They say, “never judge a book by its cover,” and, in theory, this is pretty good advice. As critics, we know that most things are more than they appear on the surface, or more than the sum of all their parts. However, this is also a bit of a double-edged sword since, as I’ve learned in my experience as a critic, things that can appear interesting from screenshots or trailers can end up being incredibly disappointing, or downright bad.
This is the experience I had when booting up Dungeons of Dreadrock, initially sold on some screenshots of the game and little else—granted that’s my own fault for not doing my due diligence as both a critic and a journalist. What initially looked like an interesting retro RPG turned out to be far more disappointing than I could have imagined. Not bad by any means, but certainly not what I was expecting.
Dungeons of Dreadrock tells the story of an unnamed girl whose brother has been chosen to venture into Dreadrock Mountain to face the King of the Mountain. However, when he doesn’t return after some time has passed, the girl decides to defy convention—as it is believed that women should not place their hands on blades, for it would anger the gods—and journey into the Dungeon of Dreadrock to find her brother.
It’s a fairly straightforward story with some not-so-surprising twists thrown in fairly early, as it’s revealed that the boys who venture into the dungeon are actually sacrifices to the King of some weird cult, and the girl going into the dungeon has thrown a wrench into their centuries-old machinations. However, what gripes me about the plot is less what it is, and more how it’s delivered.
“What initially looked like an interesting retro RPG turned out to be far more disappointing than I could have imagined.”
Much like Biomutant, Dungeons of Dreadrock uses a narrator to deliver dialogue descriptions of certain things about the story and certain environmental details. However, also like Biomutant, Dungeons of Dreadrock doesn’t seem to have a lot of faith in the audience. So, immediately after a cutscene transpires, pretty clearly laying out the plot, the game feels the need to have the narrator immediately describe what just happened in the cutscene, in case you weren’t paying attention.
I really don’t understand why games feel the need to do this. I understand it’s meant to evoke the feeling of classic tabletop RPGs, but it’s such an incredibly frustrating thing that immediately causes me to check out of the story—as if the game doesn’t respect my time or intelligence enough that it needs to instantly repeat the thing I just saw. Have it one way or the other: either just let the cutscene play out, or don’t and have the narrator set the stage.
Gameplay is where I was most disappointed when playing Dungeons of Dreadrock. It’s a pretty basic trial-and-error puzzle game where each floor of Dreadrock Mountain (100 in total) requires you to avoid traps, defeat enemies, flip switches, or find intricate ways to hold down buttons. It’s fairly unremarkable, with only a few twists thrown in that involve avoiding a more powerful enemy or finding a different way down an impassable room by back-tracking to the previous one.
“Dungeons of Dreadrock uses a narrator to deliver dialogue descriptions of certain things about the story and certain environmental details.”
While they’re not overly complicated—I checked out around the 46th floor—part of the problem is that the puzzles can sometimes suffer from a lack of clear design. One puzzle, in particular, required me to place a stone on a switch to hold it down, but there was no stone to be found within the level. It was only until I used the game’s hint system—that is less of Professor Layton’s vague guides to get you thinking, and more of a step-by-step breakdown of how to clear the room—to reveal that an easily missable, discoloured brick in the wall was the stone I could use.
But not only that, some of the puzzles aren’t very intuitively designed. Another puzzle required an enemy to throw a spear, so that I could grab it and use it to hold down a switch. However, there was a point where if he threw it at me from a certain position, the spear would fall into a pool of water that made up most of the room—making the puzzle unsolvable and forcing me to reset the stage. It just seemed to me like a glaring oversight that had little to do with my ability to solve the puzzle, and just an unaccounted-for factor that broke the whole thing.
I’d say the thing that Dungeons of Dreadrock has going for it the most is its visuals—again, it was the thing that, on first glance, made me believe it would be a better game. It’s got a colourful, 16-bit style that is most reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, with fun, chibi character designs and pretty great looking monsters. Animations are pretty solid, though most characters hop from square to square like pieces on a gameboard, and, for a game rated E10+, it’s surprisingly gore-y in the way some of the enemies fall into bloody piles upon death.
“I’d say the thing that Dungeons of Dreadrock has going for it the most is its visuals…”
However, a particular bugbear of mine, at least where visuals are concerned, comes in the form of how Dungeons of Dreadrock is a Switch port of a mobile game, with little to no reworking of the menu interface. It just feels so slapdash, and not really suited to a system like the Switch. While Dungeons of Dreadrock does use touch controls—a mobile throwaway I imagine—it’s hard to imagine playing this in handheld without the Joy-cons.
In the audio department…Dungeons of Dreadrock doesn’t really have one. It does some neat things with atmospheric sound—moving past a stream of water running down a wall will amplify the sound—but there’s really no ambiance or music, unless you count the theme that plays every time you descend a floor that gets very old, very fast.
In the end, Dungeons of Dreadrock is a pretty forgettable experience. It’s actually free on mobile—there’s a paid version that turns off ads—and honestly, that might be the best way to experience it. It’s a decent enough distraction, but I was over it pretty fast, and probably won’t ever go back to it. It’s not completely devoid of quality, but it’s certainly not worth the price it costs on the Switch.