I feel a tinge of guilt for killing the three skeletons I’d just engaged in polite conversation.
One had confessed to being undead so long that he couldn’t recall his name. Welp, that bundle of bones won’t get the chance to remember after he took it to his second grave. I made sure of that by luring him into a fireball trap. That’s undeath for you.
You don’t have much time to dwell on these little moments of humor in Dungeons of Dreadrock. Exploring each of the 100 handcrafted levels full of puzzles unfolds at a brisk pace.
Dungeons of Dreadrock is best categorized as a classic dungeon crawler. Developer Prof. Dr. Christoph Minnameier cites ‘80s computer RPGs as the biggest influence on Dreadrock. The game follows a girl making her way down the floors of Dreadrock Mountain to rescue her brother from the Dead King, which is … pretty standard stuff. The game is humorous at times and knows exactly how far it can push the envelope, never veering too far into ridiculousness. The true star of the show is its masterfully crafted puzzles. Deadrock encourages the player to understand its mechanics on a deep level, leading to a short but immensely satisfying five hours’ worth of gameplay.
Chess not checkers
Upon first glance, Dungeons of Dreadrock could be mistaken for a roguelike, forcing the player to battle through procedurally generated rooms ad nauseam. Chase your lost brother through the mountain’s dungeons and face the enemies within. Sounds boring.
“No procedural roguelike bullshitery” is how the developer explains it. These 100 levels are handcrafted puzzles. Each room has a staircase at the end leading to the next level. A wide variety of obstacles will stand in your way. There are spike traps, zombies, fireballs, and large ogres — all of whom are lovingly animated with hand-drawn sprites. Instead of asking you to battle through these obstacles, the game instead operates as a logic puzzle.
You view each floor’s square grid from top-down, which helps you memorize the flow of operations. Memorizing enemy movements, patterns, and interactions is crucial. Rather than split-second responses from the player, Dreadrock requires that you to take the time to plan ahead.
If you’ve ever played a chess puzzle, then you will understand what Dungeons of Dreadrock is going for in its approach.
Between floors, lovely animations play of the protagonist going down a flight of stairs. Then, you’re greeted with a new title card for the next floor. Title cards seem like silly puns or fun pieces of wordplay, but they are, in fact, the greatest tool the player is given.
One floor has the title “You shall not pass.” Is it a fun Lord of the Rings reference? Or a clue that you can’t pass the primary obstacle without doing something else first? You might think it refers to the tree monsters blocking the staircase, Snorlax-style. I moved the tree, which I’d done on several other floors. But then a goblin stole my sword and ran up to the previous floor stairs and out of reach did I realize that I had to maneuver the trees to block the goblin’s escape. No goblin shall pass.
A more overt hint system also doles out progressively more helpful bits of advice. Some levels have three hints, some five. And they’ll only appear after you’ve spent five minutes failing at the current puzzle.
This grace period is one of the smartest design choices in Dungeons of Dreadrock. It communicates to the player that these puzzles shouldn’t take forever. Due to the bite-sized nature of each floor, you might find yourself halfway through the mountain after only a few hours. But it also provides you with the opportunity to take a break, which is something I encourage every player to do — if only so you can experience resuming animation that scrolls down through every level you have completed so far. It gives the player a real sense of accomplishment.
A rock and a hard place
With its friendliness towards short bursts of play, it’s not surprising the game is available on both iOS and Android devices.
Yet the mobile UI remains in both the PC and Nintendo Switch versions. The most frustrating aspect of playing this game is the inability to remove the touch-focused UI icons that permanently sit on the sides of your display. Furthermore, if you are playing on a PC, you can’t use a controller’s D-pad. For a game that only allows the player to move in four cardinal directions, the joystick can lead to mistaken inputs that lead to a floor reset.
The joy of each puzzle comes in stages. A realization of the challenge, the difficulty of grappling with it, and the gratification of solving it. Dungeons of Dreadrock so skillfully executes that gameplay loop in every one of its 100 handcrafted levels. Though the game primarily looks to a mobile audience, the clunky UI can’t get in the way of the colorful sprites and inventive puzzles Dreadrock offers, leaving a short and sweet experience I would happily come back to for 100 more floors.
Dungeons of Dreadrock is available now for PC, Nintendo Switch, iOS, and Android. Inverse reviewed the game on PC.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.