Cities: Skylines, Pillars of Etenity, GTA 5—all potential candidates for whiling away this weekend. There is another option: spend some time with one of 2014's best games. Amplitude Studios is the subject of the Steam's latest Free Weekend. That means you can trial the excellent strategy game Endless Legend.
The fantasy 4X is free to try until this Sunday, as is the semi-related roguelike Dungeon of the Endless. In addition, Amplitude's back catalogue is all on sale until April 20—with the full bundle available at a 50% discount.
Endless Legend is a smart and inventive strategy, and a breath of fresh air in comparison to last year's disappointingly stale Civ: Beyond Earth. As part of our 2014 awards we honoured it with a Commendation for Design.
As for Dungeon of the Endless, it's a brutally tough tower-defence roguelike with a lot of interesting ideas. You can read our review for more details.
What is it? A roguelike, tactical RPG, tower defense hybrid.
Reviewed on: AMD Quad Core 3.3GHz, 16GB Ram, GeForce GTX 660 Ti PC
Copy protection: Steam
Price: $13/ 10
Release date: Out now
Publisher: Amplitude Studios
Developer: Amplitude Studios
Multiplayer: Two-player cooperative
Link: Official site
It's the eighth floor of Dungeon of the Endless, and with a full squad of four, well-equipped, level 6-7 characters, I have everything under control. I set up turrets next to the unpowered rooms where aliens could spawn whenever I open another door, securing a path between the crystal I need to protect and the elevator to the next floor. I send Sara Numas, a katana-wielding bounty hunter and the fastest character in the group, to open doors, then run back to the crystal room to fight off whatever I've unleashed with the rest of the group. By the time the aliens get past the defenses, they're weak, and we take them out easily.
Then, of course, it all goes to hell. In my defense, I had no idea that if I spent enough time on a floor, the aliens will eventually bust through closed doors all by themselves and stream out in great numbers, but Dungeon of the Endless teaches all of its important lessons this way. It's a cruel, but entertaining learning experience.
Its pause-at-any-time combat, desperate race to the finish, and strategies that forced me to cut off a limb to save the body reminded me of FTL, while its character upgrades, inventory, and squad management reminded of XCOM. And then there's the tower defense element, where each room has a set number of nodes where I could place turrets, healing units, and other useful gadgets.
Dungeon of the Endless pulls from many popular games and genres from the last couple of years, but what's wonderful about it is that all these elements come together to create something entirely new.
I start each run in an escape pod that crash lands on an alien planet. The only way out is up through 12 floors of an alien infested dungeon, and I have to bring the crystal with me to power my escape.
Each stage has two phases. First I have to find the elevator to the next floor, opening one door at a time. Each time I open a door there's a chance I'll find aliens that will immediately attack my squad, defenses, or the crystal. If my entire squad or the crystal goes down, it s game over. If I survive whatever happens after opening a door, I have infinite time to plan my next move.
Dust, a resource that makes the crystal more powerful, lets me provide power to rooms, which ensures aliens don't spawn there, and activates the room's major and minor module slots. Major modules are mostly for gathering resources: Industry, which I need to build anything, Science for researching upgrades, and Food to heal and level up heroes. Minor modules house different kinds of turrets.
I've seen all these turret types before in other tower defense games, but having a squad on the ground meaningfully recontextualizes that familiar gameplay. There are many different hero and module combinations to experiment with, and I'm much more invested in the characters I'm tower-defending because I customized them myself.
For example, I gave Elise Ness, a freelance demolitionist in a giant space suit, a big machine gun that deals a lot of damage. With a healing module and another that boosts her attacks, she can protect a room by herself from most threats.
I can heal heroes and activate up to two of their special abilities, but that's the full extent of direct combat controls. The trick is knowing what room to put the heroes in, and how to prepare those rooms in their favor. Once they're in there, they'll take care of the rest automatically.
The only way to get Dust is by finding it in new rooms, but there's always less Dust than there are rooms, ensuring that a wave of aliens can spawn whenever I open a door. After finding the elevator, it's time for the second phase. I need to bring the crystal and the heroes to the elevator, but picking the crystal up will cause large waves of aliens to spawn in every unpowered room, and unlike waves in the first phase, they won't stop coming until we re out of there, or dead. The most interesting choice at that point is what rooms to power up.
My favorite method was to explore a floor until I had enough Dust to power a path between the crystal and next elevator, build as many turrets as I could along the way, and hope they slowed the aliens enough so I could get to the elevator before they caught up with me.
It took me a couple of runs to realize that I couldn't just sprint through floors. Dungeon of the Endless' universe, which mixes space marines with walking skeletons and wooden chests, conveys a lot of dread with its dimly-lit but colorful, pixelated artstyle, and there are some really menacing aliens in the upper floors.
Opening a door doesn't only give me a chance to find the loot I need to deal with them, but counts as a turn which collects resources from whatever major modules I've built. Do I make a run for the elevator now, when I know I have a fair shot of getting there, or do I take a chance and open another door? There's a lot of equipment, research, and upgrades to choose from in Dungeon of the Endless, but the game hinges on the decision to open a door, or not, and it was loaded with tension every single time for the eight hours I played it. There's no loading a previous save. It's a commitment.
The other big question that kept me interested was if could make it to the top. It was challenging, and so far I've only been able to do it on the "too easy" mode, but once I did, I was pretty much done.
Floor layouts are randomly generated, and I was always curious to discover all the little visual details in each new room. There are also new heroes to earn, and different escape pods, which tweak some of the basic rules and starting conditions of a run (like ships in FTL). Still, once I've survived one alien-infested, sci-fi/fantasy hybrid space dungeon, I've kind of survived them all. The aliens have a lot of nasty surprises, but they didn't force me to change up my strategy once I found one that works.
It took me at least six tense hours to find that strategy, and for $13/ 10, I can definitely recommend taking a ride on that elevator.
Another game is about to burst forth, all slimy and wriggling, from the womb of early access. Too graphic an analogy? Sorry. Another game is about to, er, be released, all digital and like a functional software product, from the pre-release designation of early access. Dungeon of the Endless is the game, and its release date has been set for 27 October.
"DotE was launched on Steam Early Access on December 11th, 2013," writes Amplitude Studios in an update, "and has been greatly improved thanks to your feedback, suggestions, design discussions, bug reports, but also forum contests, brainstorms, surveys, GAMES2GETHER votes and so on. With your awesome participation, we were able to create unique content for the game such as heroes, spaceships, modules, events or Steam achievements. Thank you all for participating in this Early Access."
This is the next part of Amplitude's unusual semi-crossover series; the last part being the recently released Endless Legend. Dungeon of the Endless is a prequel of sorts—not that the connection has much impact on the game's genre blending mix of roguelike and tower defence.
To mark the occassion, the developers have released this video—half of which is a pretty looking pixel short; the other half a scrolling list of names.