First-person melee games are a surprisingly rare breed. While first-person shooters have only continued to grow since their inception in the ’90s, melee combat has not fared as well, generally reserved as an alternative to the main playstyle of a game, such as in Fallout 4 or the Far Cry games, or restricted entirely to third-person perspective titles. This is primarily because good sword swinging or monster punching is quite difficult to pull off in first-person view, the moves often feeling ineffective or clumsy. Dungeon of Exile, on the other hand, exhibits masterful hand-to-hand combat with a variety of classical dungeon foes. Incorporating traps and treasures along with the pulverising of enemies, the title is a refreshing take on old-school gaming.
The player is an outcast, an individual who has been wrongfully accused of a crime. Their pleas of innocence fall on deaf ears, the populous uninterested in their words. The only way they will be accepted back into the community is if they manage to complete the Dungeon of Exile, a twisting warren filled with monsters and traps. Trusty sword in hand, the adventurer heads into the depths, intent on clearing their name.
The dungeon takes the form of a series of chambers, each one requiring all monsters within to be killed for the player to progress. At first, this is an easy task, the slowly lumbering zombies no match for the player’s sword. Each room, however, evenly ramps up the challenge, adding traps to avoid, keys to unlock doors, and a wide variety of monsters to defeat. The smoothness of the difficulty curve is really impressive, scaling from simply bashing everything in sight to a challenging dance between enemy blows. Dying resets the player to the start of the current room, meaning failure is never too harshly punished.
Enemies only have simple AI, but they hit hard, necessitating forethought on how to approach each chamber. Low doorways provide a good opportunity to swing at enemy knees, as most cannot crouch. A room might be lined with arrow traps, requiring the player to lure enemies to an empty spot rather than just charging straight ahead. Witches possess dangerous ranged attacks with their fireballs, so should be taken out before the lumbering giants. The levels provide a good balance between a puzzle box approach, where defeating monsters in a certain order will make things easier, and the utter chaos of a room full to the brim with beasties, where only the swiftest of reflexes will prove victorious.
Over the course of the game, the player can pick up four additional weapons, all of which have strengths and weaknesses. Swords are fast, but deal low damage. The axe and mace are slow, but can take out most enemies with a few hits. The magic book’s fireballs have a great advantage in dealing damage from a distance, but require a high level of accuracy. Each weapon can be acquired in several ways, whether by surviving a dangerous trap or bought with loot scavenged from the locked treasure chests.
The low-polygon art style of Dungeon of Exile is very reminiscent of mid-’90s video games and works in tandem with its old-school gameplay. Some sections are perhaps a touch too dark, with the combination of blue-black bricks and dark brown floors creating dark shadows, and could use a few extra torches for clarity. The monsters are all very readable, the colour coding identifying each bad guy at a distance. The choice of blank faces is initially a little odd, but grew on me over time; it is certainly a better choice than the ugly face textures used in that time period, which made everything look pretty dopey.
Sound design is limited in the game, mainly comprised of barks and growls from the enemies. While this works on a functional level to warn of approaching enemies, I would have loved the addition of some over-the-top background music to complement the ’90s throwback aesthetic. A sound effect for when a map has been cleared would also be helpful, as some of the levels are quite large and hard to tell if a goblin is hiding in a corner.
A few minor bugs were encountered during the playtime. Controller support did not work for me: I could move the character around, but nothing was mapped for interaction. The second merchant refused to sell me a potion, despite my having plenty of money. One chamber had an entrance too small to pass through, although it may have been part of a bigger secret I missed.
By and large, however, Dungeon of Exile worked well and was enjoyable to play. The surface simplicity gives way to clever level design that ramps up the challenge at every turn. Developer Blake McKinnon Productions has made several other titles, which can be found here for more first-person fun.
Next week, we will be playing Orpheus’s Dream, a 3D puzzle game where you recover an amnesiac’s lost memories of him and his cat. The game can be downloaded from Steam here. Discussion is happening in the Discord server, or you can email me if you prefer.