Sunday, July 11, 2010

Delve Deeper Review

Delve Deeper, developed and published by Lunar Giant Studios.
The Good: Unique layers of strategy, level editor, only $5
The Not So Good: Odd control scheme, widescreen-only fixed resolution display, no online multiplayer, needlessly complex tunneling, non-random levels
What say you? An intriguing turn-based mining exploration strategy game held back by a poor PC port and some limited features: 5/8

About the most PC game around is Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress: insanely complex and almost completely inaccessible. Isn't that what computer gaming is all about? That, and cookies. Lots of cookies. Anyway, if you don’t want to worry about organ-specific injuries and realistically-weathered geologic formations in ASCII form, maybe a more simplified approach would be preferred. Well, say “hello” to Delve Deeper, a game where you take a team of five dwarves deep within the earth in search for untold riches. You are competing against other teams in this turn-based strategy game, so grab your pickaxe and lantern: we’re goin’ underground!

Delve Deeper uses a two-dimensional view from the side that has occasional bright spots filled with averageness. The first thing you’ll notice is that the game is fixed at 1280x720, the humorously low resolution of an XBOX 360 console machine; you cannot adjust it, so you’re stuck starting at a windowed display or stretching it out to unsafe proportions. Some of the aspects of the graphics look nice, such as some of the cave effects, but overall the game is very pixilated and uses repetitive animations during movement and combat. Some of the models look nice (some of the monsters and the mine backgrounds), but overall the quality isn’t terribly impressive. The sound effects run the same way: repetitive, almost to the point of annoyance, with very subtle background music. Still, for a budget price of $5, Delve Deeper doesn’t look or sound too offensive.

Delve Deeper is a turn-based game where competing teams of dwarves go underground in search of treasure. The game includes twenty-one maps that support between two and four players; whoever collects the most coins, jewels, and relics wins. While the maps are not randomly generated, the players choose where to dig next, so you can have the same map play out another way the next time through. Additionally, there is a map editor, thus the community at large can enhance the value of the game. An individual match can be customized by setting the AI difficulty, game speed, and concentrations of monsters, minerals, and relics. In a game that screams “multiplayer,” the PC version of Delve Deeper doesn’t support human confrontation online or through a LAN (same computer is possible, though). Boo/hiss.

Your team of five trusty and hearty dwarven folk comes in three different classes: fighter (slow but high health and attack), scout (fast but low health and attack), and miner (in the middle). The composition you choose really affects your overall strategy: go deep, attack the other team, or a combination of several. The movement amounts of each class are different enough where it’s terribly difficult to keep people together, a must when you encounter large numbers of enemies later in the game. Your team is automatically given humorous names, like characters from The Lord of the Rings or members of The A Team, or (my favorite) rock types. Another decision is whether to cash in your gold, gems, and mithril on the surface (which takes extra turns to get there) or at a subsurface bank (which takes a processing fee). Since they move faster, it’s easier for scouts to return to the surface for a full refund, but they are prone to attack; interesting strategic decisions like these make for a more appealing game. Your stronger fighters can be used to attack enemies and collect the gold they drop when defeated (which, displayed as piles that blend into the background, are difficult to see), another strategy you can employ. Relics can also be collected (once you defeat the treasure chest they reside in). These provide random cash rewards, either positive or negative, which is another notable feature.

The PC port rears its ugly head in another aspect of the game: the controls. Delve Deeper is clearly designed for a gamepad, as the implementation of the heralded mouse and keyboard is less than ideal. The arrow keys are horrible for navigating the hex-based map used in the game, and (for some reason) Delve Deeper disables mouse selection when placing tunnels. This is the part of the game that is most frustrating: not only do you have to decide which type of material (rock, stone, deep) you are digging through (this should be automatic based on placement), but you have to sift through a long list of tunnel connections (shown only three at a time, thanks to the low resolution display) and figure out which one you need, and then rotate it. Typically, you picked the wrong one, so you must “undo” and go through the process multiple times. It would have been far easier to have people draw (using the mouse) the connections they want directly on the map. But, of course, that would be difficult to do on a gamepad, and PC gamers are clearly second-class citizens in Delve Deeper.

Control issues aside, Delve Deeper does feature some very interesting and unique decisions: where to move, who to move, where to dig, when to retreat to the surface, and when (or if) to fight other sides directly. Dwarves will automatically place lights at the hex the end their turn at, keeping monsters from spawning nearby. Combat is automatically conducted when you encounter an enemy or monster unit (in fact, you can’t bypass monsters: you must stop and cannot collect $200). Each unit deals damage equal to their attack rating to an enemy, and once their health disappears, they are defeated. However, dwarven units never “die,” they just respawn a turn later with one measly health point. Since the monsters usually don’t move, you must move the remainder of your units to the area of conflict in order to deal with the threat, and then escort your fallen comrade to the surface to reheal. You can imagine the amount of planning and coordination required to successfully navigate the levels in Delve Deeper. The release version allows you to speed up the game (the beta demo was painfully slow), but even the fastest speed can be a bit laborious when a considerable number of monsters need to move. You can’t undo any moves, even before you have submitted your turn: make sure you are clicking in the right place! The AI puts up a good fight: not as good as a human, obviously, but they will explore efficiently and occasionally fight you directly if the opportunity presents itself.

Delve Deeper has a nice core mechanic that needs a bit of polish to make the PC edition more feature complete. One could argue that, for only $5, you can’t really expect too much, but there are certainly some areas that could be improved. It’s clear that Delve Deeper is a very basic port of an XBOX title, from the fixed low 1280x720 resolution to the control scheme that is clearly not designed for a mouse and keyboard. It’s entirely too difficult to designate expansions underground: Delve Deeper requires you to pick specific pieces to add from a multi-screen menu, instead of simply drawing on the map or offering some other more intuitive means of design. The twenty-one maps are numerous enough, and though the maps are not randomly designed, the game does include a level editor to expand the content further. Additionally, the user-defined tunnels to make games play out a bit differently each time. The game advances at an appropriate pace, as long you speed up the progress in the game options. You’ll have to settle for playing against the AI, as there is no online multiplayer. Luckily, the AI does give a good challenge. The layers of strategy in Delve Deeper are quite nice, from choosing your team to determining an overall strategy: do you go deep for the richest items, stick together to fend off strange beasts, or attack the opposing team (either directly or by digging next to them to release monsters)? You’ll also have to figure out whether to waste time going back to the surface to get full profit for mined minerals or stop at a broker underground for a fee. Delve Deeper is strategy-rich and novel, which is why you should at least consider it for $5 despite its missing or basic features.