Here’s an odd thought: Dungeon Drafters reminds me a lot of my time in primary school chess club. Yeah, I was a very cool kid. It’s that the feeling of making one wrong move and watching, helplessly, as your opponent swoops in and crushes you. At least in chess you can plead for a do-over. Dungeon Drafters has no mercy for my half-arsed fumbling.
In fact, Dungeon Drafters has a lot of similarities with chess. For one thing, if you play it for more than a few hours at a time, it’ll turn your brain to mush. Don’t let the flashy card collecting fool you, this feels like a puzzle game through and through. It’s a rather well put together one too, bar a few minor irritations. Honestly, the name ‘Dungeon Drafters‘ really doesn’t do it justice.
A World of Fours
When I loaded up Dungeon Drafters, I was greeted with a colourful array of characters to choose from. I pretended to look at all of them but I’d immediatly spotted the giant owl monk. So I always knew I was going to pick him. The chance to see an owl bonk things with a staff was too good to pass up. Before choosing though, we get a quick blast of plot. We’re in the World of Four Corners, which is governed by four archetypes, until a fifth archetype pops up and begins making the place untidy. It’s an okay plot, if a little eerily familiar. Most of it comes through worldbuilding dialogue. It also writes it as ‘World of 4 Corners’, but I can feel the AP Stylebook kicking the back of my seat.
Stylebook aside, Dungeon Drafters has a remarkable amount of polish, from graphics to gameplay. The former comes across nicely in the screenshots. It’s a beautiful art style with an emphasis on bright colours and exaggerated animations. Each of the four corners has its own theme based on location. The explosive barrels and lava pits of Magma City is contrasted with the freezing cold ice of the Glacial Library. Even the card art is fairly good. My favourite is one that turns enemies into frogs. Its image was a frog leaning against a tree, as though questioning its life choices.
The cards pair well with the combat. As the Steam tagline puts it, ‘Magic is cards and cards are magic’. Each card is colour-coded and these colours roughly correspond to the type of spell. Red cards tend to be damage focused, for example, while tan is all about pushing and rooting enemies to the ground. My owl friend was blue and tan focused, so I equipped him with a deck that allowed me to shuffle enemies around at will so I could safely bonk them without worry. There’s a staggering amount of cards and I must admit, opening booster packs and re-arranging my deck did give me some child-like joy.
Draw, Step, Bonk
The other side of combat is a strong positioning focus. When combat starts, we’re given three Action Points, which are used when you move, attack or cast a spell. The battlefield works on a grid system, so you constantly need to make sure you’re in the right place at the right time. This is the puzzle element, as attacking or using the right spell can make or break things. It also encourages unconventional thinking. Pulling off a chain of spells to knock an enemy down a hole or into a trap was immensely satisfying. Each battle does take a long time (I’ll expand on that in a moment) but getting through each one felt like a proper achievement.
That said, this is a game that pulls no punches. It’s punishing. If you die, you lose everything you’ve collected. That’s not so bad, as it encourages weighing up quitting early to keep your packs or forging ahead. A death may just require a deck change. That said, Dungeon Drafters does do a few things that punish a little too much. For one, the UI really isn’t up to snuff. There’s a massive range of effects and abilities and all are given a tiny little symbol. Figuring out what your enemy is about to do requires constant checking of an in-game wiki, which contributes to the long length of each fight.
What doesn’t help is a smattering of infuriating enemies. One group of flying mages liked to throw spells and then teleport just out of reach. I had a low amount of cards in my deck at the time, so I couldn’t catch them. Going back to chess, it felt like you’d reduced someone to just a king and a pawn but they absolutely refused to resign. Others abuse the ‘stealth’ mechanic, where you can’t target them. These elongated battles have a knock-on effect: death is even more punishing. I once beavered away at a boss for a full thirty minutes only for him to pull out an un-dodgeable attack and wipe me out. If this was chess, my opponent would need a colonoscopy to find his king.
In For The Long Run
It took about five hours for Dungeon Drafters to click with me. I’d had a few embarassing deaths, so I played it safe and worked on building up my deck. I swapped out some of the cards I never used and created a red-blue-tan deck. Suddenly, I achieved a state of zen, moving around and commanding the battlefield at will. I beat a boss, showered in the loot and strode into the next area. My ego was promptly flattened. I have about sixteen hours in Dungeon Drafters so far and I’ve barely cracked the surface. I’d need at least three times as much to have a shot at beating it.
The good news though is that Dungeon Drafters is a rogue-lite I’d be happy to put that many hours into. The combat has such depth that while the battles dragged every now and then, it never dulled the satisfaction of a good plan well executed. While the battles do feel artificially stretched at times, Dungeon Drafters is a beautifully polished and deeply intelligent game. Plus it has a staff-wielding owl monk. What more could you want?