Deathtrap Dungeons

It’s amazing how much some games will give back if only you’re willing to sink a little time into them!  The first few minutes I spent with Pocket RPG (iPhone Edition Out Now, On Sale for $0.99) left me unimpressed; its combat system appeared to lack depth, it didn’t seem to let the player take full advantage of its three heroes, and sparseness of plot left it far more dungeon crawler than RPG. A few hours in, however, I found to my great joy that I was completely mistaken on the first two points. Pocket RPG keeps its features surprisingly close to the vest, so the player has to treat it just like the many monsters roaming its dungeons — make it yield up its goodies with brute force!

Pocket RPG‘s dual-stick controls and three character system immediately bring to mind Bug Heroes Quest, but the resemblance is ultimately superficial. The player has to stick with his or her chosen character for the entire adventure here, rather than being able to switch among them on-the-fly. At least the game keeps a record of the player’s progress for each. Its way of doing this is rather counterintuitive: “New Adventure” has to be selected in Pocket RPG‘s main menu to resume an abandoned playthrough. I feared I was blowing away my progress while taking all the characters for a test drive, but I could rest easy once I learned its auto-save system fully supports simultaneous playthroughs.

Whether the player takes up the Dark Ranger’s bow, the Blade Master’s swords, or the Battle Mage’s renowned nuclear powers, combat will seem repetitive and button mash-y during the first dungeon complex. It isn’t until after the first boss is defeated and the hero or heroine resurfaces that Pocket RPG lets the player dig into its thorough upgrade system. The player gradually unlocks new actions to go with a range of support abilities, and Pocket RPG does something really interesting in using only virtual joystick movements to execute these. It takes a bit of finesse to pull off each character’s skills, but I much appreciated this in a genre that usually resorts to screen-cluttering hotlink buttons. Achievements also play a role in how many resources the player earns for upgrades — a welcome gameplay use of an otherwise cosmetic staple.

What is obvious from the get-go is Pocket RPG‘s excellent dungeon and enemy design, which pulled me through until I realized how deep its upgrade system goes. In a nice throwback to older RPGs, Pocket RPG lets the player bash in all manner of environmental objects for in-game cash, and the very playing field shudders under the characters’ most powerful attacks. Environments evolve dynamically as the player moves through, ushering in plenty of cave-ins, bridge collapses, and unforeseen traps. Enemies pour out of sensible nooks and crannies, and bosses, especially, have to be dealt with differently depending on the character the player’s controlling. Added to the upgrade system, the amount of work that went into Pocket RPG‘s level design makes for the most fun I’ve had in a dungeon crawler in a while.

That’s not to say Pocket RPG is completely devoid of real turn-offs. The equipment reset it forces on the player between dungeons is certainly off-putting — only upgrades made between dungeons remain with the character throughout his or her monster slaying tour. True, the player will probably take advantage of the handily omnipresent pawn shop to sell off old equipment anyway, but Pocket RPG plunders the hero’s pockets of the coolest weapon the player’s just picked up too. On the aesthetic side, Pocket RPG could use better visual cues to reinforce the fact that the player character has sustained injury from enemy attacks; I had a rather difficult time judging whether an enemy mob cleanup was going successfully unless I kept a close eye on the health meter. Text overflow in some description boxes also chips away at the game’s expert presentation.

Otherwise, Pocket RPG‘s aesthetics help the RPG fan forgive its story-light, dungeon-heavy nature. The game certainly has atmosphere going for it, thanks to crisp visuals, dynamic lighting and a compelling soundtrack. The player characters are unique enough that two or three playthroughs are worth a go, lending Pocket RPG a staying power of fifteen to twenty hours depending on whether the player’s going for the “annihilate all monsters” achievements or the “get through the dungeon as fast as possible” achievements.

iFanzine Verdict: Don’t look to Pocket RPG for an intriguing plot. If you’re into straight-up dungeon crawlers, however, give this one a little time and you’ll be well rewarded with a fun, meaty hack-and-slasher!

[xrr rating=4/5]