(Editor’s Note: What follows is the original review written for the first version the author played. Since then, one or more major critiques have been addressed by the developer. For a list of these, see “Addendums” below the original review score at the end of the article.)
For better or worse, there’s something refreshing about heroes with selfish motives. It’s obvious just how the womanizing beefcake Payter, bookish sorcerer Aegon, and mutton fanatic Roy plan to spend the giant wad of cash they’ve been promised for clearing out a dungeon master’s property. There’s more to their mission than meets the eye, however, and soon they find themselves teaming up with a hard-drinking dwarf as a squad of bona fide Dungeon Crawlers (Out Now, $1.99 Release Sale). My heart almost aches that Drowning Monkeys didn’t go for something more serious because the story is delivered cleanly and with great wit, but suffice it to say you’re in for a treat if you like your strategy game plots light and humorous.
Dungeon Crawlers will suffer no end of comparison to Final Fantasy Tactics since it’s squarely in the same genre, but it is worth noting some of the most important differences. While a Turn-Based Strategy game first and foremost, Dungeon Crawlers does a great job of meshing this style with the genre from which it gets its name. Free-roam exploration sandwiches enemy encounters and encourages the player to pay attention to the game’s environments, as a secret passage could lead to a shiny new piece of equipment that’s well worth the effort. This lends Dungeon Crawlers a unique flair. On the downside, its lack of a hard-hitting epic tale or flashy special effects right off the bat leave it unequipped to reach across genre lines in the same way Final Fantasy Tactics did. Dungeon Crawlers is content to lay back and only gradually reveal all it has to offer, its first dungeons serving up a few easy battles with slimes to get the player acquainted.
It wasn’t until I hit the first boss an hour in that I realized just how good a handle the developer has on TBS design. From that point on Dungeon Crawlers serves up dicey situations that will make even genre veterans break a sweat; boss encounters, especially, require creative tactics developed over a few tries before the player emerges victorious. Having only four characters to work with – and each possessing only a small handful of skills – may seem underwhelming on paper, but things work out beautifully in practice. When a character’s ability list grows, the player doesn’t simply move on from lesser skills to more powerful ones; everything in that spell or special attack toolbox has to be used to wrap up battles efficiently. It’s worth noting that characters automatically gain skills as they level up, which is a bit less fun than skill trees.
Aside from producing a very well-tuned campaign, Drowning Monkeys’ greatest accomplishment here is an interface that captures the streamlined feel genre fans have been dying for on iOS — it’s not perfect yet, but it’s easy to see where another update or two could make it so. Movement and targeting are essentially built into the same action, which is incredibly slick: tap on one of your dudes to select him, then double-tap on a target and your hero will move into range and execute a pre-selected action. You can also move and attack separately if you want more control over where your dudes are positioned. This is important both for executing a tight strategy in boss battles and avoiding traps, of which there are plenty!
The game’s most notable flaw lies in pre-selecting a skill to use on the target. You have to tap on very tiny arrows to scroll through a hero’s list of special attacks or spells, and some touch area expansion on those would be most welcome! It seems the developers meant to implement a sort of radial menu to back this up, as a nice slider with bigger symbols appears when you tap on the skill virtual button resting between the selection arrows. Strangely, this radial menu is completely unresponsive on the iPod Touch 4 at least. It lets the player scroll through the skill list but selections are ignored. The simple equipment and item management menus also operate on virtual buttons that feel quite small.
Beautiful cel shading, subtle lighting and atmospheric music leave the experience feeling more like a scenic route than a dungeon crawl, and that’s fine by me. Various swipes give the player complete control over camera rotation and panning, and I daresay this is the best-implemented camera I’ve seen in a TBS on iOS or otherwise. Full control over the camera in this genre does come with one downside though: it’s perfectly possible to hit angles where you can’t get a good bead on a target square, so expect to become an amateur director as you make constant little adjustments. There’s a default camera button that centers back on the action in case you lose it in a rogue swipe, but this function controls only panning. It would be great if there were a way to return to a default angle that provides a best view for selecting objects and destinations.
iFanzine Verdict: A strategically deep TBS that genre fans should not miss as long as they don’t mind a slow start. While one can easily nitpick the size of virtual buttons in its UI, Dungeon Crawlers shows the way forward on this platform with a streamlined approach that will bring a smile to the face of anyone who’s tired of sifting through menus in their strategy games!
Addendum: Improvements to the skill selection process.