The central premise of , the new dice-chucking roguelike from acclaimed developer Terry Cavanagh ( ) is that you are a walking, talking die starring in a twisted game show in which you must endlessly fight your way through an ever-changing dungeon in a desperate attempt to earn your freedom.
That freedom, of course, will never come.
Apart from the whole “sentient die in a game show” thing, it’s a pretty apt metaphor for my experience with the highly addictive modern roguelike genre (or “roguelite,” depending on how uppity you want to get). I’ve poured a frankly troubling amount of hours into games likec,, and , the latter of which you may hear used in descriptions of . It’s not an altogether indefensible comparison—they feel similar in some ways—but the games are ultimately quite different.
combined the board-game-famous mechanic of deckbuilding with the “just one more run” addictiveness of a roguelike dungeon crawler to make, in this author’s estimation, a damn-near perfect game. yoinks ’s general setup—traipsing around a branching map to take part in turn-based, permadeath battles against monsters—but instead of constructing a deck of cards through play, you’re piecing together a set of “equipment” that you activate with standard six-sided dice.
Roll them bones
The game rolls your dice for you at the start of each turn—you begin each run with two, but you get more as you level up—and you can then assign your dice to your equipment as you see fit. The starting character, the warrior, starts each game with a sword, which lets you deal damage equal to the numerical value of the die placed on it. The warrior also gets a “combat roll” ability that allows you to do three re-rolls (it is, after all, the starting character).
Soon, though, you’ll be picking up more interesting kit, like “Toxic Ooze,” which deals damage equal to the die number, but if that number is a 6, you also put a couple stacks of poison on the enemy. “Boomerang” deals damage equal to double the die value to the enemy but then comes back to hit you for single-value damage. Some equipment requires a certain spread of numbers (“less than 5” or “at least 3”), some require you to meet a certain threshold (a 10, of course, takes multiple dice to trigger), and some simply allow you to manipulate your dice (bump a die up 1, knock it down 1, split it in half, etc.).
The equipment boxes are unfortunately a little bland; it would have been nice to see small thematic illustrations to make a sword feel like a sword instead of a generic box with “sword” written on the top.
Each of the game’s six characters (warrior, thief, robot, inventor, witch, and a secret character) has his or her own wildly different selection of starting equipment and character-specific gear, as well as a special “limit break” power that can be triggered when you’ve taken enough damage. The warrior focuses on big, smashy attacks, while the thief has access to small, repeatable strikes. Certain characters even have entirely unique mechanics. The robot lets you roll as many dice as you want, but if you roll over your target number, you “bust,” ending your turn immediately (hit the target exactly to trigger a “jackpot” bonus action). The inventor deconstructs a piece of active equipment after each battle to give her a special bonus ability for the next battle, and the witch has to construct a spellbook to use during battle.
Your backpack can hold a generous amount of equipment, but your active equipment—which you can swap in and out as you please between battles—is limited to six “slots.” Some of the more powerful equipment takes up two slots, so you’re constantly reassessing which gear works best together for the specific monster you’ll be facing. The monsters, of course, have their own specialized equipment and fight in the same way.
In a game like , building your deck is half the battle. The “deckbuilding” aspect of —assembling your equipment loadout—is important, but it’s the tactical turn-by-turn gameplay where you’ll be doing most of your thinking. There is a certain amount of luck inherent in any dice game, but the randomness here feels just about right. There are times, of course, when you simply don’t roll a number you need, but there are also plenty of ways to build your loadout to make sure you have a spread of equipment to make use of any die result. There are also ways to manipulate the dice results, and you can even “cheat” the system to get free dice and pull off some complicated maneuvers (if you “split” a 1, you get two 1s, or you can bump a 6 up to get a 6 and an extra 1, etc.). Each turn, the game gives you a random assortment of dice results and asks you to use them as efficiently as possible.
In contrast to the game’s grim premise, ’s aesthetic could probably best be described as “aggressively bubbly.” The genre-standard grim-darkness is replaced here with bright colors, quirky characters, and a positively bangin’ chiptune soundtrack. Defeated enemies aren’t left in a puddle of their own viscera; they’re simply bested for the day, and they send you along your way with a cute quip. The enemies themselves are unfailingly charming—there’s everything from a flaming marshmallow that shoots fireballs to an allergic porcupine who (perhaps accidentally) flings quills your way whenever he sneezes.
On the issue of difficulty, I was fairly concerned when I beat my first run of the game and breezed through the character-unlocking process with very little pushback. It’s the roguelike genre’s dogged commitment to crushing difficulty that gives its games an almost endless replayability. But the standard game is essentially a tutorial, a way to help you familiarize yourself with each character’s unique mechanics and equipment. After you unlock all the characters, you unlock “Episodes,” which is where the game really comes together.
There are six episodes for each character—the first one is simply the standard game, and each of the others adds a twist or new mechanic to the character’s repertoire. For instance, in a standard Episode 1 game, the thief steals a random piece of equipment each turn. In Episode 2, the thief can permanently steal a piece of equipment by investing dice into doing so. In Episode 3, the thief rolls all 1s on round one, all 2s on round two, and so forth. The characters’ “limit break” special powers are also different in each episode, and some of the more complex characters get truly wacky modifiers to shake things up. When I unlocked the episodes, my enthusiasm for the game went from “yeah, this is pretty cool” to “I will not rest until I’ve completed everything in this game.” Most of the episodes give you new abilities to play around with and problems to solve, making an “Episode 1” character and an “Episode 2” character feel almost like entirely different classes. The episodes are also more difficult than the standard game.
Don’t expect the intense theorycrafting of a more complex game here; there’s no deep interplay between cards, trinkets, consumables, and other mechanics like you’d see in . But does what it sets out to do: provides an approachable roguelike strategy game—certainly a much smoother on-ramp than many of its genre compatriots.
Most importantly, it’s very fun. Once again, I’m stuck in the dungeon.