Two of Square Enix’s most renowned creators release one of the best JRPGs of recent years, but you’ve probably never even heard of it.
If we said that Square Enix had just released a new role-playing game by Hiroyuki Ito, director of the classic Final Fantasy 6, 9, and 12 and inventor of the Active Time Battle (ATB), with music by legendary Final Fantasy musician Nobuo Uematsu, you’d imagine it would be treated as a major release with a lavish marketing campaign. In reality it was released last week with so little fanfare that no one (to judge by Metacritic) was even sent so much as a review copy. You’d assume that means it’s not very good, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Dungeon Encounters is a hard sell though, there’s no doubt. The only bit of exposure it had before release was a brief spot on the most recent Nintendo Direct, where you might recall its stark 2D mazes that looked like they’d been drawn onto graph paper, only with animated 3D characters walking on top of them. Dungeon Encounters’ approach isn’t old school in that it’s trying to replicate older games but reuse their mechanics in new and interesting ways – while looking as perversely uninteresting as possible while doing it.
This is role-playing stripped down to its bare essentials and yet the fundamentals of the genre are so strong that the game is still highly entertaining even when most of the action is going on in your head. In fact, that’s one of the primary reasons why the whole thing is so irresistibly compelling.
Dungeon Encounters reminds us a lot of Etrian Odyssey, one of our favourite Japanese role-playing series. It is limited more by budget than a desire to go completely old school (we can’t wait to find out what the new Switch game is going to look like) but having to draw your own map of a dungeon, as you would on a piece of graph paper back in the day, is curiously enjoyable even though it’s completely unnecessary with modern technology.
A similar logic lies at the heart of Dungeon Encounters, except it goes much further. Not only is there no proper map but there’s essentially no story and barely any moving graphics, as you put together a team of four heroes and start exploring the grid-based dungeons. It really is just a grid too, with no decoration other than you provide by filling in the squares with colour as you pass. When you do trigger an encounter it’s most often a fight with the dungeon’s various denizens, but it can also be squares that restore your health or provide a riddle hinting at the location of a secret.
As you’d imagine, given the director’s history, the battle system uses Active Time Battles, similar to their implementation in Final Fantasy 5 and 6. In that respect the game’s not quite as old school as it could be, as rather than Dragon Quest style turn-based battles enemies and heroes can attack at any time, limited only by a timer bar that, when full, gives you the chance to attack or use magic and special abilities.
If there’s an ulterior motive behind Dungeon Encounters it must be Ito wanting to demonstrate that the ATB system is still a perfectly viable battle system, even as the modern Final Fantasy games have migrated towards ever more action-oriented alternatives. At one point ATB was the brave new innovation but as old-fashioned as it now seems Dungeon Encounters is able to play with the conventions and create a surprising amount of variety in terms of enemy and hero abilities.
Combat’s not just a case of wiping out an enemy’s health points (HP), since it’s just one of three meters and you also have to bring down either a monster’s physical defence (PD) or magical defence (MD) before you can do any real damage. Even then you can only damage them with the appropriate type of attack – physical ones if you’ve reduced the PD to zero and magic if it’s the MD that’s gone. The same is true for heroes, for who HP increases when you level up, while the other two are increased only by obtaining new equipment.
Old school almost always mean difficult when it comes to video games but at first Dungeon Encounters is surprisingly approachable and the initial hour or so is fairly easy going, as long as you get the gist of what’s going on. It does get a lot harder as you progress though and while that is to be expected sometimes it’s because of random elements and instant KOs that you couldn’t possibly anticipate. Random elements are much more a part of Japanese game design than Western titles and while they’ve been largely driven out in modern games, they’re evidently something that Ito misses.
That doesn’t mean the game is unfair though, just unpredictable. As long as you level up sensibly and equip the right weapons and armour you always have a chance, even against enemies much stronger than you. And while you have to start from the beginning if your party gets wiped out you can revive your previous team, Dark Souls style, if you can get back to the point where they died.
Although the music often seems a bit too energetic for the style of game it would be heresy to complain about a new Nobuo Uematsu soundtrack. The otherwise austere presentation is impressively audacious, but it’s also supported by some beautiful artwork by Ryōma Itō, who although he’s had a long career at Square Enix, most notably on the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance series, is clearly not as well known as he should be.
The designs are highly varied, from generic fantasy warriors to a dog with a sword, a weird little robot, and a Totoro knock-off. Together with some surprisingly compelling biographies (which is odd given the lack of story) the artwork, which is equally good for enemies, gives the game a surprising amount of character, with just enough to stimulate your imagination and add your own details and context.
Dungeon Encounters is the polar opposite of modern Final Fantasy games, with an emphasis on gameplay and exploration rather than story and cinematic excess. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better but while the game would be a refreshingly streamlined experience no matter who made it, it’s somehow extra satisfying that it comes from such celebrated masters of the genre. It’s just a shame Square Enix seems to have no interest in telling anyone about it.
Dungeon Encounters review summary
In Short: The Japanese role-playing game stripped back to its bare essentials and yet rather than an exercise in nostalgic pandering this is one of the most compelling and sharply designed dungeon crawlers of recent years.
Pros: Far more depth than it initially seems, with a versatile battle system and cleverly design abilities and equipment that make careful strategising essential. Fantastic artwork and soundtrack.
Cons: The lack of graphics and story can be dispiriting even for hardened fans and the game does get very hard later on, with a lot of random elements.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: 14th October 2021
Age Rating: 7
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