Dicey Dungeons, from Terry Cavanagh of VVVVVV and Super Hexagon fame, is a roguelike deck-building dungeon crawler framed as a game show presented by host Lady Luck. You play as one of the show’s six adorable contestants, all of whom are anthropomorphic dice, because this game really is all-in on loving dice. But while the game’s clever combination of cards and dice make for an entertaining gameplay system, it can’t escape the occasional frustration that is inherent to rolling a die.
In each episode your chosen die heads into a six-level dungeon to defeat enemies, opening chests and visiting stores while building up a deck of cards capable of defeating an end boss. The dungeons are presented as a series of nodes you can move between, with shops, health-restoring apples, and enemies placed on several of them, and to progress you need to fight enemies and reach the node that features the trap door to the next floor.
Each character can equip between three and six cards (you have six slots on your inventory screen, and some cards take up two of them), all of which are powered by dice. Each card requires something different; some are affected by how high the number on the die is, or have maximum or minimum numbers, or will only take odds or evens. Still others might introduce effects or buffs. A card might “shock” your opponent, for instance, meaning that one of their cards will be locked next turn unless they spend a die to unlock it, or induce a “freeze” effect that reduces their highest dice roll down to a 1. A good deck will let you be adaptable depending on what you roll, but there’s not a huge number of cards and enemies in the game, meaning that the same ones will pop up frequently–10 hours in I would still occasionally encounter something new, but not as often as I would have liked.
A charming art style works wonders in glossing over this sense of repetition, however, with each character having a distinctive personality despite the game being light on dialogue. And although their animations are limited, the enemies are charming, too. The character designs and poses are consistently delightful, so you’ll always feel a little bad taking down a direwolf puppy because of the huge grin on their face. The gameshow motif doesn’t stretch that far, but the upbeat soundtrack and the little check-in scenes with Lady Luck before each adventure is an effective way of giving you a sense of purpose.
The six characters each have a unique playstyle, which helps to give the game some sense of variety. The thief copies one of its opponents’ cards in each match, for instance, and the inventor will always sacrifice one of their cards at the end of each fight in favor of a new ability for the next round, which can be activated just by clicking on it without needing to worry about dice. Some get more radical still, like the witch, who attacks using a “spell book”–when you roll a die you can either spend it on one of the four spells you have selected on your screen, or you can throw it at the spell book in lieu of using an ability and get whichever spell is assigned to that dice number. It’s a great system because each character feels completely different, and while the central combat system of laying dice onto cards doesn’t change, the mechanics by which you acquire those dice and cards do.
For the first few hours, as you’re moving through the initial dungeons for each character and getting to grips with how they play, Dicey Dungeons is a delight, albeit one that’s light on challenge. But once you’ve played a round as each of the first five characters and unlock each character’s more difficult episodes, there’s a steep difficulty curve to overcome. Each one introduces modifiers that make the game more challenging–you might lose health instead of gaining it every time you level up, duplicate dice might immediately disappear, or you’ll only roll 1s on your first roll of a fight, 2s on the second, and so on.
These episodes are where you’ll really start to learn the different strategies and combos that are essential to mastering Dicey Dungeons. Using your Limit Break ability (a character-and-episode specific ability that is usable only after you’ve taken a certain level of damage) and making sure that you’re making good use of buffs and/or debuffs are vital to success. After a while, you start to figure out which abilities work best against which enemies–freeze is particularly useful against creatures that can only roll a single die, for instance, whereas shock is useful if an opponent has few cards. Some enemies are also weak to particular elements, so if you see an enemy on your level who you know is weak to shock attacks, you can plan accordingly. You’ll need to remember these details yourself, though, as the game will not remind you of an enemies’ abilities and weaknesses until you’re actually in the battle.
Whether or not Dicey Dungeons becomes too difficult after the initial episodes will depend on your patience and your willingness to play through the same scenarios repeatedly. It can feel like butting your head against a wall at times, though, because if a single episode takes you multiple attempts to beat (and many of them will), you’re going to end up rolling through the same enemies several times. You might try out different card combinations, but it’s going to be from the same small pool of potential cards and facing off mostly against the same enemies that got the better of you last time. A loss can sometimes feel out of your hands, too, if an early enemy just rolls too many sixes or the final boss just happens to be immune to the debuff you built your deck around.
But this also means that figuring out and implementing a winning strategy can be very satisfying. It took me six attempts to beat the second episode for the Warrior (the easiest character), but once I built a deck that was high on freeze cards I was able to deal with the later enemies easily enough, even if the end boss who was immune to freezing almost tripped me up (ultimately I got lucky on dice rolls). In a game so heavily themed around dice there’s always going to be an element of luck, which can be gratifying or exhausting depending on whether it goes your way or not.
The charm of Dicey Dungeons can start to wear thin when you’re stuck, but when you bypass an episode that was giving you grief, it feels great. I found myself frequently quitting out of the game, pacing around my house, and returning to it again 10 minutes later for another go. No matter how annoyed I might get, it’s never difficult to come back to Dicey Dungeons, and the challenges never feel insurmountable–it’s always plausible that your next attempt could be the one where you crack it. Dicey Dungeons is a charming and often rewarding game, as long as you learn to accept that sometimes the dice won’t roll your way.