There’s a certain comforting blandness to the usual adventure game setting. Armored heroes. Lithe elves. Hardy barbarians. Green-skinned orcs and soaring dragons and icky spiders. A land of plenty thrown into peril. You know the drill. It’s certainly been the drill long enough.
Dungeon Degenerates isn’t satisfied merely breaking away from this formula. It also needs to smash it with a sledgehammer. After all, as spoken by another notable iconoclast, “When you come at the king, you best not miss.”
I’m going to spill the conclusion of this review right now: Dungeon Degenerates does many things, but miss is not among them.
Dungeon Degenerates: super into dropping acid.
With a setting as unique as the Borderlands of the Würstreich, an empire fraying at the edges thanks to rampant banditry, mind-controlling fungus, and something to do with a necromancer’s gigantic floating hand, you’d think Dungeon Degenerates might coast on perverse charisma alone. And, well, perhaps it could have. Rather than casting its players as strapping heroes, your pack of ne’er-do-wells are criminals on the lam, less interested in saving the world than in carving out some sort of niche for themselves on the not-quite-lawless-enough frontier. It’s the perfect conceit for a game that’s often about doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, immediately hacking away the usual binary of do-goodery vs. roguishness that shackles the genre. Here, the moral dilemma isn’t between saving a puppy and smothering it. Why waste a perfectly good puppy when you can sell the thing into servitude?
But the greatest surprise up Dungeon Degenerates’ sleeve — other than a dozen stolen wristwatches — is that it’s overflowing with clever, inventive, and entirely appropriate mechanical twists. It’s almost a surprise that it’s a strictly solo or cooperative outing, such are the thing’s teeth. Come for the fluff, stay for the way designers Sean Äaberg and Eric Radey have remolded the adventure genre until it suits their twisted purposes.
Decisions aplenty are as key to the experience as the garish color scheme.
Let me give you an example. Like most games that send you traipsing across a landscape in search of fame and fortune, your heroes will gradually accumulate experience points and cold hard specie. Here, though, the traditional “level up” is replaced by something a tad more fluid. Your criminals’ core stats — which you’ll use for the game’s many, many, many two-dice skill and combat checks — are largely set in cement, other than the occasional downward tweaking by a status effect. A Vermin Hunter possesses woeful constitution, and therefore a woeful reserve of hit points. Not to worry, her superb agility and perception mean that most enemy attacks will harmlessly whistle into the bushes anyway. The Void Witch, on the other hand, can sling spells with ease, but her low morale means she’s liable to absorb more problems than a mathemagician’s workbook and would rather spend her recuperation time bellyaching than healing. In this way, each of the game’s anti-heroes reflects their abilities and personality, and won’t often deviate from that course. The Bloodsport Brawler might be able to shrug off wounds and insanity, but no matter how many miles she puts into her chain-wrapped boots, she won’t be reciting any cantrips.
So if you aren’t upgrading stats, what’s the point of experience? Glad you asked. Every so often your motley band will need a break, opting to camp rather than continuing their journey. In many adventure games, camping is a skipped turn. Remove some wound tokens, refresh your hand, whatever. There’s some of that here — after a morale check, because nothing is easy in Dungeon Degenerates — but your heroes have other things to do in addition to licking their wounds. Exploring for shortcuts, for instance, clears a wilderness path into a veritable highway, ensuring that future movements through the region are hastened. Investing your hard-earned gold into some backwater outpost can gradually transform it into a center of commerce, enabling trade and security against the denizens of each of the map’s four regions. And spending experience points means learning new skills or flipping them over to their sexier mastery side.
And let me tell you, these skills are no slouch. If you think your Bog Conjurer was cool with how his Sixth Sense made him immune to ambushes, just wait until he also picks up Drain Life for free healing whenever he kills something, Exterminator to slaughter vermin wholesale, Decay to transform an opponent’s armor into rusted clumps, and a master-level Blood Curse to reflect his wounds onto whichever monster he’s cursed. Just like that, the Bog Conjurer has turned his very body into a weaponized nightmare, every scratch lashing back at his enemies before springing back to relative health by the end of the fight.
The combat system manages to offer interesting decisions without overwhelming the adventure.
Crucially, these skills are designed to complement one another, prompting the game’s characters to spend much of their time banded together rather than running off in every direction. Traveling the countryside is terrifically dangerous, and while smaller parties are less likely to attract attention, getting caught alone by something fearsome might be the end of you.
In some senses, the need to form parties removes some measure of player agency. You’ll travel together, fight together, and camp together, at least until somebody decides to forge their own path for a while. In practice, most of the turn-by-turn action is sufficiently stressful that the benefits outweigh the risks. Or, you know, you could play multiple characters on your own, at which point the issue becomes academic.
Either way, the beauty of this party system is that it allows players to engage in encounters and battles together, setting up combos or attacking an enemy right before it smashes your buddy in the face. Groups of enemies often boast colorful combinations of behaviors, danger levels, and hardiness, and each of the game’s four regions (plus a deck of bounty hunters and another for epic-level monsters) tends to feature its own challenges. Each round of combat is as simple as choosing a stance — guarded if you like your face arranged as-is, assault if you’re looking to do some rearranging of your own — then doing some quick dice checks to trade blocks and blows.
Monsters can deal surprising amounts of damage, lending a desperate edge even to fights that didn’t seem dire right at first, and some enemy bands are tough enough that a timely retreat is often your best option. The slowest part of the process is parsing the avalanche of keywords and abilities that your enemies drag around with them. What’s the difference between Rally and Summon? Fear and Petrify? Berserk and Fury? Gas, Slime, and Venom? Pursue and Skirmish? There are sufficient shades of meaning to each of the game’s gazillion modifiers, keywords, and status effects that they’re all important, but not enough that they become second nature anytime soon. Be prepared to keep the rules handy for when you can’t remember the difference between an Endless, Horde, or Onslaught monster.
Most, but not all, of the decks.
Most interesting of all is what Dungeon Degenerates hopes you’ll do with all these systems, characters, decks, and garish colors. The mission book provides twenty scenarios, any of which can be played on their lonesome — but if it’s being honest, Dungeon Degenerates would much prefer you to play the whole thing as a campaign. This doesn’t mean hammering out all twenty missions in a row, thank Satan. Instead, it operates much like the world’s grimmest choose-your-own-adventure book, weaving a rich, branching narrative that takes you to unexpected places almost immediately, and wrapping up fairly briskly, often in as few as four or five missions.
There are some enormous twists and turns on your path of criminal neglect, and I’m loathe to spoil anything at all. But by way of persuasion (and being as vague as possible), you may find yourself heeding the call of a brain-controlling fungus, uncovering pocket dimensions that may only be entered after heavy drug use, or belching a defiant “nope” and opting out of the main plot for a while. When these missions are played in sequence, the Borderlands grow more dangerous with every passing hour, its peculiar corruption gnawing away at its last few safe havens and pressing the narrative forward with all the gentleness of a prison guard shoving a recalcitrant inmate into solitary. Not only do the Borderlands evoke the sensation that this forgotten corner of a crooked empire is coming unraveled, it manages to feel lived in. No small feat, that.
Approaching the Temple of Madness after a long journey…
In fact, nearly every aspect of this game has a certain well-worn edge to it, from the rough-and-tumble attitudes of your characters to the way they develop skills, weaknesses, and triumphs across multiple missions. There’s a thrill to wrapping up a scenario, and a far greater thrill to the way its completion impacts the larger world. Bridges will close, bounty hunters will stalk the Witchwood with your name on their lips, and the Necromancer’s Hand of Doom will loom over one settlement after another, an omnipresent reminder that this land’s debts have come due.
Put another way, one of the central delights of an adventure game is that it can transport its players to new and wondrous places. And, baby, there’s no place quite as delightfully trashy as the Würstreich.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. It’s basically the Würstreich over there.)