Dungeonoid 2 Awakening review

After catching wind that Dungeonoid 2 combines dungeon crawling with Arkanoid style brick breaking, I figured it would play like an 8-bit Zelda game, ushering players from one single-screen dungeon room to the next while paddling balls into enemies, chests, switches, etc. You can imagine my surprise, then, to discover that it’s an auto-scrolling affair mostly set in outdoor locales. The screen scrolls horizontally and vertically, with the camera moving slowly. You’re just here for the ride.

Even the dungeon crawling aspect is downplayed somewhat, with stages set within grasslands, castles, and a foggy graveyard. The few RPG elements present are remarkably light too, mostly restricted to each of the four selectable characters having their own slightly varying stats for speed, power, and such. Calling this a fantasy themed bat ‘n ball game would be closer to the mark.

After choosing a character, who also has unique ultimate abilities, you’re then presented with six stages that must be completed in order to unlock the next. They last around 10-12 minutes, and you’re granted not just a small pool of lives and continues, but a tight time limit too.

There’s a choice of three directions to make when launching a ball, and there’s a satisfying sword spin manoeuvre on a cooldown that can clear several blocks at once. In typical genre fashion, the chance is given to reset the ball if it ends up endlessly bouncing horizontally – although not always in a timely fashion.     

Occasionally, the action comes to a standstill while you’re tasked with flicking switches or killing a handful of enemies. Time is of the essence here, as if you take too long, you may find the clock ticking into its final seconds while trying to defeat a boss. Sneakily, stages don’t end the moment the boss is beaten either; there’s one final challenge to launch a ball into a small portal. Time extensions are doled out often, and it’s possible to buy more time at the shop, but considering said extensions drop randomly, you may end up nervously clocking watching.

Each life bestows three hearts and just two continues are provided to endure a stage from start to finish. While this may sound generous, the number of hazards and traps per screen is high. Every stage took me several attempts to beat, and often I was frustratingly faced with a ‘Time Over’ mid-boss battle. Even the opening stage is a challenge, making this a demanding experience from the outset. Upon switching characters, you’ll need to (re)acquaint with their differences in speed too.

If Dungeonoid 2 was hard but fair, this wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, it was initially refreshing to play an eastasiasoft title that wasn’t over in an hour. But the odds here are vastly stacked against your favour, mostly due to its auto-scrolling nature. At one point the ball became obscured by the HUD for a good ten seconds; another time it became lodged within a monster’s ribcage, bouncing around while the clock ticked down. Enemies and new hazards continuously appear on the edge of the screen while it scrolls, meaning some familiarity with the level layout is required, and sometimes you’ll be told the ball can’t be launched as there’s an object nearby.  

Power-ups also often appear in a glut after destroying a solid mass of bricks, and you can bet there’ll be a few power-downs mixed in too, shrinking the paddle and reversing controls. On top of all this, you’re required to keep the ball in play while preventing projectiles from touching the paddle. This can be quite tricky with the backdrops being as busy as they are, especially when enemies are teleporting around the screen. Screen shake makes tracking the ball hard too.  

Keeping the ball in play for a long time, in addition to finally beating a boss, can be satisfying – if only because Dungeonoid 2 presents a stiff challenge. I had matches where I was able to make good headway without losing all three hearts, and stages where I had to use a continue less than two minutes in. Indeed, a lot of luck is required for the most part. I never felt like I had control over where the ball went, as new hazards appear so frequently and swiftly. A grace period after launching a ball may have helped lessen frustrations, or perhaps a continue quota closer to five.

It’s a shame that Dungeonoid 2 is so finicky as the colourful pixel art has clearly had a lot of effort put into it, and the bosses are unique and varied. On paper, the concept sounds great – a fantasy-themed Arkanoid alike with long scrolling stages and plenty of bonuses – but in reality, it’s unfairly challenging and not much fun. It’s safe to say there’s a reason why we haven’t seen many scrolling bat ‘n ball games over the years. It’s a genre that calls for precision and acute timing, and when moving objects and background elements are added to the mix, all sense of control is lost. Nice idea, fated execution.

Pixel Bones Studio’s Dungeonoid 2 is out 7th Feb on all formats. Published by eastasiasoft.

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