On its surface, puzzle game/RPG hybrids shouldn’t work. The core concept is frankly ludicrous. Matching tiles or finding hidden objects correlate exactly NOT AT ALL to fighting monsters, getting all of the “phat loots” (as the kids say), or leveling a character. If we can all agree on this premise, it should then tell you something when I say that Frogdice not only makes the combat seem plausible in Dungeon of Elements, but also makes it addictive, charming, and some of the most fun I’ve has this year.
In Dungeon of Elements, your character is an apprentice alchemist working to restore the honor of the Alchemist’s Guild, which has fallen from grace. This is why the Dr. Mario inspired gameplay is more plausible. The idea is that your alchemist is hurling capsules full of… alchemy I guess (?)… into a room to attack enemies based on their elemental makeup. The capsules need to match the color of the enemy in typical fashion, and you have the ability to rotate the capsules or fast drop them as is expected in this type of game. Capsules that don’t immediately destroy an enemy leave behind smoke which is also used to create matches.
Dungeon of Elements is not the most graphically advanced title on the planet, but it is colorful, and there is a wide variety of enemies to keep things fresh. Each stage offers both new environs and new challenges. I was especially impressed with the way various items and set pieces in each room affect gameplay. For instance, furniture and debris strewn about act as barriers that force you to rethink how to attack the enemies located near them. Coupling that with some brilliant creature placement can ramp up the difficulty in a hurry. The hand drawn storybook used in between levels to keep track of the narrative are also very nice. Sound design is top notch, with some absolutely incredible tracks accompanying each level. The monster “squish” effect when enemies get killed never gets old, either.
Dungeon of Elements offers something for everyone. Fans of crafting can use various dropped loot in order to create recipes, potentially granting access to powerful items to use against enemies. This crafting system, while robust, is simple to use, and really rewards experimentation. Weapons provide a direct attack against specific enemies (useful when one is hiding just out of reach), while shields temporarily significantly slow the rate of falling capsules. Armor is only decorative, but boots change your movement speed, slowing the overall rate of capsules falling. Created items can be extremely useful in battle, but have significant cooldown times, preventing them from becoming gamebreakers, while allowing you to get out of a jam, or clear a room a bit faster. The idea is still to play through each puzzle, and not to get wrapped up in finding (or making) the perfect gear. Collectors can find a large number of enemy scrolls, adding entries into the game’s Bestiary (functioning similarly to a PokeDex). There are also scores of achievements, and pets which aid in the collection of loot during battle. The pets are of debatable use, however. Many players employ a strategy where they leave loot on the board, as they serve as barriers which allow a player to get at harder to reach enemies. Since the pets automatically loot the board within a few seconds, that strategy is no longer viable. However, it can be easy to forget to grab a scroll during a heated battle, so your mileage may vary here. Remember though, pets are adorable.
The boss battles are particularly well handled. Bosses add several complications to ordinary gameplay. First, they require many more matches to dispatch. Then, they employ special defense mechanisms, unique to each boss. For instance, a giant rat spawns randomly placed rat minions to block your path, forcing you to adapt your strategy on the fly, while a giant spider (I think I sense a pattern…) blocks the path directly in front of it requiring double capsules (same color on each side) to destroy them to have a chance to attack. In lesser hands, these battles could be annoying, but here they are tense, exciting affairs you look forward to experiencing, feeling enormous satisfaction when you win.
I like that I can continue to grind through already completed levels in order to pick up scrolls I may have missed, or just for additional loot, but at the press of a button I can immediately access the highest level dungeon available. This is so much easier than trying to remember where I am on the map, especially if I’ve been away from the game for awhile.
I think that’s what makes Dungeon of Elements work so well. Everything has been clearly thought out and designed to maximize a sense of achievement and eliminate potential frustration. This is a game that simply wants you to have fun and be successful, and that seems rare these days. Everything is written tongue very much in cheek (check out the achievement for putting plate/chain mail armor on a female character for a sampling), which is how it should be. Dungeon of Elements plays fast, it’s fun, and it’s well worth the money. I honestly can’t think of enough good things to say about it. Highest recommendation!