Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Monster's Den: Book of Dread

Are you the type of person who enjoys pondering whether Runed Magesteel Plate Sabatons of Deftness or Soothing Planeforged Plate Sabatons of Discretion are the best sabatons for your level 11 cleric? If so, then Monster's Den: Book of Dread is the game for you! Book of Dread is a very old-school dungeon crawling RPG, and I mean that mostly positively, but it also has some downsides.

The basic formula is very standard -- you build a party of four characters, each of which can be one of 7 classes (warrior, cleric, rogue, ranger, mage, conjuror, and barbarian). You then take this party adventuring in a dungeon. Each level of the dungeon consists of a series of rooms, which may be empty, contain treasure, or contain monsters. The object in the level is to reach the exit to the next dungeon level; you can fight as many or as few of the monsters as you wish to accomplish the goal (more fights will bring you more stuff and more points, but of course have more chances to get you killed). Each level has one boss monster, which you get a nice point bonus and a rare piece of equipment for terminating. The fights are similarly pretty standard; you line up your party on a 3x2 grid on one side of the battlefield and the enemies do likewise, then you take turns acting. An action consists of picking a skill (attack, spell, etc.) and target. Turn order is determined by characters' quickness, making this a valuable stat to improve.

And now for a marginally-related rant. One of the things I enjoyed about the original Final Fantasy (to pick the first example that comes to mind) was that there was a very strong strategic component, not just a tactical component. By that, I mean that it's not enough to be able to win individual battles (which is what I'll call the "tactical" side). Rather, you had to be able to win a long series of battles without any rest or refueling (I'm thinking specifically about the Ice Cave here), which meant that merely being able to win a single battle was not sufficient -- you had to win a single battle while using as little of your resources (HP, spells, etc.) as possible. Over time in the Final Fantasy series, however, healing items (phoenix down, tiny houses, etc.) became more and more easily available and powerful, so that the strategic component practically disappeared. This left only the tactical component, but ordinary encounters couldn't be so powerful as to kill you (that would be really unfair, given the paucity of save points), so the game tended to consist of a boring slog through hundreds of normal encounters until you got to the one horribly difficult boss at the end of it all, which was the only place the game could really be tactically difficult. I found this not a particuarly welcome development, which is why I haven't played Final Fantasy in a while.

Anyway, as you can probably guess, strategic management plays a big role in Book of Dread. Ways to recover HP and MP (called "Power") and revive fallen party members between battles are extremely scarce -- each level has two healing shrines which restore you fully (but at a stiff cost in points), and if you've fully cleared the level above you, you can also return there once to rest for free. Other than that, you're limited to whatever potions you've managed to find in the treasure chests scattered about the dungeon. You're also quite restricted in your movement -- once you've gone down a level, you can never return to the previous level (except to rest as mentioned before). There is an item shop, but you can't visit it at any time; you need to find a portal scroll, and typically there's only one per level (some levels don't even have one at all). This makes the early levels very challenging. Unfortunately, every RPG I've seen which emphasizes strategy has a fatal flaw -- eventually your characters reach the point where they are able to regenerate enough HP and/or MP during combat that they can actually come out of a combat stronger than when they went in. At this point, the game becomes pretty easy. Fortunately, Book of Dread is well-balanced enough that if your only goal is to complete the campaign, that'll happen before you reach that point. But if you go for the 50,000 point badge, you'll reach that point long before you get to 50,000 points, making the game rather boring.

Speaking of points, the meter is always running. You gain points for exploring or clearing more of a level, and (as mentioned) killing enemy leaders. You lose points for using the aforementioned healing shrines, having a character die (even if he or she gets instantly revived!), and a really large penalty for having the whole party die (unless you have Hardcore mode on, in which case that ends the game). This brings me to the most old-school aspect of all of the game: there's no saving. Or, more precisely, there's saving all the time. Every time something happens in the game, it's instantly saved. So there's no going back to a previous save if something particularly bad happens to your party -- you're stuck with that result, whether you like it or not. I think that this adds a lot to the game, although it means that you do need to not be too careless with what you're doing! Note that while the game has points, it does not have XP in the traditional sense; you just gain a level every time you descend the stairs into a new dungeon level. Thus, there is no bonus (other than points and equipment) that you get from fighting more enemies. (This is probably also why you can't go back up in the dungeon; otherwise, you could just gain a level and then go back up to wipe the floor with the enemies there.)

Now, the downside of the old-school ethic is that a lot of content is programatically generated. Each dungeon level, for instance, is randomly generated. While this adds some variety to the game, and the random generator is good (no level that I've seen has any particular degeneracies), it also means that there's no really interesting elements in any dungeon level, either. Each dungeon level is also characterized by one of five different enemy types (undead, cultists, orcs, dwarves, and creatures), which can get pretty repetitive after a while. All of the equipment is similarly randomly generated (some random material combined with zero, one, or two random enchantments), which means that you'll be doing a lot of wading through equipment with names like I mentioned in the beginning. (There are some rare and unique items with more interesting names and properties, so it's not entirely monotony.) In any case, this means that equipment management, while a vital part of the game, can be rather tedious, especially if you're as careful about always optimizing as I am.

The game offers three different game modes. The Den of Corruption is the first, and is (apparently) a remake of the original Monster's Den. You fight your way through nine levels of the dungeon to encounter the Corruptor, a horrible monster with a few deadly tricks up his sleeve. After defeating the Corruptor, you can keep delving into the dungeon to score more points. The Den of Terror is slightly different -- each level of the dungeon now contains one Fearsower, an advance agent of the Dreadlord. Defeating nine Fearsowers allows you to travel to the Dreadlord's den and defeat him. Like the first, after defeating the Dreadlord you can keep exploring the dungeon. In practice, there's not terribly much difference between the two campaings, although the variety is welcome. There is also a survival mode, The Fall of Tellunos, where you fight an endless series of battles against successive waves of enemies with no interludes for equipping or healing.

The graphics are nicely done, although I wouldn't mind a little more choice in the character portraits. The sound effects are decent, and the background music is high quality, although (to repeat a very frequent complaint) the loop is a little short, so it will get a little repetitive after a while, although there are several different tunes it alternates among.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable experience, and does an excellent job making a very interesting and challenging RPG...at least for the first few levels. If you're trying to go to the very high levels, though, it doesn't hold up as well, so I would recommend sticking to just completing the basic campaigns.

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