App Reviewed on: iPad Pro
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Dungeon-crawling games have gotten kind of complicated and abstract, lately. There's a trend to take this classic mold and apply other game mechanics to them, like cards, dice, or even slots. Shattered Pixel Dungeon takes things back to a more conventional place--one that forces you to rely on your wits, some light rpg elements, and quite a bit of luck as you move a little pixelated hero around a grid-based dungeon, one step at a time.
Eat, kill, descend
Runs of Shattered Pixel Dungeon begin with little fanfare. You choose a class to play as (warrior, mage, rogue, or huntress) and then you are dumped into a 26 floor dungeon that you have to fight your way through. At the start, you have some modest class-specific gear and are relatively fragile, but as you kill enemies to level up and find more gear and items, you can turn into a formidable fighting force.
You can't just grind away killing enemies, though, as Shattered Pixel Dungeon is also a survival game. Your hero gets hungry, so you have to find or make food for them so that they don't starve to death. Usually, food isn't super hard to come by, so long as you are making good progress downward in the dungeon. Speaking of progress, all of this action is managed in a turn-based format, so you don't have to worry about a hunger meter draining over time or enemies coming and finding you while you manage your inventory. Things only move when you move, which allows for careful planning, distracted play, or a little bit of both.
Learn the hard way
Every game of Shattered Pixel Dungeon presents a newly procedurally-generated dungeon for you to explore--and likely die--in. Although the overall pace of the game allows you to think strategically and try to make the best possible moves, this game is really tough. All of the items you pick up early on you have to identify using scrolls or just test without knowing what they'll do first, and it's surprisingly easy to get surrounded by enemies or simply find yourself in a fight without having enough health or healing to get you through it.
Whenever you die in Shattered Pixel Dungeon, nothing fancy with progression happens. You just start again from first floor with the option to choose a new class if you've unlocked them. All of your work on upgrading gear, identifying items, and reaching the goal just vanishes, so hopefully you've learned a trick or two about how to survive a little better to go further on the next run.
I really apprecite Shattered Pixel Dungeon's sense of variety. It has hundreds of items to come across, over 50 enemies, and all kinds of modifying equipment that make sure that each game you play is unique. On top of that, dungeon floors also have interesting randomized elements like booby-trapped loot rooms, mini-bosses, and little side-quests you can come across that also give you a sense of adventure outside of basic survival and the boss fights that are pre-built into every run.
My only problem with the game is that with all these possibilities, some runs can feel doomed from the start. If you don't come across the right gear at the right time, or you walk into a room that triggers a swarm of enemies to notice you, there's basically nothing you can do to recover. You can always start again, but I have noticed that my only deep runs in the game have all been made possible by crucial item drops that happened early in the run. It's gotten to the point where I know by floor five if I have what I need to actually go much deeper.
The bottom line
When the procedurally-generated stars align, Shattered Pixel Dungeon feels like one of the smartest and most satisfying dungeon-crawlers you can find. When they don't, it can be demoralizing and frustrating. You can always start a new run whenever you like, but just know that it might take a dozen or more crawls before you get to dig into the deeper, more satisfying depths of the experience.