We all worship the deluxe son et lumière of today’s games. Battles suck us in with explosive imagery, lavish cutscenes frame every encounter and voice artists declaim stories to rend our hearts. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing, then, if that were all shown to be a charade? If a game came along that created more engaging action, more meaningful encounters and a more moving story, but without any of that baroque dressing-up. Wouldn’t we all, gawping at ray-traced, rag-draped, sweaty warriors, be caught with our trousers down and/or skirts up? Metaphorically? Well, Dungeon Encounters is that game.
Immediately striking is the confidence with which Dungeon Encounters sets about its mission. There is no accident to its spartan approach to the RPG. The barest of excuses for a story, for example, is delivered with no shame: it is asserted right away in a small box labelled “Story”. (Summary: there was a town; a labyrinth appeared.) The save game list is titled “Expedition Chronicles” as if it were a thematic artefact of the scenario and not a functional artefact of the game. A common enough idea, yes, but in most games, that’s a way to try and maintain the illusion while covering off some video game housekeeping: here, it’s about 50% of the world-building. Dungeon Encounters – even in its name – is proudly bare-bones, but it’s deceptively meaty.
Looking at some of the Square Enix names behind this game, there’s no impudence in their rebellion against JRPG canon. They are of the canon and could hardly be more so: Hiroyuki Ito, Hiroaki Kato, Ryoma Ito and Nobuo Uematsu – each has worked on multiple Final Fantasy titles. This roster explains why a game so plain in concept is so sumptuously rich in practice.
On paper, the game is wildly simple: you take a party of four and lead them down the levels of the labyrinth. You can see the layout as you explore, numbers indicating monster encounters, events or locations. These are not randomised and in many cases could be identified by simple icons. The boldness of this refusal to elaborate on the underlying mechanics gets right to the spirit of Dungeon Encounters. There isn’t even a map. If you’ve heard about people hand-drawing game maps on graph paper in the olden days and wondered what that would be like, this is your chance to find out.
In battle, you can choose physical or magical attacks, and characters have both physical and magical defence stats. When one defence reaches zero, HP can be reduced using that same type of attack. So if a creature has no magical defence left, magical attacks will now reduce its HP. Encounters use the Active Time Battle system Hiroyuki Ito created for Final Fantasy IV in 1991, where combatants take turns based on their own timers rather than in strict sequence – an old mechanic that is proven here still to be highly effective.
That’s the core of Dungeon Encounters summed up, but the developers squeeze every last delicious drop out of the formula, layering on enough audiovisual decoration to enhance the experience but not mask it. Is it a glorified spreadsheet? Perhaps, but it’s a really good one.
The music is, with absolute respect, in the genre “video game music”. The running theme of Dungeon Encounters is that video game basics go a very long way. Uematsu’s soundtrack drives when it needs to, and settles in between. The retro-rock guitar wailings call back to gaming’s founding era and contribute to an almost comical reductionism, in which Dungeon Encounters appears so plainly to be a game that could have been made in the 1980s. The music and sound effects together do an incredible amount of work, transforming what you see in these absurdly simplistic screenshots into a palpable, thriving thing.
Graphical simplicity doesn’t mean there’s no work to do. The game elements need to be clear and easy to parse; all those numbers need to be legible on the Switch’s handheld screen. On both those counts, Dungeon Encounters does the job. It’s more evidence of how deliberately and precisely the developers have made their design decisions. There’s no corner-cutting, the hard work has just been targeted at something other than big monster models and voiced dialogue.
Despite the generally parsimonious approach, the graphics are not cruelly spartan or disrespecting of players for the sake of making a point: the game looks beautiful. The texture of the dungeon board is sumptuous and the colour-ways of the different stages are harmonious and attractive. Animated flourishes like wind-swept blades of grass lift the scene further into life.
For all the focus on the functional, the character imagery and flavour text, while brief, is of the highest calibre. Dungeoneers have evocative, stylish and varied portraits in the menus and slick models on the board. The fleeting text bios are efficient, generously supplying quirky emotional hooks in exchange for the seconds spent reading.
Screenshots never capture enough of a game, but they are especially inadequate for Dungeon Encounters. Apart from the sound, the sense of movement, and the feel of the controls, there is the aesthetic experience of the systems behind the numbers. Numbers here earn great significance beyond their logical values, taking on an emotional weight. In the early game, we are taught that the impact of 10 points is substantial, when a single point is often the deciding factor in an encounter. Before long, your attacks go over 100 points at once and it feels potent. It’s around then that you may catch a glimpse in the shop of items described in the hundreds of thousands, and start wondering nervously what exactly is down on level 99 of the labyrinth.
This, of course, is the classic JRPG stats system. Imbue numbers with meaning through their effect in battle, then increase the numbers, and you can feel how far you’ve come. You can see how much your accomplishments dwarf your beginnings. It’s not the epic vista that puts you on top of the world, it’s the climb.
Dungeon Encounters leverages this to its full. You will care about your companions and their absurdly truncated back stories because you’ll have felt what they’ve been through. Tiny snippets of flavour text grow into significance over the protracted journey. A fallen hero is inarguably returned to grace by the struggle to the dungeon depths. A vengeful sister is calmed by the catharsis of futile exhaustion. Regret becomes redemption, loss companionship, defeat victory, poverty wealth. Not bad for a glorified spreadsheet.
Dungeon Encounters is a masterstroke of game design, character and narrative – it’s storytelling in the way only games can be. It teaches how scale is felt in a game, and it teaches, through their absence, the roles of rich visuals and verbose storytelling. Next time we play an RPG with baroque graphics and forests of text, we will understand a little more deeply where a game’s atmosphere really comes from.