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Dungeon Rats is a dungeon-crawling spin-off to Iron Tower Studio's robust RPG, The Age of Decadence (AoD). While in AoD combat had to compete with a multitude of other more pacifistic approaches to problem solving, Dungeon Rats is a more focused experience that expands on its predecessor's combat system and adds the option to play with a party of up to four characters.
The developers described Dungeon Rats as something they could put together relatively quickly to fill the gap until their next big project, their colony ship-focused RPG, The New World. As a result, we have a game that contains about 50 carefully crafted turn-based fights set within AoD's world against a backdrop of a prisoner rebellion. It doesn't have a multitude of branching storylines or a way to talk yourself out of pretty much everything, so in order to achieve your goal you will have to fight, a lot, and if you hope to succeed, you will have to do it well.
To help you stay on your murderous path to freedom, Dungeon Rats throws away most civil skills AoD had, with the exception of alchemy and crafting. And if that wasn't enough to make this an easy to understand system, nonintrusive tutorial pop-ups are there to explain the basics while a quick reference guide is always just a few clicks away.
Creating a character in Dungeon Rats comes down to picking a weapon of choice, a defensive skill, and distributing the stat points. The attributes here mostly just govern your combat variables like the health pool or the number of action points, and can be used in an extremely limited number of contextual checks during exploration. Charisma is a bit different from the other stats in that it determines your maximum party size, which impacts your playstyle greatly.
The skills at your disposal work in a way you'd expect them if you're familiar with AoD. In case you aren't, you have a number of weapon skills that determine your proficiency with said weapons, increasing your chance to hit and unlocking access to weapon-specific abilities, like damaging enemy armor with hammers, or automatically poking everyone who comes too close with a spear. These skills synergize among themselves, and if you're putting points into throwing weapons for example, your proficiency with bows and crossbows also increases, albeit to a lesser degree.
Apart from weapon proficiency, you still choose whether you'll be dodging enemy attacks, or blocking them with a shield, never both. And, standing alone, is the critical strike skill that allows you to do more damage if luck is on your side and you beat your target's critical strike resistance.
Your foes also follow these rules and this parity is the basis for the game's three difficulties. The hardest one, where both you and your opponents follow the exact same rules, is the default one. Two of the easier difficulties skew the odds in your favor somewhat, without changing anything else. And for those who like to live completely on the edge, there's the Iron Man mode that limits your saving options.
Party, What's It Good For?
In Dungeon Rats you can recruit up to three companions from a pool of eleven to assist you along the way. The caveat is that the bigger your party is, the less experience its individual members receive. The progression is not linear, so you won't get 4 times as much experience alone as you would in a party of four, but the general idea remains – bigger parties don't improve their skills as quickly. This is important to keep in mind because the number of encounters in the game is more or less fixed and there is no grinding of any sort.
As opposed to your main character, you don't get to customize your companions' starting stats and skills and instead have to deal with what you get. This creates a situation where not everyone is made equal and leads to neat little gameplay considerations. Do you waste the limited experience points on raising the crafting skills of a cranky old man who joins you with a few points in crafting already but sucks at everything else? Will your fighters be strong enough to deal with the next big fight if you spread the skill points around too much? These questions lie at the core of Dungeon Rats' party system and make it more interesting than it otherwise could have been.
What's nice about the party mechanics is that whether you decide to go at it solo, with just one trusted companion, or with a rotating squad of four, the game doesn't necessarily become harder or easier. Each permutation of the party composition brings with it its own unique challenges. I've beaten the game twice on the default difficulty: in a party of two and a party of four. Some of the fights I've breezed through in a duo turned out to be rather tough for a quartet, and vice versa. This fact extends the announced game length of 10 hours significantly. While the encounters themselves remain static, your tactical options and the strategies you employ change considerably depending on who you recruit, making multiple playthroughs not feel stale or samey.
So, dungeon-crawling. Don't go into Dungeon Rats expecting exemplary level design, confusing labyrinths, and fighting for your life while searching for the correct tunnel that would lead you to your next moment of respite. Well, there's plenty of fighting, but it's conducted in a more linear fashion. Sure, there are some side areas and optional fights and when they are there, you better believe there's going to be a convenient way to backtrack there at a later time, but this doesn't really help with the game's lack of sense of exploration that, in my mind, is an essential part of a satisfying dungeon-crawling experience.
The general progression in Dungeon Rats can be condensed to something like: you enter an area, you roam around for a bit collecting mushrooms, mining ore, and stripping down the bodies of those who came before you, then you stumble onto a fight. Rinse and repeat. And while this is as barebones as it gets when it comes to exploration, I still prefer it to something of, say, Blackguards, where you don't even get the pretense of having control over your characters outside of combat. I like wandering about in the wild, picking up loot, and searching abandoned campsites. It may not be much, but I appreciate that Dungeon Rats at least tried. It sure beats clicking on nodes and getting immediately thrown into the thick of combat. And combat is something Dungeon Rats shines at.
In preparation for a battle you get to position your characters however you see fit. The order in which they act is determined by a combination of their Dexterity, Perception, and skill scores. The player character always gets to act first on the first round, and then returns to the proper rotation on the subsequent ones. You spend action points to move, attack, or use items directly from the inventory screen, like bombs or potions. Each weapon type has its own set of attacks that differ in usefulness depending on the situation and provide a great deal of flexibility to your actions.
A nice thing about Dungeon Rats is that you can always see exactly why something is happening. When you mouse over enemies you can see your chance to hit. If you hover over them for a while, a list unrolls, detailing what exactly contributed to that particular number. My only bugbear with this transparency is that it, for some reason, doesn't extend to the status effects. Whenever there is one, be it a penalty to moving, poison, or bleed you have to know what symbol on the character's portrait represents what, since there are no tooltips of any sort. In the case of poison and bleed things are even worse, since the values of the damage over time can vary and you have no way of knowing if that annoying archer on 5 HP, who you've poisoned, will die, or survive on 1 health and get to kill your entire team on the next turn.
What I probably liked most about Dungeon Rats is that regardless of how difficult or unbeatable a battle may seem at first glance, you always have the tools to overcome it. If you keep failing, it doesn't mean that the game is too difficult or unfair, it just means that you should adjust your tactics, consider using the consumables in a more creative way or even try something as simple as changing your starting positions.
In particular, alchemy and crafting help you overcome the longest of odds. With alchemy you create a variety of helpful concoctions that increase your AP, allow you to do more damage, or even make you regenerate, as well as an array of offensive tools like poisons, bottles of Liquid Fire, or vials of acid. As for crafting, you can copy the schematics of everything you find in the field, and recreate those items later but with a few beneficial modifications and using better materials. Since there's no trading in the game, you have to rely on crafting to stay competitive with your opposition. And even though usually I tend to avoid crafting in games like the plague, in Dungeon Rats it's quite tolerable and its benefits far outweigh the hassle.
The scarcity of healing resources is also something to keep in mind. You regain health by consuming rations or by using healing salves. Both of these things are limited in their availability, and the bigger your party is, the faster your resources dwindle, so be mindful of going overboard with healing.
The story in Dungeon Rats is not exactly intricate. You're thrown into the depths of an underground prison/mine and have to fight the gangs that run the place and various denizens of the dungeon in order to regain your freedom. Somewhere in the background there's also a sub-plot about a magus performing some mysterious things but all in all, the story is there just to get you from point A to point B and not distract you too much from all the fighting.
Perhaps this is my personal preference, but even with such a minimalistic plot I quite enjoy Iron Tower Studio's writing. The general exposition, the infrequent conversations, and even your companions blabbering about their sordid pasts and how they got imprisoned are all nicely written. The combat barks, filled with abundant expletives, on the other hand, feel anachronistic and out of place in this world of post-post-apocalyptic Romans.
Despite its linear story, the game has four total endings. And while three of them are mostly cosmetic and depend on your Charisma score, the fourth one lies a bit off the beaten track. It's not exactly well-hidden, but on my first playthrough I did manage to miss it.
Dungeon Rats reuses the engine and many of AoD's assets. As a result, it looks, sounds, and plays about the same. Save and load times are still fast, the visuals and audio are serviceable, and the game provides a stable gaming experience. On my two playthroughs, I've not encountered any crashes or major bugs.
The game does have some minor issues here and there, however. Occasionally, a texture doesn't fit exactly right, and some interactions, like poisoning arrows, can be unintuitive. Setting up characters before the fight can be a bit clunky if you select them by clicking on their portraits and not on the character models.
Beyond the game's engine and stability, some gameplay options are never mentioned, despite an extensive reference document available right in the game. For example, the game fails to tell you that crossbows are the only weapon type that doesn't rely on Strength for their damage, or that antidotes act as inoculation against poison and are not simply counteracting it. Depending on your feelings toward this sort of thing, that could be perceived as a positive (mystery!) or a negative (confusion!).
Dungeon Rats may be a game without a wide scope or some grand ambition, but what it does, it does well. If you enjoy the combat in The Age of Decadence, or intricate turn-based combat in general, Dungeon Rats has that in spades. It doesn't reach for the stars, and as a result, it delivers a solid, focused, enjoyable experience that will put your tactical skills to the test.