Dungeon Encounters Review

Dungeon Encounters

What’s the glue that holds an RPG together? Most would desire epic sagas, characters you could hug with your soul, worlds so thick you could get lost in them like a hoagie in the fat folds of a feminist. Other gamers would say the battles that would make a berserker puke blood. Dungeon Encounters rejects all of this and embraces stark minimalism.

Dungeon Encounters‘ introduction is a savage slap to the senses. There is no musical flourish or rousing theme, no dazzling prologue animation, just a bare start screen emblazoned with a single paragraph of backstory. Starting the game leads to you staring down the barrel of the party selection screen, where character backstories verge on nonexistent. A few measly sentences, hidden like dirty secrets, as if the developers were embarrassed by them.

Dungeon Encounter is set in a dimension of grids, where the hero fills in squares like a manic accountant. The world itself is left up to your imagination and you only have one goal: stay alive and get the party to find the damn exit, or scream your existential angst into the void, whichever comes first.

Dungeon Encounters
Developer: Cattle Call, Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix

Platforms:  Windows PC, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release Date: November 14, 2021
Price: $29.99 USD

Dungeon Encounters hurls the player into a world best described as a mysterious crossword etched onto ancient parchment. This is the meat of the experience guiding a 3D avatar across these bare-bones grid maps, filling in every square, and scrambling for the exit.

When Dungeon Encounters barely has any graphics, how can you tell an exit square from a regular square? The game keeps its secrets, though every floor’s events are marked with mysterious black and white numbers. White digits usually hint at something helpful, like a shop, a resurrection shrine, or a healing fountain. Black digits are encounters.

You’ll have to take Dungeon Encounters‘ word for it because there’s not a single graphic to depict anything. The only visual cues are the character models roaming the dungeon maps and the few illustrated portraits that pop up during battles. The lack of visual representation will make you feel starved for stimuli.

Dungeon Encounters strips the fat off combat, leaving behind a stripped-down system soundtracked by Nobuo Uematsu’s wailing guitar playing classical music. No flashy spell effects, no CGI explosions, just the raw crunch of numbers crunching as you trade blows.

It’s almost like the developers are holding up a mirror to what modern JRPGs are known for, asking, “Is this spectacle really what makes combat fun? Or is it the underlying math with strategy and tactics?” Instead of bombastic visuals, Dungeon Encounters throws you into the thick of it with the classic Active Time Battle (ATB) system familiar to anyone who’s played an old-school Final Fantasy.

Every character, enemy and hero alike, has three HP meters. Functionally, they act as shields protecting the core HP. These shields represent physical and magical defense, and you can only damage a character’s true HP if you first deplete the matching defensive shield with a physical or magical attack.

This back-to-basics system forces you to think strategically. It’s a purist’s approach to combat, all about understanding your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and then exploiting them with the right choices, doing away with visual excess. It is a lot to expect for most Square Enix fans to accept, but fans of Wizardry or The Dark Spire will probably feel right at home

Anyone who can cope with the austere presentation of Dungeon Encounters will discover a weirdly addictive experience. It’s a grind, but it’s a grind in its purest form, stripped bare and wasting no time. It is a game that is honest with what it is.

Moving through floors and gradually filling every square taps into a primitive satisfaction, like the gratifying tidiness of a freshly cleaned room. Dungeon Encounters doesn’t even feel like an RPG; it’s closer to a cerebral puzzle game, but one draped in the stats and systems of a Wizardry game.

Just like those crusty and old RPGs, this is a diabolical game that is utterly indifferent to the player’s time. Some crushing consequences can happen from a misstep or being slightly careless that can result in the entire party getting separated, forcing players to start from the top floor with a new party at level one.

This kind of disaster can happen very easily and it isn’t even the worst thing that can happen. Players will likely end up losing everything when party members die and there are not enough resources to revive them. It is feasible that gamers can clock in dozens of hours, only to be trapped in a spiraling descent where all characters die.

There is no coming back from a situation like this. Continuing isn’t an option and the only thing left to do is to restart the entire game as a fresh run. This could mean losing dozens of hours and Dungeon Encounters does not care.

This unwavering commitment to simplicity and minimalism leaves little room for Dungeon Encounters to mess up. The sparse Queen-like soundtrack, with only a few tracks, boasts surprising brilliance. Every piece is an electric guitar solo and while it could use a lot more pieces, the ones we get are utterly electric.

With virtually no graphics to criticize and a deliberately absent story, the game almost transcends itself through its sheer focus, achieving a near-perfect elegance like Tetris. The less-is-more approach does make the core elements come to the forefront and can make the simple gameplay feel more engaging than it would seem.

The most insane aspect of Dungeon Encounters is the asking price of thirty American dollars. For its price, you are not going to get a lot of bang for your buck. This game can be pretty long, but there is an inherent lack of value when it has almost no production values to speak of. There is barely an hour’s worth of music, no emotional core to latch onto, and the gameplay is as spartan as can be.

Dungeon Encounters is a game that’s remarkably difficult to fault for its premise. It sets out with very specific intentions, and it achieves them, even if it frustrates players in the process. This isn’t your typical Square Enix fare; it’s tailor-made for hardcore RPG enthusiasts who savor the likes of pen-and-paper RPGs.

Be prepared to flex your imagination, as the game offers minimal text and visuals to depict the adventure and battles. While it’s a hard sell for most audiences, Dungeon Encounters might be a compelling experiment for the most demented RPG maniacs who crave something unique.

Dungeon Encounters was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a copy purchased by Nichegamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. Dungeon Encounters is now available for Windows PC (via Steam), PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.

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The Verdict: 7

The Good

  • Nobuo Uematsu shredding classical music with an electric guitar
  • Quick, pick-up-and-play gameplay
  • Surprisingly addictive
  • Clean menus and slick art
  • Randomly occuring events and scenarios keep it feeling fresh

The Bad

  • There are some utterly cruel set-backs that could easily lead to ending the game, losing dozens of hours
  • No story and the stark minimalism is very boring to look at
  • Not enough pieces of music
  • Unbearably alienating premise that will put off many gamers
  • Shockingly overpriced


A youth destined for damnation.

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