Saturday, December 21, 2013

Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I Don't Know! - ...Why I Kept Playing This Game

Let me start off by saying that I absolutely love Adventure Time. At the start, I had been aware of it, but after seeing how popular it was during one visit to Comic-Con, we (my family) knew we had to see what all the fuss was about. After finally watching an episode, specifically “Henchmen”, it grew on us and we never looked back. I’ve seen every single episode of the show, I own some of the official merch, my brother has repeatedly cosplayed as Finn and he and I even got a calendar for one year (and now one for next year as well). Heck, we even went through both Comic-Con Quests with our parents. So when I say that I actually looked forward to playing Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I Don’t Know! (stylized as Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I DON’T KNOW!) (Explore the Dungeon), developed by WayForward Technologies, then know that my enthusiasm came from a genuine source. When my brother and I read that the game was also supposed to contain a big reveal that would only, at first, be found in this game, we knew we wanted to play it even more than we did before. So when Finals ended in school, and we reviewed a couple other things in the meantime, we started to play the co-op function and tried to dedicate as much time as we could to beating the game and finding out what shocking secret its plastic contained. Just so you know, “tried” is the operative word in that sentence; we only made it about 45 levels in before we grew too bored, and frustrated, to keep playing.

Explore the Dungeon opens with Princess Bubblegum calling on Finn and Jake to come to the entrance to the Royal Dungeon underneath the Candy Kingdom, where she explains that several prisoners have been mysteriously escaping. Marceline and Cinnamon Bun show up as well and wish to help (also they are totally best buds now for no discernible reason). Princess Bubblegum is fine with this arrangement and asks them to explore the dungeon “because I don’t know.”

That’s it, that’s the whole story. That is your entire motivation for exploring a dungeon, all so that the developers could make one joke about the title of the game. Naturally, as befitting the incredibly insightful introduction, the story is very razor thin and ultimately disappointing in its execution. Sure there are more characters introduced as you advance in an attempt to add story depth, like Lumpy Space Princess and Ice King, but their interactions feel shallow and the story is moved forward in such tiny increments that it takes much too long to see what’s supposed to happen, not helped by all of the technical issues plaguing the experience (more on that later). Sadly, viewing a cutscene was actually my favorite part of the whole game, which makes the whole thing even worse.

Peppermint Butler is also playable via DLC.

In Explore the Dungeon, you have to fight your way through all 100 floors of the Royal Dungeon while playing as any of the four starting characters, those being Finn, Jake, Marceline and Cinnamon Bun. As you reach certain floors you unlock more characters, like the aforementioned Lumpy Space Princess and Ice King. Every five floors is a checkpoint where you can be teleported back to the hub world and every ten floors you encounter a boss and view a cutscene advancing the story. This structure sounds simple enough, but there are way too many design flaws that hold the game back from being any fun to play through at all.

First, we have our floor layouts. Each floor is randomized, so you have no idea what it will look like or even how many rooms there will be before you begin (then again, we noticed some familiar patterns while playing, so it’s probably not completely random). This gives the floors the ability to set their own difficulty depending on how it lays out the elements, but it can also lead to some rather bizarre setups, like a room where enemies are trapped by the land forming a natural cage or a room where much of what you see is almost completely inaccessible to certain characters (more on that in a bit). The most insane thing however is that every single floor, no matter how many rooms you are allowed to go through, looks exactly the same texture-wise. Sure the setting changes about every ten floors, but every single texture will be recycled and just given a new coat of paint without any sort of thought to sell the player on an ice zone or an ancient city. This lack of visual variety gets very tiresome to look at after a while and lends to the repetitive nature of the experience.

Picture this, except forever.

Next, we have the monsters, and there’s not a whole lot to say about them. Between the pink tentacles, birds, sword-wielding skeletons and a whole other assortment of creatures, you’d think there would be more variety, but there simply isn’t. Explore the Dungeon does occasionally offer a new enemy, like the pigs with magic wands from “The Pods”, but more often than not it will just be a stronger version of something you’ve already spent several floors defeating, like a red bird that can duplicate itself. What doesn’t help is that monsters may repeatedly spawn from something akin to the wombs from NeverDead (yes, I’m bringing that game up) so the only way to really be rid of them is to destroy these spawn points, but the tedium is ratcheted up when you have several of them in close proximity to each other and you’re surrounded by enemies already onscreen. The worst thing is that you hardly ever get a bonus for beating the monsters, aside from having fewer of them to worry about while you try to locate the exit.

Fighting these monsters also turns into a real chore because the controls are terrible. You have a standard attack button with a short range, so you have to be very close to enemies to even hit them. It’s also possible to equip a sub-weapon, the effect of which can vary greatly. Some of them allow for a long range attack, while some are short range but give bonuses to certain attacks, like adding a chance to freeze enemies or attack multiple foes at once. We were able to find a couple of favorites, some of which I actually found to be far better to rely on than the standard attack. Then there’s a blocking mechanic, which requires timing that is so specific with hit detection so poor as to be completely unreliable. Characters can also access a special move by building up an Imagination Meter through combat, which can be helpful at times, but other times it hardly feels like it makes a difference. Moving is also a hassle, since the characters can only face in four directions, so it’s possible to want to attack in one direction, but the characters will strike a completely different direction, which can be very costly.

Lumpy Space Princess' special attack (even she looks surprised by the game she's in).

But the absolute worst aspect about the controls is that the game does a poor job of explaining them. Even in the tutorial I had to figure out what certain buttons did, since it doesn’t even tell you how to do half of the things you can do. What’s worse is that there’s no way to look at the controls, since the options menu is just adjusting the sound levels and the game doesn’t even come with a manual, physical or otherwise. The game box doesn’t even have the supposedly standard slip of paper that’s just copyright info and a seizure warning.

What I loathed about this experience the most however is the fact that it manages to simultaneously encourage and punish exploration and treasure hunting. Confused? Allow me to explain. Remember when I said that the floor layouts were monotonous? That was only the tip of the iceberg. Explore the Dungeon encourages you to, you know, explore the dungeon in search of treasure. However, the guessing game elements of its random design make it a little difficult to predict what’ll happen next, so naturally you would think that the map screen would help, right? Wrong. The map screen is one of the worst that I’ve seen in any game I’ve played. There’s no detail aside from where the exit is, nothing to help you locate certain key things, it’s just a gray box with nine sections that can become a lighter gray when you visit that part of the room. This screen has no variation whatsoever, no different shapes, just an unhelpful patch of gray.

Also bad is the fact that, after reaching a certain part of the dungeon, it is possible for Death to show up if you take too long to get to the exit. That’s right, even if you still have a bit of one room to explore or are fighting off a few monsters to get to some treasure, the absurdly powerful Death shows up in an attempt to kill you before you get to the end, and dying against him can cause you to lose a lot of progress (remember that you only get a checkpoint every five floors). As a result, we ended up rushing to the exit after a certain period of time out of fear that Death would eliminate all of our hard-fought progress. The difficulty in doing this was only compounded further by the fact that the player characters’ natural movement speed is slow as molasses.

Pictured: Death (as seen on the show).

At this point, I think it would be good to bring up the different characters again. Each of the different characters has a special ability that can affect the experience, though they don’t matter much in the long run. For example, Jake can stretch over pits, Marceline can naturally float over pits and Finn can equip three tokens instead of two. Yeah, you can equip tokens before you enter the dungeon each time, which grant special abilities such as increasing your strength, upping your health by one heart or allowing grounded characters to float over pits. These tokens can be gathered in chests or by killing some monsters throughout the dungeon floors, though they show up less often than other items you may encounter. When you use a token, you permanently lose it should you go back up to the surface or die in a boss fight. The former makes sense, but the latter makes it frustrating and caused us to not even equip tokens when coming back to life if we were just going to lose them anyway.

Now the treasure hunting bit is where the design really goes off the rails. Within the dungeon, you can collect treasure to buy things from Choose Goose (who must be unlocked) or upgrade stats via NPCs in the hub stage. You gain treasure at a pace that is a little disproportionate to the amount of treasure certain things cost, so sometimes you have to save up quite a bit to get what you want. However, before you go back into the dungeon again, Princess Bubblegum will take any and all unspent treasure from you as “candy tax”, which eliminates the ability to save up treasure over time to get exactly what you want, especially considering that every character must be upgraded separately, forcing you to grind through the dungeon just to try and buy something (argh!). Add to that the fact that if you die in a boss fight, you can come back to life at the cost of half of your treasure, which makes it feel like the game is actively trying to stop you from buying anything you want. What sort of designer would intentionally have their game tell you that “treasure = good stuff” only to then take it away from you? Essentially, Explore the Dungeon exists for the sole purpose of robbing you of your hard-earned treasure and ability to tolerate the unnecessary hardships, like a Möbius Strip of continuous pain.

Choose Goose might be able to sell you his wares,
If it weren't for this messed up state of affairs.

Before I go on, I also need to mention that there are quests, but going through them can be a real chore. Princess Bubblegum is the primary quest giver, though hers are more progress-based (and you can probably imagine how I feel about doing those). Progress through the dungeon can unlock more NPCs to give out quests, like Tree Trunks (which is as far as we really got), but even these other side quests can be incredibly tedious to go through. Some of the rewards are great, like additional treasure (which you’ll lose in the end to PB’s candy tax), but just going through the quest is a real pain and the reward just doesn’t feel worth it in the end.

The graphics are just okay. Explore the Dungeon has some sort of 2D/3D mash up going on, which gives the impression that they couldn’t really decide what they wanted to go with. I find it interesting that they overall went for a faux retro feel, which is fine as a concept because games like Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4 make it work, but it’s not something that really gels with this game. This shines through most of all in the cutscenes (which are only my favorite part since there’s no actual gameplay involved) in all of their “8/16-bit” glory. Because of the attempt to replicate games from the 1980s, these scenes are very stilted and aren’t engaging, since they contrast with the visually freeform style of the show and lose a great amount of much-needed energy in the process.

The bigger shame however is that the entire voice cast of Adventure Time is in the game sounding about as good as ever. But the voice quality is a little all over, with some lines that sound perfectly fine and others sounding like there’s a mysterious echo in the Candy Kingdom. With such a fine voice cast, it’s so terrible that they had to waste all of their potential, since the dialogue pool recorded for each character is severely limited and equally repetitive. Spend about five minutes in any of the dungeon’s floors and I’ll guarantee that not only will you hear everything connected to specific actions, you’ll hear it as though the same three lines were on a constant grating loop. That’s what I call a true waste, when you never want to hear Finn and Jake talking ever again just so you can continue on with your business in peace (but you can’t mute it because otherwise you won’t know if Death has shown up). The other sounds in the game, including the music, are okay though, but not really anything to write home about (except for the Goblin Whip, which was literally our only source of entertainment).

Whatever fun might be had from listening to this dialogue is effectively eliminated.

One final nail in the coffin is the unstable nature of the game. A few times while playing, the game would freeze and we’d have to restart the console. This caused us to sometimes lose up to an hour of solid progress at a time and do it over again, except without any of the treasure or tokens used prior to going back into the dungeon. Once the game did this for about the fourth time, we knew it was about time to quit.

And what was the point of the exercise, you may be wondering? What secret could be so big that you have to endure countless hours of glitches, terrible controls and bland gameplay just to get to it? In the interest of spoilers, I’m going to cover this in white text, but basically: we find out that Princess Bubblegum is not only 827 years old, but she ejected from a pink goo, possibly the one seen in “Simon and Marcy”, and gained sentience, allowing her to become the independent being she is today. If you decided to read that, I just saved you $40 and hours of pain and suffering.

Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I Don’t Know! is a poor excuse for a game. Its weak story, bad controls, unwillingness to help the player, lack of freedom and waste of talent are definitely not worth the price of admission. What could have been a very exciting traditional RPG is instead a pile of garbage that only got as much attention as it did because the Adventure Time license is now forever associated with it. As a continuing fan of the show, I would strongly advise anyone against playing it, but if you really must play it despite all of my warnings, then only do it through a purchase from the dollar bin, which is where this game will probably, and rightfully, end up.

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