Review: Dungeon Hearts

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At a glance, Dungeon Hearts, with its colored shapes scrolling across the screen along what could easily be mistaken for a horizontal Guitar Hero/Rock Band note highway, might appear to be some form of role-playing rhythm game, kind of like Theatrhythm. A wicked soundtrack of chiptunes and heavy metal definitely helps to underscore the retro vibe, but beyond that the music only exists to fulfill its typical purpose as mood-setting background noise.

Another example of genre crossbreeding done right, Dungeon Hearts takes the old school JRPG format and smushes it together with the rules of a match-three puzzler. Quick gamer reflexes help a whole lot, but there is no musical timing or rhythm to the gameplay, despite its appearances.

The setup should sound familiar to anyone with experience in active time random encounters: your party of heroes – fighter, mage, healer, and archer – stacks vertically along the side of the screen while enemy critters like bats and slimes and voodoo dolls drop in to attack from the opposite side. But instead of choosing battle actions from a text-based menu as each character’s time bar fills, attacks occur when three runes of the same color (known as Chargers) are combined and the resulting Striker crystal is clicked/tapped. Here, the characters also line up on the left side of the screen instead of the right, which will at first feel a bit goofy to anyone who grew up during the golden age of Japanese RPGs (though the orientation makes perfect sense in terms of playability).

Dungeon Hearts doesn’t offer a traditional campaign with a storyline, but rather a randomly generated gauntlet of more than 20 different monsters and bosses that must be defeated in succession. The objective is simply to make it through every stage and defeat the final boss in one shot, preferably with a fast completion time so you can be proud of your leaderboard standing. If you die anywhere along the way, back to the very beginning you will go.

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With each passing stage, the Fatestream (that’s what the field of play is called) scrolls faster, and becomes increasingly crowded with colored shapes. As you are combining runes to create attack strikers and build multi-hero combos for maximum damage, attacks from enemy monsters, represented by runes with skulls on them, must also be cleared before they reach the end of the stream and cause damage to the intrepid band of primary-colored adventurers. Certain enemy runes have armor or colored auras, requiring multiple strikes or attacks from like-colored strikers to remove from play. More powerful foes will even hurl hexes your way, inflicting temporary status ailments like armor reduction, poison and frozen runes.

Character progression is very basic. Each successfully won battle is followed by a power up phase, during which booster runes marked by stars can be matched to level up each hero. With each level gained, heroes receive an unseen boost to strength and health. At set level milestones, heroes also unlock unique skills that slowly charge up during combat. The healer can regenerate health or completely revive fallen companions, the mage can slow down the Fatestream’s scroll speed, and the fighter and archer launch damaging special attacks performed by little mouse click mini-games.

This all works out perfectly fine, but clearly the game would be even better if it had a persistent system of character progression that would carry over levels and stats from game to game. Ideally, it would be great if combining boosters provided skill points, and maybe those skill points could then be manually used to unlock abilities on a skill tree. It’d sure be nice to have more class options as well so there would at least be some opportunity to try out different party combinations. I could also suggest having health bars for monsters, because unless I missed something, there is no clear way of knowing how much damage an enemy can take before going down.

The good news is that a new progression system is slated to appear in the game’s next update. I don’t know what form it will take, but the fact that the developer, Cube Roots, continues to provide such wonderful post-release support and direct community interaction should only make you want to support the game even more. Since Dungeon Hearts launched in late March, free updates have already improved the game with an easy mode difficulty setting as well as an Endless mode in which you do battle against the heroes’ shadowy doppelgangers for as long as you can survive. The developers even tucked the complete official soundtrack into the game’s file directory as a hidden bonus. A video game developer being generous and responding to feedback? I must be dreaming.

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Frankly, my only gripe has to do with the occasional imprecision of controlling this type of game with a mouse. Playing on PC, at the higher difficulties, when the Fatestream is shooting runes and enemy strikers at rapid-fire speed, it can be easy to misclick or get snagged on other blocks as you frantically move pieces around while simultaneously attempting to keep track of the mass of colors and shapes incoming from the other side. I can’t say this as fact based on firsthand experience, but I have a gut feeling the iPad’s touch controls are better equipped to handle the manic tapping and dragging.

But don’t let that frighten you away, citizens of the great digital download kingdom of Steam. Regardless of platform, Dungeon Hearts is an absolute gem of a puzzle-RPG hybrid. It’s not particularly deep or complex, but once you start playing, you’ll instantly catch a bad (or good?) case of onemoregameitis. The fact that I’ve completed five full playthroughs and logged over 11 hours of total play time (and counting) should speak volumes about the game’s potent addictive qualities.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Clever fusion of classic JRPG battle system and match-three puzzle mechanics
+ Dedicated post-release support means the game is only getting better with age
+ Did I mention the game is only $3?

Cons:
– Easy to misclick or get snagged on other runes when the difficulty/speed amps up (at least with mouse controls)
– Currently lacks persistent character progression

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC via Steam, also available for iPad
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Cube Roots
Release Date: 3/28/2013
Genre: Puzzle/RPG
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!