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Dungeons of Chaos Review

by forgottenlor, 2018-02-08

Dungeons of Chaos is a throwback to the first open world rpgs, like the early Might and Magics and Ultimas. These games weren't about crafting or finding something to interact with every thirty seconds, but about exploring huge open areas, fighting off monster, solving an occasional riddle, and figuring out what you had to do next. Near and far were hidden treasures and monsters both easy to defeat and way to powerful for your party. In these kinds of games you often learned brutally where you could not go until you got more powerful. Dungeons of Chaos recaptures the feeling of these types of games in their entirety, including combat and dialogue systems that you hardly see now of days. While the game is purposefully nostalgic, it at least understands what made these games fun, and offers the player a game of epic scope and a huge world to explore.

 

Story and Atmosphere

Open world games are usually pretty sparse when it comes to stories and interesting characters, since the world itself and its exploration is the game's focus. Some open worlds still have memorable atmospheres though. Ultima was ruled by its virtues. Might and Magic's worlds were full of crazy creatures and strange experiences. Unfortunately, this is not something that Dungeons of Chaos does especially well. You fight against an ancient evil in a fairly standard fantasy world. The characters you come across are shallow, and the writing is functional, with the occasional flat joke. Dungeons of Chaos tries at least for a sort of lighthearted fantasy like the games it's inspired by.

The look function can occasionally be useful. In this case we not only learn about the cell's occupant, but also can see the game's lighthearted approach to fantasy.

Like in many early open world games, you can discuss with NPCs using keywords. Of course, most NPCs have nothing to say about most topics, or say the same thing about it that almost every other NPC does. You can also click on most squares on the world map to be informed if you are looking at a tree or a bush. There was actually a purpose to this in Ultima 3, when it was often unclear what a grey dot was supposed to be. While Dungeons of Chaos's graphics may seem completely outdated in 2018, the trees are easy enough to identify. Of course, the look function is occasionally very important. For example when you come across a sign or a note on the ground. The same goes for the keywords. Though the important keywords are always directly below the portrait of who your group is talking to, so it's not usually necessary to cycle through all the topics you could.

Teente is a typical NPC of Dungeons of Chaos. He gives you a quest and a little information about the surrounding area.

While the forgettable story and archaic dialogue system doesn't add anything to the game, at least they don't get in the way. Most NPCs are simply there to be seen. The few you need to talk to are usually there for some sort of mechanical reason, like giving you a quest or acting as a trainer or shopkeeper, and you learn quickly to click on what you need to and not bother using all of the other useless dialogue options open to you.

 

Exploration

Unlike modern open world games, Dungeons of Chaos does not give you something to do or find every few feet. You will spend much of your time exploring a huge wide-open world, which for the most part is empty. Then when you begin to wonder if you are wasting your time, you'll find a hermit's hut, a treasure cache, or a dungeon entrance which seems to make all of your wandering worthwhile. You will travel through deserts, arctic regions, mountains, lava fields, deep caverns, mines, and an assortment of other places. Dungeons of Chaos gives you a feel of distance that few modern games do. You will also have to backtrack through many of these places, which can be tedious. But this was a feature of old open world games, before Oblivion made fast travel fashionable. There is actually a form of fast travel in the game, but you'll probably have to play 35+ hours before you can access it. This means you will actually spend a large portion of your in game time travelling and exploring. However, since most of the rest of in-game time is spent in turn based combat, it is sometimes a nice change of pace to explore every nook and cranny of a huge ice cavern.

The Mountain Path is one of Dungeon of Chaos's huge open areas. Here you can spend hours finding trainers, treasures, and dungeons.

The dungeons in the game vary quite a bit. You will encounter vast and mostly empty cavern systems, along with packed orc dens, where a patrol of orcs lurks around every corner. Surprisingly it is the latter, which works the worst and leads to the most tedious moments in Dungeons of Chaos. While it might make sense that an ember orc layer consists of one king, and well over a dozen patrols of ember orcs and ember giants, fighting over 15 battles against the same two opponent types over the span of an hour becomes exceptionally boring. There are too many dungeons in the game where you need to fight a large number of consecutive battles against one or two types of opponents. Once you find a tactic that works against that particular type of monster, you will probably use it over and over, which takes the enjoyment out of the battles. Luckily, many of these are optional and randomly generated dungeons. Still you probably will want to explore most of them anyway, either for experience, or to find rare and extremely valuable spellbooks (assuming you have at least one spellcaster in your group.)

This Orc Hideout is one of the game's weaker dungeons. Here you will fight the same orcs again and again. . . and again.

Dungeons of Chaos has very few quests. There is a main quest line, but side quests are sparse. Chapter 1 (which took me around 20 hours to complete) only has a handful. Chapter 2 gives you one side quest for each guild in the game, of which there are around 10, and there are a couple of other side quests including one three part additional one, which gives you the ability to fast travel and another which opens up an arena. I suppose the good thing about this is that all of Dungeons of Chaos's quests seem meaningful. You don't just get a few coins for a fetch quest, like in many other RPGs. Both chapters 1 and 2 end in very tough fights. In both cases I had to grind out extra levels to win.
Some dungeons respawn fairly quickly and offer chances to gain levels. While I have nothing against tough battles, I thought Dungeons of Chaos was a little harsh in this aspect, and I especially resented grinding out another 4 hours or so of levels at the end of chapter 2 before I felt I has the chance to win the final battle (I had played around 54 hours at that point). Perhaps the battles are the way they are, because each chapter was released one chapter at a time. In any case the game encourages you to be a completionist and get as much XP as possible, so there's little sense in skipping side quests or optional areas unless you are very good at tactical battles.

Dungeons of Chaos has few puzzles, especially early on, and these almost exclusively exist in the main quest dungeons. Interestingly enough Chapter 3 opens with a puzzle like dungeon, but this is 55 hours into the game. There are a number of secrets though for those who have the right skills and explore very carefully and according to the Steam Achievements I missed a good half of these, so that is a nice motivator to be thorough.

 

Mechanics

Dungeons of Chaos is a party based RPG. You play a group of survivors from an attack, and are sent forth to find aid. You can pick from nine starting classes, and each character gets to pick a starting perk. Like in the Gold Box or Might and Magic RPGs from the late eighties, you control a six character group. While the character mechanics in Dungeons of Chaos are a unique mix of elements from late eighties RPGs, the character classes are fairly typical fantasy tropes, such as the archer, thief, barbarian, fighter, ranger, druid, monk, wizard and priest. Some of these classes like the archer and barbarian are specialists (pure range or pure melee) while others like the monk, ranger, and druid are hybrid classes which have access to a variety of skills.

The higher a character's skill with a weapon, the more combat styles open up.

There are two ways to improve skills. One is through practice, which happens very slowly. The other is by spending talent points which you receive every level. Talent points can be fed directly into strength or dexterity and spellcasters who know a spell can also improve it (though each class has a limit to how much any spell can be improved). Other skills can only be improved by a trainer (though each trainer and each class also has a limit to how high any given skill can be improved). Learning new spells requires finding spellbooks. Very rarely, you get one from an NPC, but in general most are found in dungeons. Some are randomly placed, and others in fixed locations. This skill system is in a way reminiscent of the Might and Magic games in that many classes can learn and improve the same skills, but some can learn them quicker or have a higher cap. For example, my monk and druid both learned heal, but my monk was never going to be as good as my druid, who in turn could never equal a priest. This is a nice system and allows for a variety of builds for each class. This also means though that Dungeons of Chaos can be tough on beginners or poor party planners. While reading the forums I noticed one person complaining he couldn't scratch the bosses in the chapter 2 end battles, even though his characters were around 5 levels higher than mine were when I won that particular battle. I can imagine that quite well as there are a number of skills like identify object which won't help get you through the toughest part of the game, and it's quite possible to spend your valuable points on things which aren't effective in combat, or to put together a party that will have a very tough time defeating certain opponents.

You do get the chance in chapter 2 to take on an advanced class. However, certain classes get more choices than others. For example, my thief could only become an assassin (an advanced thief), whereas my monk had three very different advanced options. In general, I found this a very cool idea. Since hybrid characters had the most options, I get the feeling the developer wanted to help specialized classes, by giving players less of a chance to make poor builds, but considering this is already easy enough to do, I would have preferred having a little more flexibility.

 

Combat

Grinding away. Here my wizard is turning a minotaur to pulp with his meteor spell.

Exploration is the first pillar of Dungeons of Chaos and the second is combat. Like many retro RPGs, combat is turn based and plays out on a field where the party normally starts out on one side, and the enemies on the other, and they gradually advance on each other, shoot, or cast spells. What I haven't seen since the 1980s is Dungeon of Chaos's movement system where each character moves one square at a time. This is very reminiscent on the early Ultima games, and personally, I think it was better forgotten to history. Nevertheless, it works okay, especially since ranged attacks and spells rarely can kill even a weak enemy outright.
Each character can move on their turn, shoot, attack, or cast spells. Actions all have a different speed. Move and you'll come up in the initiative order again quickly, shoot a crossbow and you will have a good wait before your turn comes up again. Some classes like the rogue, or some weapons like daggers, are built around speed and go noticeably more often. This always comes with a tradeoff though, such as general squishiness (for the rogue) or low damage (for the dagger).

There is a variety of monsters in Dungeons of Chaos and some are particularly vulnerable against some types of damage and almost totally immune against others. This encourages building a well-balanced party. Being unable to do high magical or physical damage is very disadvantageous in some battles. Despite the archaic system, fights seems to go fast enough. Texts and animations go fairly fast as well.

The arena offers some very challenging option encounters with nice rewards.

There is an autocombat system. Though the autocombat system has a number of options, you'll want, unless fighting pretty weak opponents, to fight battles manually. Otherwise, your characters fight like your computer AI opponents do and they often pass up using powerful abilities in favour of ones which are less effective. In general monsters react like they do in many retro style games, going through a semi random loop of their abilities, and sometimes triggering abilities (like heal or teleport) in special circumstances.

Leveling up is done nicely in Dungeons of Chaos. On the one hand, if you go back later to fight weaker monsters, you will still rarely kill them with a single attack, but nonetheless a level or two can make a hard battle feel significantly easier. In addition, the balance between levelling and equipment is nicely struck. While a better piece of equipment makes a significant difference, so do a few points extra in strength or reaching a higher skill level in a weapon where a new attack is learned.

 

Presentation

Dungeons of Chaos isn't going to win any awards for its graphics or music. While its visuals are a massive improvement over the pixel graphics of the 80s, they are still primitive by any stretch of the imagination. Primitive doesn't mean ugly, but they still will present a certain barrier to many players for whom a game's appearance is important. I grew up with graphics like this, so they didn't disturb me at all, but they won't be many player's cup of tea.

 

Summary

Dungeons of Chaos takes a lot of elements from the RPG classics of the 80s and 90s to create an entertaining game. The developer of the game, Volker Elzner, clearly understands what made those games enjoyable and carefully selected elements from older games and mixed them well. Nevertheless, while I enjoyed a long playthrough, and would have finished the game if I hadn't run into an apparently rare game ending bug, Dungeons of Chaos doesn't reach the level of a classic like Might and Magic 3, Ultima 4, or Pool of Radiance. It doesn't have the unique and memorable world of an Ultima, nor the weird humour, variety, or complicated puzzles of a Might and Magic nor does it have the story structure or unique tactical battles of a Pool of Radiance. Nor does it have the writing or choices that Avernum does. Still, if you want to understand what older players found interesting about those games without battling with Dosbox, having to use a completely primitive UI, and having to play in a small window, then Dungeons of Chaos opens up an interesting window into the past, where exploration actually meant looking for things, where failure could lurk around every corner, and where your mechanical decisions actually meant something. Dungeons of Chaos will not be for everyone, but it certainly will be appreciated by a certain audience.

Some challenges aren't meant to be faced when you first encounter them. This Lich destroyed my party twice before I decided I was too low of a level to have a chance.

Box Art

Information about

Dungeons of Chaos

Developer: Volker Elzner

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: RPG
Combat: Turn-based
Play-time: Over 60 hours
Voice-acting: None

Regions & platforms
Internet
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2017-09-15
· Publisher: Volker Elzner

More information

Summary

Pros

  • Excellent character building
  • Rewarding exploration
  • Story dungeons well designed
  • Nice variety of areas
  • Few, but well designed quests.

Cons

  • Backtracking
  • Grinding required for non expert gamers
  • Some dungeons very tedious.
  • Forgettable story and world
  • Writing okay

Rating: Good

A good game with some smaller issues or weaknesses, but still very recommended.

Review version

Steam