Dungeons of Dreadrock (Switch) Review
People who know me well or have followed me on twitter for some time will know two things about my gaming habits: the first is that I absolutely love puzzle games, and the second is that I rarely, if ever, replay games. The latter is a matter of logistics more than anything else — I only have so much time on this mortal plane, and if I’m going to be playing something, it’s going to be something new and fresh. Dungeons of Dreadrock is a puzzle(-ish, but more on that later) game that is so incredibly unique, fantastic, and fun that I’ve now played through it three times, on mobile, PC, and now Switch. I have nothing but praise for it.
So what, exactly, is Dungeons of Dreadrock? Well, that’s the thing, it’s a little hard to explain. See, it’s definitely a puzzle game, but it’s also a little bit of a dungeon crawler, a little bit of an RPG, and just a little bit Rogue-ish… but fear not, there’s no procedural generation or progression through frustration here. The best way to think of it is as a gauntlet of 100 lovingly handcrafted Zelda dungeon rooms. You’re stuck with a limited moveset — moving in four cardinal directions, attacking enemies by running into them, and later in the game, throwing items — and have to make your way through these rooms, often in fantastically creative ways.
It’s a very simple premise, in the grand scheme of things, but the level design is really what makes the experience shine. It’s difficult to overstate just how meticulously crafted these levels are, each one encouraging a particular solution but leaving you to your own devices to figure things out by yourself. In these kinds of puzzle games, a key metric to its success is how smart it makes you feel, and Dungeons of Dreadrock makes you feel like a god-damn genius. Part of that is down to its willingness to turn known game mechanics on their head and use them in interesting new ways.
A good example of this is in its throwing mechanic — you’ll learn fairly early on that you can throw rocks and items such as spears, usually to place on top of pressure plates that will open gates or activate traps. But later in the game, you’ll gain the ability to throw your sword, usually used for slicing enemies into bits, adding another layer of depth and intricacy to your puzzle solving approach. Throwing your sword at an enemy does double damage, which is a good way to knock out a weaker enemy from across the room, but it can also weigh down pressure plates much like most other throwable items. However, doing so will leave you completely defenseless, which adds yet another layer of strategy to mull over in your brain. It’s all incredibly brilliant in its design and execution.
Having said that, there are a few moments of frustration from time to time. Some puzzles can be difficult to parse at first glance, like when there’s a loose rock in a wall and you have to find it before progressing, and others require very precise movement and timing to get past. It’s certainly not a dealbreaker by any means, and for a lot of people these precise challenges will be incredibly satisfying, but I personally got frustrated a few times when I had gotten right to the very end of a timing section, only to mistime it slightly and have to restart the level. The upside to this is that restarting a level is pretty much instant, and in the vast majority of levels, death is very much a learning moment, giving you plenty of knowledge checkpoints from which to improve your next attempt. Each level is a fairly short affair, too, ranging anywhere from one to five minutes in length (depending on how long it takes for things to click into place), allowing you to play in very short bursts, knocking out a level or two on the bus or as a quick break at work (don’t tell my boss). This also has a lovely side benefit of dulling the pain of messing up right at the end of a level, since, at the very most, you’re losing a couple minutes of your time.
I do want to talk about the story and aesthetics of this game, but just before I do, I absolutely have to talk about the controls. I first played this game on mobile with touch screen controls – which are also in the Switch version when playing handheld – and I was pleasantly surprised at the fantastic the controls are compared to a lot of other games on the platform. Rather than having some sort of on-screen d-pad, the entire movement of the game is controlled through swipes and holds: swipe in a direction to move in that direction, hold at the end of that swipe to continue moving. It’s certainly nothing groundbreaking, but it feels great to interact with and it forced me to think methodically about how I would approach a level.
I played it next on PC using directional keys on a keyboard, and I noticed something very curious about how my playstyle changed; the increased pace at which I was able to enter inputs meant I was playing more quickly and aggressively, making stupid mistakes but also feeling more in-control than ever before. Finally, taking the leap to Switch, with a traditional d-pad, I found an incredibly satisfying balance between the two playstyles. I had a tonne of control and felt I was able to move quickly and decisively, but being unable to prime my next input with another finger, as I would on keyboard, meant I still had to force myself to slow down and think about my approach. It’s fascinating to me that different methods of input in this kind of game would produce such a large difference in how the same player (in this case, me) approaches challenges, but it speaks to how well each level is designed that you can play it safe or be a bit more aggressive and still get that satisfying payoff in the end.
So let’s (finally!) talk about storytelling and aesthetics. Dungeons of Dreadrock has you playing the role of a young girl in a fantasy land where women and girls are generally expected to take a backseat in society, largely unable to wield weapons or do much of substance, it seems. Every year, a young boy is chosen from the village to climb the mountain and defeat the Dead King. At least, that’s what everyone is told, the truth is a little more grisly than that… but I’ll let you discover that by yourself. This year, that boy is your brother, and things, as they often do, go quite badly. You have to take up the blade and storm the mountain to rescue your brother, defeat the Dead King, and figure out what the hell is going on in this sleepy little village and what the elders aren’t telling you.
The game takes a lighter approach to storytelling, but it’s certainly not light on story. Rather than bookending every level with exposition and cutscenes, you’ll get glimpses of what’s going on further in and outside the mountain through dream sequences every few levels. There’s also a few little lines of dialogue and world-building that happen throughout the game world itself, too, through small glimpses of eventual enemies and your brother exiting rooms just as you enter them, and little remarks made by the player character when she examines an object or feature in a room (most of which are voiced, too, which is a nice touch). There’s even some humour thrown in from time to time, taking the edge off of what can be a dour story otherwise, with some wonderful references making an appearance in surprising ways.
Visually, Dungeons of Dreadrock takes a very gorgeous pixel art approach, reminiscent of SNES-era adventure games but with a slightly higher fidelity (at least, to my eye). There’s a heavy use of lighting effects and shadows to create a very moody atmosphere, but there’s plenty of colour on display here too. A lot of the environments look and feel very same-y but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it remains visually consistent and clear throughout, and everything you need to take note of is visually telegraphed throughout the game. Character and enemy design is similarly lovely, with a surprising amount of variety for a game of such a scale. And it’s all topped off with some absolutely fantastic sound and music design, perfectly timed and executed to relay important information to the player and, of course, set the mood.
Dungeons of Dreadrock is a fantastic puzzle game that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever played. It’s a truly unique experience, twisting genres and building on its own mechanics to create an experience that is both incredibly satisfying and near-impossible to put down. It’s one of the best puzzle games on the Switch, and easily in the top ten on PC and mobile too.
+ Incredible level design that makes you feel smart
+ Playable in short bursts or large chunks at a time
+ Fantastic sense of visual and audio aesthetics
- Some levels can feel a little bit obtuse at times
- Button assignment is slightly funky on Switch