Libra: Dungeon Encounters (Switch)
Gaming, and entertainment in general, is becoming exceedingly more detailed and complex with every passing year. Unprecedented levels of realism and intricacy are being achieved in the medium all the time. Although these milestones are commendable, age-old phrases such as “less is more” and “the devil is in the details” still ring true to this day for one simple reason: bigger isn’t always better.
While I do appreciate how expansive the gaming palette has become, sometimes, you just want to enjoy the simple things in life. Dungeon Encounters, released by Square Enix this past year fits that mold quite well by providing a simplistic, modernized dungeon crawler that can still provide some of the thrills and dangers the age-old genre is known for. But aspects of this particular formula of simplicity don’t particularly age well as you go deeper and deeper within the labyrinth.
The simplicity of Dungeon Encounters is obvious from the get-go from its two-paragraph premise. A sprawling labyrinth appears near a peaceful village one day, spewing forth vile creatures that claim the lives of citizens and soldiers alike. All that have tried to brave its depths have never returned, and yet there remain those that are willing to try in spite of that. A nearby academy continues to train those willing – or foolish enough – to lay their lives down for the betterment of their country. And that’s where you, the player, come in by selecting a party of four to hopefully rout the darkness once and for all.
Outside of the introductory text, there’s nothing to the story in Dungeon Encounters. It’s that old-school simplicity that may ignite the imaginations of some, while making others groan with disappointment. That said, each recruitable character does have their own backstory, but there are no interactions or story events that really allow for them to be genuinely impactful. In that sense, the game may have been better suited for a full-on character/party creation so that players could truly shape their adventurers, but what is present isn’t awful.
Dungeon Encounters is a dungeon crawler that utilizes the ATB (active time battle) system conceived by Final Fantasy IV. After building a party from premade characters in the academy, and perusing the shops in town, the team can then dive into the 99-floor labyrinth just outside their doorstep. Navigation is tile-based, with each floor consisting of a certain number of tiles that will reward the party with ability points after certain mapping milestones, as well as whenever any given floor is fully mapped out. The ultimate goal is to traverse and map out each floor, and hopefully reach the final floor in one piece.
The foundation of combat in Dungeon Encounters is the ATB system, which by default is set to the slowest speed and “wait” mode. This stock setting pauses the entire battlefield anytime a character’s turn is ready, allowing them to determine the best course of action before executing the command and restoring the flow of time. Due to the overall simplistic nature of combat in Dungeon Encounters, it feels best suited on the highest speed setting and “active” mode so that it functions more akin to the initial design of the iconic battle system.
Units on each side of the battlefield have varying levels of physical defense (PD), magical defense (MD), and health (HP). In general, each weapon and ability will do damage to either PD or MD, then begin depleting the unit’s HP after it reaches zero, though there are some attacks that can cut straight to HP regardless of defense. Enemy units are defeated when their HP reaches zero, while player units will be KOed but can be resurrected through various means.
In the event that the entire party is wiped out, they will collapse at the same spot in the labyrinth and must be rescued by a new party in town. This sounds way more daunting than it actually is, as Dungeon Encounters features an assortment of exploration abilities that make retrieving fallen units a relatively painless process. Even still, it is best to keep the party in good shape as they explore deeper and deeper into the dungeon.
Each unit in the party can equip up to two weapons, spells, or utility items, and the entire party shares a pool of special abilities that are found throughout the dungeon. Weapons and spells either have fixed or variable damage ranges and, with a few exceptions, aren’t governed by any other piece of equipment or traditional statistics, such as strength and intellect. Fixed-damage weapons and spells deal far less damage than variable weapons, but make up for it with consistency. Variable equipment, on the other hand, can roll anywhere within its damage range, thus can be either devastating or a complete dud.
The aforementioned special abilities are slowly gathered whilst exploring dungeons, and can then be set at certain locations so long as the player has the required amount of ability points. In terms of combat abilities, these range from beneficial passives that prevent certain enemy attacks from breaking the party’s equipment – Breath of the Wild flashbacks here – to the only restorative abilities available. Dungeon Encounters does not provide any means for the player to raise the dead or restore health outside of these finite, active abilities, and certain restorative stations found throughout the dungeon. A cruel, unforgiving labyrinth, indeed.
Overall, combat in Dungeon Encounters may seem a bit too simple at first, but the general prowess of monsters grows as the player descends further into the depths. Moreover, cranking up the speed and setting it to “active” mode will most definitely ensure that a certain level of necessary reaction is required in order to stay alive and make consistent progress. On the other hand, combat never really changes or evolves into something different than what the player experiences on the first floor, as status effects that could inject some additional strategy into play are eventually negated by acquired immunities via passive abilities. This same idea can unfortunately be applied to multiple facets in Dungeon Encounters.
Dungeon Encounters is all about braving the depths of the multi-floored labyrinth, and the most important part of this is mapping out each floor. While the player technically doesn’t have to complete each and every map, it is encouraged due to its ties to rewarding a lot of ability points used for both exploration and combat-based abilities. Walking over “unexplored” tiles on any map will result in a subtle chime and it being darkened, which will help you differentiate charted and uncharted tiles. It’s a rather simple but satisfying process that may entice players to map out “one more floor” before calling quits to their current session.
Traversing a 99-floor dungeon may be daunting, but Dungeon Encounters provides a lot of tools to simplify this process. Aforementioned exploration abilities that are discovered can assist the party in a number of ways, including but not limited to creating temporary staircases, teleporting to a random part of the map, re-rolling the location of enemies on the map, and even creating a waypoint that can be returned to in a pinch. Many floors have restoration stations that will mend wounds and heal the dead, with equipment shops scattered about for good measure. On top of that, shortcuts back to the village are discovered every 10 floors, providing an easy means back to town or back into the fray.
If the party’s potential defeat doesn’t demand backtracking, then the various wandering adventurers and riddles will. At the very beginning of the game, the player only has access to a select few individuals from the academy to build a party, as the other candidates are trapped within the dungeon itself. Those that discover these “wanderers” may opt to swap them into their active party, strip them of their gear, or leave them to their own devices. With gear being the biggest factor of customization for characters, it never really feels necessary to change up the party but it’s certainly an option. And it’s entirely possible that wanderers trapped deep in the labyrinth may be absolute powerhouses, but that remains to be seen 40 floors in.
Amidst the many floors of Dungeon Encounters are an array of hidden pathways and equipment, most of which is revealed through one of two types of riddles. Map riddles reveal where a treasure spot lies, but does not disclose the actual floor or coordinates, while math riddles require the player to solve numerical puzzles in order to reveal a treasure’s coordinates. These grow in complexity as the game progresses, and some of them are sure to stump even the greatest of sleuths.
All things considered, Dungeon Encounters provides just enough depth and dangers to dungeon diving without getting too carried away – staying true to its simplistic creed.
Another downside to the game’s simplicity is its character customization – or in this case, lack thereof. As alluded to earlier, Dungeon Encounters doesn’t feature any sort of character creation system, and the only substantial, tangible differentiation between the various playable characters is how they are geared out. In addition to the weapons, spells, and utility items mentioned earlier, each character can equip a head and chestpiece, as well as an accessory, with the former two primarily responsible for bolstering the character’s physical and magical defense values. Accessories have a bit more nuance, allowing means to not only boost PD and MD to even greater heights, but also a way to increase speed, evasion, critical hit rate, and damage potency. All of these individual pieces must be within a character’s proficiency points (PP) range otherwise lower-tier (thus lower PP) equipment must be used. Both HP and PP increase with the player’s level, and are the only statistics that do so through that means.
Although there are technically several ways one can build each character, the lack of customization otherwise can certainly lead the roster feeling a bit statistically “samey.” Additionally, many utility weapons will likely never be used because of their general inconsistency, and the fact that a few missed or poorly optimized turns can easily result in a character’s, or even the entire party’s, demise. As a result, this is one of the more lackluster byproducts of the streamlined approach to design.
Make no mistake, Dungeon Encounters will not win any awards for aesthetics. But what it does, it does well, though it undoubtedly lacks the cosmetic firepower to please the masses. That said, the game does an exceptional job of making the mapping process gratifying with its subtle animations, color changes, and audio effects. And while there’s very little music in Dungeon Encounters, what is there suits the mood well enough. The standout aesthetic feature, however, is the various portraits that portray enemies and allies alike.
Hate or love this no-frills (but modernized) dungeon crawler, it is arguably one of the most unique experiences by Square Enix in years. While less can certainly be more in many cases, Dungeon Encounters could be too barebones for some to enjoy, especially when there is little to no character customization or differentiation beyond their portraits and equipment (so far). Not only that, but a lack of narrative development and a gigantic, statically-designed labyrinth (save for enemy locations) does little to encourage folks to brave its depths.
Even so, this dangerous labyrinth is sure to entertain some people for a couple dozen hours or more. My own journey of the 40 floors thus far has taken well over 10 hours, and each new floor seemingly grows in scale and complexity. Regardless, if you are in the market for a relatively challenging dungeon crawler with some modern conveniences, and aren’t steered away by a lack of aesthetical and complexity “oomph,” then Dungeon Encounters is certainly worth consideration.