Publisher: Hudson Entertainment
Developer: Hudson Soft
Release Date: February 15, 2008
Every so often, the games of the modern day can seem a bit overwhelming. With HUD displays, character development branches, and 20 or more different endings, the average player sometimes longs for a return to the olden days, when games were comparatively simple. Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of Ancient Arts may be a mouthful of a title, but it's really a fairly straightforward hack-and-slash with just enough variation thrown in to keep it interesting and a decent way to burn off a few minutes of your life.
It would be unfair to accuse this title of any kind of real originality. While there are the special attacks that can be gained by increasing one's job level (an inscrutable task, to be sure), this game borrows heavily from other titles in virtually every other way. One of the strongest resemblances that will immediately stand out is to the Diablo series, but the unfortunate truth is that, while the aforementioned dungeon crawlers tend to be varied and entertaining with interesting rewards and backgrounds that really keep the avid spelunker coming back to see what's on the next floor, Dungeon Explorer falls more than a little short of its spiritual predecessor in that regard. Sure, you'll still be mobbed by the same visually identical enemies who are enraged at you for intruding upon their lairs, and the monster generators (straight out of Gauntlet) will unrepentantly spit forth wave after wave of foes for you to smack down with relative ease, but there's not a lot of variety or innovation to keep it fresh.
Monsters will generally only drop a healing potion, a mana potion, or an element that can be used in alchemy ... and that's it. No spiffy new swords with a +5 versus enemy swarms, no Armor of Flaming Infernal Death Daisies, no scrolls of Summon Self. Nothing. The random boxes strewn throughout this abandoned dungeon (how'd they even get there?) don't yield anything that can't be obtained by slaughtering monster horde #812, either. Don't look to the town for exciting new gear because every time your adventurer grade improves, you can expect new gear to become available in the town shop, but the blacksmith is otherwise incredibly recalcitrant in offering any kind of improvements to your arsenal that will assist you in saving the world from the onslaught of evil. Particularly offensive here is the fact that, when you carve your way through the monsters that get in your face, they don't actually drop any money. That can only be found by selling your valuable potions and alchemy ingredients, or by opening the treasure chests scattered so sparsely along the dungeon floor. Considering the steep sum charged for even the most marginal gear, most players will find themselves making cash run after cash run into the dungeon simply to stock up their coffers.
This is not to say that Dungeon Explorer doesn't make any kind of attempt to switch things up a bit; it would be more accurate to say that it tries to do everything and thus doesn't do anything particularly well. Sure, there's an alchemy system, but it's shallow and often involves combining two ingredients to make a third ingredient, which can then be combined with other ingredients to make more ingredients. By the time you're actually ready to create an item more complex than the aforementioned healing or mana potions, you'll find yourself ready to chuck the game out the window for making alchemy, flush with possibility and potential, incredibly exhausting and plodding to slog through. There are tasks you can take on at the local guild, if you don't mind escorting feeble and largely useless NPCs from place to place, accomplishing pointless fetch quests, or otherwise accomplishing the same goal you've seen a hundred thousand times in a hundred thousand games. There's even a hub system once you get far enough into the game, allowing you to unlock and adventure in various randomized dungeons if you have the patience to do so, but the boss monsters are just super-sized versions of normal critters offered up by the monster generators, occasionally with a new attack or two.
There are some upsides to Dungeon Explorer, though. The sound design is actually fairly good at offering varied tunes, depending on where you drag your party (yes, you will often be forced to make a party, and don't get any illusions about controlling anyone other than your main character), and there are some interesting visual elements that draw the eye. Even that aspect is slightly flawed, though; you will rapidly discover that "down and right" on your controller is "right" on the game's map, and with a lack of camera control, you won't be correcting for this little quirk. Take note, Hudson: Players want to adjust the angle of the view in a game, not adapt to it.
There are also several different classes one can play, from the starting Fighter class to the spell-casting Shaman to the bow-wielding Hunter. This allows for some marginally different ways to slay the monsters that threaten to overwhelm you at every turn, giving players a way to customize the experience to jibe more closely with their preferred style of gameplay. One of this game's biggest draws is the ability to take out your PSP, run a five-minute quest, save, and put it away again; this is a decent way to kill a little time if you're sitting at the doctor's office or waiting on the bus, and it's not until you try to engage in marathon play that the repetitive nature of this title really begins to become apparent.
The amusing thing about Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of Ancient Arts is that it feels like a preview title; nothing about it is glaringly, hopelessly flawed, but it felt like something that could have improved with some more development time. Since it's a final, retail version, though, I could not justify telling readers to spend money on something like this when there are other, far better games in the market. Everything that this game does, another PSP title does better. This is one dungeon best left unexplored.
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