Preview: 'Tangledeep' (PC)

An in-game scene from 'Tangledeep'. An in-game scene from 'Tangledeep'. IMPACT GAMEWORKS

I am very bad at Tangledeep.

If you've ever played Dragon Crystal for Game Gear, or maybe the Virtual Console re-release on 3DS, you'll have a decent starting point for what Tangledeep is like. It's a game with roguelike elements, highly streamlined combat, and a general fast pace all-around for what is technically a turn-based RPG. It's currently in Early Access on Steam, and you can tell, because some of the polish is definitely missing. However, despite not going in with high expectations, I found myself going back over and over for just one more floor, or just one more round. There were also a handful of times, however, when I wanted my current game to just end as fast as possible. The game has a lot of potential to be something fun, but they need to work the kinks out of it first.

In the game world, all of society exists in underground villages, with nobody living on the surface of the planet. The only route up to the surface is through a massive magical labyrinth known as Tangledeep, where numerous adventures dare to explore but few, if any, return. You play as one such adventurer - or one of their descendents. In the standard game mode, death is permanent; when your character dies, you start over again as a descendant of the previous character (similar to something like Infinity Blade). You can leave them some of your possessions, to make their journey easier, but if you forget to do so, you're starting all over from absolutely nothing. (Other difficulties exist that can remove permadeath and let you stick with your existing character, or remove any sort of carry-over from one life to the next.)

Tangledeep is a dungeon crawler at its core, but one with some roguelike elements mixed in. Each floor of Tangledeep is randomly generated, covered in enemies, items and treasure. You move throughout the floors in a very restricted fashion, only able to move in the eight cardinal directions from one square to the next; when playing the game with a control stick on a controller, this feels very strange, because you feel like you should be able to move much more than you can. Each movement from one square to the next constitutes a "turn"; during a turn, you move, your enemies move, status effects happen, and you heal if you've consumed something that heals you.

You attack enemies by slamming directly into them, much like the aforementioned Dragon Crystal. You'll do damage to them, they'll do damage to you, and each collision takes one turn. As your character levels up and gets JP (Job Points), you'll be able to unlock different additional abilities or spells; your strength and endurance will also increase as per normal as you level up. These spells can be useful during battle, but I found no way at all of using them with a controller; I had to move my hand to the mouse and click on one to make it work, which isn't difficult, but it's annoying nonetheless.

The simplicity of the combat masks the difficulty of the game, which I found to be pretty high. You're not meant to go higher than a few floors in on your first few tries; once I get to the fourth floor or so, the enemies have the ability to dispatch me with ease even if I go in prepared for the fight. This was with me doing plenty of quests to make sure my XP was high, and fighting as many enemies as I could for the same reason. I'm sure that things get easier if you prep your descendants well, but after a couple of failures to store my items and money, I kept finding myself starting from square one, which was a little demoralizing. This game forces you to be quite careful if you play on the standard permadeath difficulty.

The spells you get depend on which "job", or character class, you chose at the beginning. There are nine jobs in the game as of now, and each one offers different abilities and spells, along with other stat differences and bonuses. I generally stuck with a sword fighter class, because that's my default class for games like this, as Dark Souls has beaten into my head. If your character dies, your descendant will have the same job; this is all treated as a single save file.

If you ever feel like saving your progress, you can open a portal that will take you back to town, which is your game hub. Here you can heal yourself, buy and sell items and weapons, store items and gold for your descendant, acquire quests for additional XP or gold, or cook the ingredients you've found into more useful dishes. The portal takes a bit of time to cast, so you can't use it to quickly get out of dangerous situations, but otherwise it's nice to be able to leave at pretty much any time for no penalty. I ended up doing it once per floor just to be on the safe side. The problem with that, though, is that it costs money to store anything, so if you're constantly putting weapons aside you're going to run out of money fast.

There are some noteworthy things to be found on each floor. The most useful one is the fountain, which gives you several health-restoring flasks that you can deploy at any time; there are a couple of these per floor, and they can be real lifesavers if you're out of healing items to use. You can also find staircases that lead to optional bonus floors, which contain more treasure and enemies to fight, along with the occasional side character or boss monster. Occasionally you will stumble across a piece of paper on the ground, which will contain some useful information like a recipe. The most interesting thing you can find is a Pandora's Box, which gives you a large boost of XP, JP and gold, but in return all of the enemies in the game get more difficult. It's a cool trade-off and I'm still torn on whether or not to open them when I come across them, which probably means they're implemented well.

Unfortunately, at the moment you can really tell the game's in Early Access. The graphics are mostly good, with some pretty attractive sprite work on display, but right now your character never turns around, which is bizarre and looks cheap; also, the game cannot deal with windowed mode right now, especially if you're using two monitors, which it will spread itself across completely in a hideous manner. The menus also have a bit of a cheap feeling to them, like they're defaults from RPG Maker or something to that effect. The game sound is a lot better, though; the music and sound effects are pleasing, if not too memorable.

Right now I don't recommend playing this game with a controller, at all; it's very poorly optimized. There are several things that, as far as I can tell, you simply cannot do with a controller; this includes casting spells or using abilities, and creating a portal to go back to town. You can grab the mouse or keyboard to use the abilities, but more often than not I just never bother, which probably doesn't help my progress in the game. The restricted movement feels awful with a control stick, as I mentioned; I can't count the number of times I tried to attack an enemy and ran past it instead. The game lets you hold down the left trigger to force yourself to move diagonally, though, which is a nice little detail. If you're going to play this version of the game, you should do so with a mouse and keyboard.

Right now, Tangledeep is a bit rough around the edges, but it has an undeniable addictiveness to it; I found myself going back for just one more try at the labyrinth more than a few times. It can definitely be frustrating with its difficulty sometimes, especially when you're playing with a controller, but you'll eventually start learning the ropes and equipping your descendants to do a better job than yourself. If you like dungeon crawlers, this one will probably scratch that itch for you, and if you're not invested in using a controller I'd say that the Early Access version is worth your time and money. I'm waiting to see what they do with the final product, however.

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