BEWARE THE SMILING DUNGEON MASTER
I have never played a game of Dungeons and Dragons in my life. With the exception of the Futurama movie ‘Bender’s Game’ I have had little to no contact with the game. The closest I’ve come to it was the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books that seemed big during the late 90s early 00s; for the uninitiated, you’d read a page and then make a decision that would determine which page to read next. Those books consumed much of my school day (sorry Sir). I became weirdly competitive with them, this was a battle between me and whichever assembly line ghost-writing collaborative had put together this slightly different version of the last book. That competitiveness inevitably led me to use my exercise books (again, sorry Sir) to sketch out the maps, record the pages for each decision and illustrate each path or room with what was encountered. Sure, it was a waste of time, and yes, I failed most of my mock exams, but by the time I’d exhausted the school library’s collection I had a “Book of Books”, a guide through the dungeons. In the pages of maps and monsters sandwiched between the algebra and half completed linear equations I had the answers to beat each adventure.
You might ask, why am I wasting your time with pointless memories of a little known book series? The answer is simple; the maps and drawings recorded in those exercise books have been brought to life on Nintendo Switch with the release of Drawngeon.
The first thing that strikes you upon beginning Drawngeon is the aesthetic. While many similar titles go for realism, cartoonish animation or a mix of the two, as the title indicates Drawngeon appears as though it has been hand drawn on the paper of a maths exercise book. There is little by way of colour aside from the odd intrusion during a fight or some cell shading and NPCs, scenery and objects stick up from the ground as if glued in a child’s diorama, if there is a sequel I’d suggest the developers contact Daniel Radcliffe for a cameo, he’s been dining out on cardboard acting for nearly 2 decades at this point so would require little direction or rendering. The choice of this style and the first person perspective is something that immediately gave me a warm feeling of nostalgia, it’s a bold choice by the developer and one that certainly drew me in from the beginning. The penmanship is supplemented by the sound effects which instead of being directly relevant to the action you take continue with the paper based theme; you’ll hear pages turning as you move between areas, tearing paper when you slay an enemy and dice being rolled as you open a treasure chest. In every way this game stays entirely within its theme. There is no music, which, though initially refreshing, means that as you pile more hours into the game you’ll inevitably find yourself putting on something of your own choosing.
Drawngeon’s gameplay varies wildly in both quality and difficulty. Things that seem good at one point will quickly become bad later on and vice versa. The game is essentially a dungeon crawler, pick your character class from the standard Mage, Rogue etc. each of which comes with their own statistical quirks across the four main stats; HP, Strength, Wisdom and Acrobatics. I didn’t find too much difference between the classes in terms of gameplay experience though it is certainly easier to compensate for the control system with a character with high Acrobatics stats. I learned far too late that Acrobatics means Speed; given that there is no jump button I didn’t see the point in building that area at all. There is no narrative provided in-game, all I had to go on was the brief plot description on the eShop homepage. Without a narrative there is little in the way of direction or clear objective from the outset and the game itself provides no guidance to the player. From the moment you begin you will simply be aimlessly exploring dungeons, talking to other characters and trying to find and complete quests to level up your character. An example of the good to bad mechanics I mentioned previously is in relation to the dungeons themselves. The town in which you begin will always look the same but the dungeons you enter are randomly generated, when you die you retain the currency from that game into the next and you are immediately able to spend it to prepare yourself better. Initially that seems like a good idea, if no dungeon is ever the same then the game retains its challenge and replay factor and if you found a dungeon too challenging you can prepare properly for the next run. But what happens when you prepare fully for a dungeon and when you get there find it to be completely different? You get your arse kicked again that’s what happens. There are so many instances of this kind of issue strewn throughout Drawngeon that it does make me wonder whether it was designed by a team whilst their email servers were down; there is seemingly a lack of joined up thinking.
“You might ask, why am I wasting your time with pointless memories of a little known book series?”
Difficulty is also inconsistent in the game and gets frustrating, particularly on the first few play throughs. In the beginning it feels as though you’re not going to be able to get anywhere at all, you are woefully underequipped and you could carry more in your pockets in real life than your inventory screen allows. As you progress you will obtain more slots in the inventory and more money to be able to buy better items, that’s normal. What I didn’t see coming was the sharp decline in difficulty after the mid-game point. One of the stranger concepts in Drawngeon is that everything you find is edible and will replenish your health. I expected that foodstuff and medicine type items would have that effect but did I think that I would recover health by chomping down my battle-axe? Of course I bloody well didn’t. The problem is that once you realise this you really do have to be either particularly unlucky or incredibly stupid to die at all. The challenge is lost and what you’re left with is a game where you are certain to be able to finish but there is little desire to.
Finally I have to discuss the control system. From the first moment you’re dropped into the paper landscape it is clear that the game was originally designed for PC and the way you move around has more in common with the tank controls of Resident Evil or the jumpy room to room movements in the ‘Mind Maze’ game included with Encarta 95 (niche reference I know). You move forward with the control stick and you rotate 90 degrees in either direction with the use of the shoulder buttons. You interact with people and objects with the A Button and primarily use buttons for navigation of the inventory screen. At first the controls feel horrifically dated, but as you progress and they become ingrained I found that it did add to the experience; if I wanted a game with smooth, modern control I wouldn’t be playing one comprised entirely of drawings. It’s a throwback to a simpler time and the control system is a loving reminder of how things used to be.
If you’re willing to take a trip down a nostalgic path, to a time when graphics, story and control were secondary to the imagination of the player, where frustration was expected and solutions were not Googleable, then Drawngeon may be one for you. To enjoy the game you need to buy in to the concept and you need to recognise that it’s not perfect; it’s not trying to be. You need to remember those days, way back in the past, when video games were often literal translations of games you’d play in the real world and you can’t get much more literal than a game roughly drawn on some scrappy paper and put on the screen. Drawngeon has its faults, quirks and frustrations and the requirement for consistent suspension of logic, expectation and forward planning do damage the experience but ultimately I couldn’t dislike it. I don’t love it either.
If it’s available for a decent price and you have a spare couple of hours to kill then pick it up, if you want a genuinely challenging and immersive dungeon crawler game there are better options available on Switch.