Saturday, July 3, 2021

Game 418: Reaping the Dungeon (1993)

I played a 1994 version, but the game first saw release in 1993.
       
Reaping the Dungeon
Canada
Frontline Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1993 for DOS as shareware
Updated and re-released several times as late as 2003; renamed Dungeon Rogue in one of the later releases
Date Started: 27 June 2021
Date Ended: 28 June 2021
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 30
Ranking at Time of Posting: 259/428 (61%)
     
"Below Jupiter's surface lies a very unusual dungeon," begins the backstory of Reaping the Dungeon, alerting us instantly that any enjoyment we get out of this one is going to depend on mechanics and not plot. It turns out to have good--or at least interesting--mechanics, but man, I wish roguelike authors would try a bit harder on the backstory.
    
Reaping the Dungeon is a roguelite written by Ron Heuse of Frontline Software, based on Hamilton, Ontario. (Remember: if you don't know the terms "roguelike" or "roguelite," check out my glossary.) The backstory is that it's 2048, and scientists have just abandoned a research lab on the surface of Jupiter after (accidentally?) creating a machine capable of mass-producing dangerous creatures. The machine needs to be shut down, but that's a mission for Episode 2: The Machine. For Episode 1: The Weapon Recovery, the hero--the son of the lead researcher--just needs to recover a special weapon from Level 15.
       
The in-game backstory.
     
Though clearly familiar with other roguelikes, Heuse went pretty far in his own direction, with both good and bad results. One of the more unusual decisions is making the dungeon a closed system. There are a fixed number of enemies and treasures on each level, and they never respawn. You can even get a bonus reward for killing all the creatures. This means that all the game's commodities--money, crystals, and cells--must be carefully managed. Waste any of them, and you can end up in a downward spiral. Perhaps sensing this, however, Heuse balanced the game a bit on the "too easy" side, especially when it comes to combat.
      
Choosing my bonus for clearing the level.
  
The least of Heuse's additions are the graphics, which are too small to be any improvement on ASCII characters. (Technically, this is because they're simply remapped characters instead of true "graphics.) If you zoom in, they just become confusing. The main character appears to have horns, for instance. Come to think of it, I don't think the backstory ever said that the character, his father, or the research scientists were human. Perhaps that explains how they can survive in Jupiter's atmospheric pressure.
     
The game's levels are all randomly generated and occupy coordinates up to 192 on the x-axis and 77 on the y-axis. Sometimes it generates non-contiguous areas, although there are teleporters and other items to help leap between them. Each level has one shop, alternating between weapons on odd levels and other devices on evens. A primary goal on each level is to find the "drop shaft" to the next level, which jumps to a new location after a random number of turns. Once you find it, you "tag" it and nail it down. Once you use the drop shaft, you cannot return to upper levels.
     
I tag the drop shaft, locking it down.
     
Perhaps the primary challenge is managing "cells." You have energy cells, which deplete as you use weapons and other devices. If they run out, you cannot attack enemies. Oxygen cells deplete as you move, starting at a rate of 1.3 per action. If they run out, your health cells start draining at the same rate until you die. Health cells are like hit points. They deplete from enemy attacks, traps, energy doors, and from not having enough oxygen. There are several ways to replenish cells, but no matter which ones you rely on, they kept depleting faster than I planned for. I had to reload a couple of times when I found myself trapped in some far corner of the dungeon with my oxygen cells at 0 and my health cells rapidly diminishing. Fortunately, the game offers multiple save slots, one of the reasons I've designated it a "roguelite."
    
The game's inventory system is simpler than the typical roguelike. You have a selection of only about 6 or 7 weapons, some melee, some missile. You start with "metal hands" and can buy the others in the store. Missile weapons are a good option because no enemy in the game has a ranged attack, although enemies aren't very hard even in melee combat. The game is clear about weapon statistics, including your accuracy percentage (which you can improve), the weapon's damage range, and how much energy it takes to use.
    
Shooting an enemy from a couple squares away. The "unibull" suffered 24 damage plus a 1 damage bonus. My weapon, the blast rifle, hits 77.2% of the time and does 18-25 damage when it hits, at a cost of 26 energy cells per shot.
      
Besides the weapon, you have a separate "device," starting with the bio-scanner, which tells you things about enemies and plants. I frankly won the game with the bio-scanner as my only device, but there are others that temporarily put enemies to sleep, push them away from you, allow you to teleport randomly in the dungeon, and a few other effects. Weapons and devices both draw from your energy cells.
       
Using my bio-scanner on an adjacent enemy.
      
The only other inventory items you have are mushrooms and globes. There are at least 7 types of mushrooms: teleporting, walk through walls, walk through energy doors (which otherwise cause damage), boost your speed, improve the radius in which you can see objects as you explore, improve your defense, and see enemies from a distance. Globes are all related to the mapping system. You can bring up an automap of the areas you've explored at any time with the "M" key, but you can also use one or more globes to add monsters, cell plants, and treasures to the map. I found that globes accumulated far more rapidly than I needed to use them.
       
Choosing from various magic mushrooms.
       
The most innovative mechanics in the game come from its character development system. As you kill enemies, you earn "raw crystals." Raw crystals can also be found in small piles in the dungeon and are sometimes offered as a reward for clearing a level. These crystals can be spent like experience points directly on character improvements. There are a lot of potential improvements. You can increase your success rate with weapons and devices (these go up with successful use, too), increase your defense against various attacks, add a damage multiplier, increase the number of cells you extract from plants, and reduce your oxygen expenditure with each move. For a lot of raw crystals, you can increase your speed, which significantly helps you against monsters, particularly if you're trying to keep them at missile range. One of the most valuable improvements, also expensive, is increasing your visual range so that you can see more of the dungeon as you explore and thus reduce your oxygen usage. In short, the development system supports a lot of different playing styles, and not just those that focus on combat. That said, I do wish there were more combat options.
        
Spending raw crystals. It will cost 980 crystals to reduce my oxygen cell consumption to 1.0 per round.
       
The levels are quite large, and you really do want to explore them exhaustively, as both treasures and the bonus for clearing each level are more than worth it. But you also have to explore intelligently. One of the most important strategic considerations--quite unique to this game--has to do with "cell plants," which grow throughout the dungeon. These plants take a certain number of turns, determinable with the bio-scanner, to reach their next stage of development. Once they do, you have a small number of turns to "harvest" them of their cells. (Each plant has a certain percentage chance of producing energy, oxygen, or health cells when it matures.) When I first started playing, if I encountered a plant that wasn't ready for harvest, I'd just move on. I soon realized that those cells are too precious to do that. Instead, you want to wait around if the number of turns-to-harvest is small. If it's large, you want to use the maps to help you figure out an exploration pattern that will bring you back to the plant in time for harvest. Figuring out how to maximize the use of the plants occupied the time and thought I usually spend on inventory and combat in roguelikes.
       
I'm scanning the plant next to me. It's at Stage 3 and has 218 turns until it "matures" at Stage 4, at which point I'll have about 20 turns to harvest it. There's a 78% chance it will produce oxygen cells and a 21% chance it will produce energy cells. I want to plan my exploration to be back in this room in about 220 turns.
       
You can also buy cells at stores, and I did a lot of that, too. The economic system of the game also has some interesting complexities. You find copper, silver, gold, and gems in the dungeon, and you can trade them at the stores for "credits." One twist is in the rate of conversion that stores offer you. The game shows you both the "normal" rate of conversion and what this particular store offers. You naturally want to try to take advantage of favorable conversion rates and save your ore and gems for later stores if the rates are unfavorable--except you can't always do that. Sometimes, you're desperate for the money. Stores also sell devices or weapons, improvements to your accuracy, and improvements to your maximum encumbrance. Frankly, even with my attempts to maximize the use of cell plants, I needed most of my money to replenish cells. This is what prevented me from trying out more of the devices.
  
Stores also occasionally sell fun single-level improvements, such as de-activating all traps or energy doors, or providing a temporary bonus or boost.
     
The store is lowballing me on all ore conversions, but its prices for oxygen and health cells are favorable. For 1,195 credits, I can buy a 15% boost to health cells harvested from cell plants.
     
Combat is disappointing. Enemies are unmemorable little blobs that you just attack repeatedly until they die. Some of them have special attacks like paralysis or confusion, and I suppose they might get more interesting on lower levels in Episode 2. I lost a lot more health cells to traps and energy doors, some of which you can't avoid even if you detect them, unless you have a surplus of wall-walking mushrooms.
       
I just killed one creature, but another approaches from the east. There's treasure to my west and a cell plant to my northwest, and a vent that converts health to oxygen to my west-northwest. I'm really low on energy. If I don't defeat this guy in three hits, I'm in trouble.
     
There are lots of other interesting things to find as you explore. There are piles of cells unrelated to the plants that give you small boosts. There are vents that will convert different types of cells, usually at a favorable rate, though you can't rely on them because they can break. Sometimes, you hit a "device recharger" that saves you from expending energy cells recharging your device. You occasionally step on things that increase your maximum encumbrance.
      
The game alerts me that the drop shaft has moved. Time to throw out the old coordinates and hopefully find a data chip.
     
You come across a lot of "data chips," which will tell you the answer to one of four questions: 1) What are the coordinates of the level's store? 2) What are the coordinates of the level's drop shaft? 3) How many creatures are left on the level? and 4) How much treasure is left on the level? The answer to Question 2 is vital, but it also changes frequently as the drop shaft teleports to a new location. A lot of your time on a level is spent chasing the last set of coordinates so that you can get to the drop shaft before it moves. Sometimes it moves (the game alerts you when this happens) when you're frustratingly close to reaching it. The last thing you want to do is spend a bunch of oxygen re-exploring levels trying to find the drop shaft.
     
All of these innovations were refreshing and fun for a few levels. After 10 levels, it was starting to get a little repetitive; at 15, I was definitely ready for it to be over. Level 15 is an odd one, as it isn't wholly randomized. All of the monsters are concentrated in the final area, and you want to have plenty of oxygen, energy, and health before you even go near the place. 
      
The automap of Level 15 shows all the creatures in the northwest corner.
      
The final area is a small compound full of enemies, traps, fire squares, and energy doors. The wall-walking mushroom doesn't work on the compound's special walls, so you don't have much choice but to suck it up, power through, and take the damage. I perhaps would have found it easier with creative use of some of the devices I never bought. My brute way cost me over 2,000 energy cells and over 2,000 health cells.
       
Blasting my way through rubble crabs in the final area. Lots of traps and fire squares remain behind and ahead of me.
       
The subtitular weapon is in a small chamber. It's an "oxide rifle," which does a ton of damage, but draws from oxygen cells rather than energy cells. Since oxygen cells are cheaper than energy cells, this might be a good thing.
      
The weapon uses twice the amount of oxygen as the maximum damage, instead of the 1:1 ratio of most weapons to energy. Then again, oxygen costs a lot less than energy.
     
Once you have the weapon, you automatically enter a "retro shaft" that returns you to Jupiter's surface. This is accompanied by a cute animation that shows the character zooming up a shaft and popping out on the surface. At this point, you can make a save for Episode 2.
     
I've never been on the surface of Jupiter, but I can guarantee that even if it has one, you won't see stars from there.
      
In a GIMLET, I give Episode 1:
    
  • 1 point for the game world. It has a backstory, but it doesn't make any sense, and there's little thematic consistency among the items and mechanics in the game itself.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. I admire the innovations in development even as I wish it had some more traditional RPG options, including an actual creation process.
  • 0 points for NPC interaction. The game lacks them, alas.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. The enemies are unmemorable, and there are no non-combat encounters.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. I didn't think much of the rote combat, but I thought the various device, mushroom, and globe effects were worth some extra points.
  • 4 points for equipment. I'm stretching the definition of traditional RPG "equipment" here to recognize Reaping's interesting variety of resources to manage. I also appreciate how up-front the game is about weapon and device statistics, even displaying them on the screen at all times. Still, I did miss some of the complexity of inventory and inventory interaction inherent in most roguelikes.
  • 5 points for the economy, which has most of the elements I'm looking for: variety, complexity, and challenge. 
     
I wade through a cache of silver, copper, and gems.
      
  • 3 points for a main quest and some side-quests involved in clearing the levels.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics and sound are both tolerable. Like most roguelikes, the interface makes excellent and efficient use of the keyboard. I like the screen layout, too, and the automap works perfectly, although I wish it had a zoom.
       
An automap using a "plant" orb shows me all the cell plants in the dungeon.
      
  • 4 points for gameplay. Reaping has a roguelike's linearity and lacks much replayability. I found it challenging, in logistics if not in combat, but the lack of permadeath fundamentally makes it a bit easy. I suspect I could have won on my third or fourth try even with permadeath. The length is about right.
     
Without even seeing the final score, I already know I want to give the game a couple of bonus points for sheer innovation. Having to chase the exit stairs around and carefully time the harvest of plants is not something I've ever seen in an RPG (and you don't need to mention The Magic Candle's re-growing mushrooms; you know it's not the same thing). Some of the character development options, like spending experience to improve your range of sight, are also highly original. I would also recognize the game's statistical transparency. There are games in which I would find this immersion-breaking, but Reaping doesn't really go for a sense of immersion in the first place. I enjoy being able to see at a glance exactly how much each weapon costs in energy per point of damage inflicted, the exact number of rounds I have before I should return to the cell plant, or the precise probability of my getting out of a pit trap on my next turn.
      
Arriving at a store just as I'm about to run out of health and oxygen.
     
Thus adding 2 bonus points, we arrive at a final score of 30. I confess I'm a bit disappointed. My "recommended" threshold is around 35, and I definitely recommend this game. But as often happens, we must recall that my GIMLET scale was meant to rank RPGs specifically, and the things that I like about Reaping the Dungeon are the things that make it least like a traditional RPG. Try it anyway.
             
Author Ron Heuse still makes and sells software, although the only thing he's selling right now is a Mahjong variety. I played a shareware version of Reaping the Dungeon, which only included Episode 1. For a version containing Episode 2, Heuse originally charged $14 US, an extremely reasonable price. Today, he offers it for free as long as you post a link to his site.
       
The company logo suggests something about the origin of the name.
     
Having done so above, I hope he'll send along the full version, although I can't promise I'm going to play it. Episode 2 requires you to descend to the level containing the machine that's generating all these creatures in the first place. That's at Level 65, so I'd have to play another 50 levels. As interesting as I found the game, that seems like a little too much. Then again, things might get more interesting with the use of more devices, with higher-level enemies, and with greater character development.
      
MobyGames has a 2007 interview with Heuse. In it, he says he was inspired by a number of roguelikes, particularly Moria (1983). He wrote it in his late 20s. He recognizes that the game is a bit easy, but that was a concession to the fact that you can't return to earlier levels, and that its closed system makes it possible for inexperienced players to get into a snowballing downward spiral. He changed the name to Dungeon Rogue in the early 2000s so that more people would recognize from the title that it belonged in the roguelike subgenre. He says it wasn't a financial success but he learned a lot from the experience.
   
I might revisit the game later in the year to at least try Episode 2.

19 comments:

  1. Last science article I read about Jupiter told me that gas giants probably don't have something you could call a surface even deep down. Scientists speculate that they have a zone where the gas is steadily going over to a solid form because of the extreme pressure.

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    Replies
    1. However, the science on whether or not they have mushrooms that let you walk through walls is inconclusive.

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  2. "The graphics and sound are both tolerable."

    I beg to differ - the graphics are as garish and basic as they could possibly get. Had this game been released 10 years earlier, I might be more forgiving, but sheesh, put some effort into the *presentation* of your product, single developers, especially when there's a solid foundation in the gameplay.

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    Replies
    1. I don't think we disagree. I just find garish tolerable.

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    2. Considering this is an early 90s DOS roguelike, I feel the fact it doesn't just use ASCII characters more than counts as putting effort into the presentation. The results might not be the best, but they could definately be a lot more low effort

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    3. Alright, I still want you two to visit an optician next week ;)

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    4. The three aspects of graphics: (1) functional and informative; (2) evocative and thematic; (3) aesthetically striking. You can make a great game with two out of three.

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    5. Good way to break it down. This game gets 1 out of 3. But then, we're not exactly expecting a 'great game' here, either, just an interesting one.

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  3. I don't think the graphics are all that bad. Sure they're not great, but there's something appealing about the bright solid colors.

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  4. Having had this on a shareware disc I had as a child, its nice to see it covered, since it was one of the better shareware titles. Not the best, since that was Mordor and Exile, but pretty close. Never finished it, since I found the resource management a bit too much. The other systems were pretty cool though, shame no one ever put them around a less strict management system.

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  5. I also had this game on a shareware disc, and I've tried to find it again from time to time. I had mistakenly remembered the setting as Mars, not Jupiter. It's no Exile, but I may give it another try, because I remember it being unique. I'm very happy to see it again.

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    Replies
    1. Mars would make a lot more sense. Maybe your brain just auto translated it.

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    2. There were multiple versions of this game over the years. It's not impossible that in one of them, action was shifted to Mars.

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    3. Since the main character has horns, it is possible that the demons from DOOM conquered the Earth, then made the same blunder on Jupiter that the Earthlings made on Phobos.

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    4. It could be the Vikinghorns on his spacehelmet for extra flare

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  6. Probably "closed system" has earned its entry in the glossary by now.

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  7. I think this is the first piece of Canadian software you're reviewed? I wonder if Ron still lives in Hamilton, his address is a PO box in a run-down mall.

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  8. I was introduced to this after watching an episode of Ancient DOS Games on YouTube and ended up enjoying it to a certain extent. Not an awesome game by any means, but I remember liking the survival system quite a bit and found the graphics charming for what they were.

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