About a year ago, I posted an article to this blog lamenting the dearth of grid-based dungeon-crawlers. Well, Mark Harvey of Checkmark Games actually decided to do something about it. Basically a one-man development team, Harvey recently launched Dark Delve as an Xbox Live Indie Game. This game is exactly what I was pining for.
In the spirit of games like the original Bard’s Tale and Might & Magic series, Dark Delve finds you creating a party of four adventurers to explore a massive, grid-based dungeon. If, like me, you are over the age of thirty with fond memories of looting dungeons on an Apple IIc (or if you are a youngster with a taste for classic CRPGs), you owe it to yourself to at least download the free demo of this game. (The full version is a steal at 80 Microsoft Points / one U.S. dollar.)
As impressed as I am by Checkmark’s respect for the classic games that inspired Dark Delve, I am even more impressed by the game’s innovations. For example, combat encounters follow the basic text-based, turn-based formula established in The Bard’s Tale and similar RPGs of that era, with the user selecting a command from a menu during each character’s turn. However, Checkmark introduces a few new twists that alleviate the repetitiveness that has always been a drawback to this type of combat system. The first twist is the introduction of “chains” and “breaks.” Each time a character successfully lands a hit on an enemy, that character begins to build up a chain. On any turn in which that character’s chain is equal to one or more, the character has the option to unleash a break, a special move unique to that character’s class. Because a break will be stronger if unleashed at a higher point in a chain, there is a risk-reward balancing act that the player must consider during every combat encounter – should I try for a few more normal hits to build up my chain, or smack this guy down now with a mid-strength break? The second twist is that each combat encounter is scored with a letter grade, with a higher grade earning the player greater rewards, including a slot machine style random prize. All of these features come together to make combat much more engaging than hitting “Attack” twenty times in a row.
Dark Delve also includes achievements (although these are in-game only and not actual Xbox Achievements, due to Microsoft’s restrictions on indie games), skill trees similar to those in more recent RPGs, a rudimentary crafting system (you find herbs in the dungeon from which essences can be extracted and combined in various ways to create potions), and a compelling trap-disarming mechanic, as well as modern-day conveniences such as an auto-map and the ability to save anywhere.
That said, we’re firmly in the land of the indie RPG here – this isn’t Skyrim. The main town is a menu superimposed over a static image, and the adventure (at least what I have played of it so far) is limited to one dungeon. The game has music, sound effects and even some voiceover work, but none are particularly memorable. The dungeon’s graphics are sparse but attractive and atmospheric in an Eye of the Beholder / Dungeon Master style, but the enemies and character portraits definitely betray the game’s indie limitations. That said, no one should be coming to this game for its graphics or effects. In my opinion, Checkmark spent its resources wisely – this game could never have competed with modern titles from an audio-video standpoint, and its excellent gameplay more than compensates for the visuals.
Dark Delve is a loving homage to a type of game that is all but extinct. I am incredibly grateful that there are still people out there like Mark Harvey with both an appreciation and understanding of what makes a grid-based dungeon-crawler fun, and the technical and creative prowess to bring such a game into the world. I hope that Dark Delve finds an audience on Xbox, and, if ports are in its future, on other platforms as well (Windows or iOS, perhaps?).
In the meantime, I will continue to play the hell out of it, and to urge other fans of the genre to play it as well.
[Full Disclosure: Checkmark Games was kind enough to provide a free copy of the game based on my interest in the genre. Make no mistake, however – I would gladly pay several times its marketplace price.]