I was checking my email yesterday when I saw a request to review an Xbox indie game called Dark Delve by a fellow named Mark Harvey. He even sent me a code to download it for free! Given our corporate policy to give great reviews to anybody who gives us free stuff*, I hope that my immortal soul was worth the $1 cost of the game.
Let me start this by saying I have a weakness for indie games, especially “studios” that are a one-person operation. I grew up on shareware games from the early days of PC gaming, back when 256 color VGA was a luxury. I played my c64 so much I broke a Wico Bat Handle joystick. THAT IS VERY DIFFICULT.
In the early 90’s, I used to run a BBS. I made sure to keep my filebase stocked to the brim with shareware games. A few software companies like Apogee, Id Software, and Epic Megagames put out some “commercial quality” games (remember Doom?), but there was a huge explosion of hobbyist coders releasing some really cool games. (One of my favorites was Galactix.) Even back then, these smaller games didn’t usually have the smooth polish of a commercial game (or especially a console game) — but they always had something compelling about them that kept me coming back.
For awhile now, I’ve been watching the Xbox Indie Games marketplace with more excitement than their regular fare. Sure, a lot of crap comes down the pipe, but occasionally I find something that transforms me back into a happy teenager and evaporates all my time for a day or two. I’m happy to say Dark Delve fits squarely into this category.
Everything New Is Old Is New Again. I Think.
Dark Delve is a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl. You probably aren’t going to find much new here. It’s really clear the author was influenced by old classics like Telengard and Ultima. The battle system is turn-based like many Japanese RPGs, and it reminds me a lot of the Dragon Warrior series. Nobody moves; you just choose who you are attacking or casting spells on.
Dark Delve’s story is, well, dark. The kingdom has fallen into ruin, its beautiful queen twisted by evil. Heroes imprisoned her in a dungeon, but her dark influence is still felt throughout the kingdom. In the intro cutscene, the narrator talks about searching for decades to find a way to bring her back, but eventually everybody decides the fate of the kingdom depends on the evil queen being dead. That’s where you come in. I’ve only gotten through the first level, but there are little nuggets of story dropped here and there told by the sage in town or in the dungeon in the form of etchings on the wall. I’m not expecting BioWare-level story here, but it’s nice to see a little.
One of my favorite things about Dark Delve is that the author has taken his favorite elements from a lot of different games, and synthesized them. There’s also some influence from newer games, like skill trees for the different classes. Using these, the 3 character classes can play different roles (tank/DPS/healer etc.) much like it works in World of Warcraft.
The inventory system needs some reworking. Duplicate items don’t stack and there’s no way to organize anything. (I do, however, like the WoW-style color-coding of items by rarity. It’s simple, but it makes your items seem cooler.) Herbs can be collected in the dungeon and their various essences can be extracted by the Apothecary in town to make different kinds of potions.
Moving through the dungeon is similar to how it used to work in Ultima III, where a 3D representation of a dungeon grid-map is rendered and you can turn and move one square at a time. There’s a “Search” button that gets used for everything from looking into a container to looking at the floor to listening at a door, and it shares something that used to irritate me to no end about some older dungeon crawl games: there is no clue (visual or otherwise) most of the time that a search would be necessary even if there’s supposed to be something lying there on the floor for me to pick up. I also don’t like that you can spring traps in a room by walking over them and there is no visual clue or means to detect them.
There’s also an endurance system designed to make sure the players come up to the surface to rest. If it runs out, they don’t regenerate health or get loot at the end of battles. This falls to me in the same lot as games that make you keep track of food or have brittle weapons you need to keep an eye on lest they break: sure, it might seem more realistic but they aren’t fun. Also, most dungeon crawlers have a built in endurance system called “the PCs die” that triggers when you have overextended yourself and stumble upon a secret underground undead discotheque.
One part of the game that I thought was cool was the Challenge levels. The normal game lets you choose your party, but the challenge levels give you a party and level and you clear it however you can with what you’re given. It’s a good way to try out new classes and skill trees than the old standbys in your party.
It’s true, Dark Delve is not without its flaws. There are some technical issues that I’m sure the author is well aware of, like the visual anomalies when moving through the dungeon (the tiles don’t line up right or something), and the UI could definitely use some work. The fonts hurt sometimes. The art for the characters and monsters look a little homemade, but serves its purpose well.
I’ll be honest. If you’re trying to hold this game to the same standard of craftsmanship of everything else on your Xbox and iPad, you won’t like it (but I think you’re missing out). The whole concept of an “expensive” app costing $3-5 these days still vexes me, especially when it means everyone expects studio-quality games for a buck.
Once you get rolling, the rough parts aren’t so bad that I don’t enjoy myself, and I have gotten far more than a measly buck’s entertainment out of this game. I really like Dark Delve (warts and all). It’s not the best game I’ve ever played and it’s not going to win any awards for art or originality — but it’s a good, solid dose of old-school dungeon crawler nostalgia fun, and the love that went into this thing is visible from space. It makes me happy, and I fully intend to play this thing to the end.
Nobody gives a review like my inner teenager.
* Editor’s note: This is not actually the policy. Though if you think it should be, send Vanir everything you want reviewed. Be sure to attach $100 dollar bills or Mega Man 3 cartridges to the email.