expect. Dialogue and combat animations are both delivered rapidly, and the setting often feels like an intentional revival of the surrealism that informed titles like Earthbound and Super Mario Bros. A mischievous sense of humor and the distinct style of artist Marlowe Dobbe reinforce this, envisioning the titular dungeons as a timeless game show whose denizens include allergic porcupines and sentient vacuum cleaners. Additionally, composer Niamh “Chipzel” Houston returns, contributing some mildly repetitive but otherwise agreeable sound effects on top of an eclectic soundtrack that’s arguably on par with her stellar work from Super Hexagon.
Dicey Dungeons will make you feel like you’ve experienced a lot in very little time. There’s so much variety to these mechanics, all of it is so well-explored and executed as briskly as possible. And that’s before you even get to the “parallel universe” episodes where equipment and status effects all operate differently. There are enough ideas here for three whole games, and seemingly nothing was sacrificed in order to implement them. It suffers a little from the old roguelike’s dilemma of luck vs. repetition, but that’s not enough to stop it from being one of the best games of the year.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by Dicey Dungeon‘s developers.
Dicey Dungeons overcomes the reputations of its genres to become one of the most original and immediately enjoyable games of the year.