Authentically different

Fans of the original Dungeon Master will find Dungeon Master Nexus‘ opening eerily familiar: Once again you are Theron, a brave young man who can’t seem to keep himself alive and corporeal for more than five minutes, once again made to rescue his magically unavailable master Greylord from another huge dungeon of nefarious design using a player-picked selection of up to four malleable adventurers. Once again play begins at a recognisably ominous door, and once again starting a new game seamlessly leads Theron through that door and into into the Hall of Champions.

[Warning: There is some brief flashing in the video below]

Happily this Japanese Saturn exclusive is quick to show it’s far more than a polygonal rehash of a different team’s old work. Fresh faces sleep silently next to reimagined favourites, each one encased in magical crystal and waiting for you to either reawaken them as permanent party members or pass them by. During this walk you might notice conspicuous patches of light in two different spots on the floor – a deliberately clear indicator of an illusory wall just ahead. Dare to travel behind these barriers and you’ll discover two hidden characters, their broadly superior starting stats balanced out by their complete lack of clothes, items, equipment – and their location. Uniquely their resting places are located behind rooms containing two tough Rockpile monsters, making this the first time in the series your barely-formed team can potentially get killed off before they’ve even left what has previously always been a completely safe area.

Sneaking by these enemies is a very different experience in Nexus due to its abandonment of 1987’s uniform tiling and exacting flip movement, the game instead embracing fully polygonal environments (and enemies) and all the freedom that can come with them. The claustrophobic dungeon walls of old are still in there, but now they’re tastefully intertwined with a range of more organic subterranean formations; stalactites hanging from a cave ceiling, a glimpsed stream as you pass over a wooden bridge, a puddle of poison bubbling away on a stone floor. This dramatic shift away from the first game’s stark visual language and relatively rigid puzzle rules could’ve easily been Nexus’ undoing, turning it into Dungeon Master in name only, but in play it’s easy to see the foundations of the series are still there and are still as important as they’ve ever been. Pressure plates are distinctively square and can usually be weighed down with whatever you have going spare, ornate keyholes are still found in flat walls next to a range of doors, throwing a coin into a wall-mounted fountain may open the path ahead, and you’ll need to pay close attention to the many scrolls and wall messages littering the labyrinth if you want to live. The game may look different, but it only ever feels like Dungeon Master.

The leap to true 3D has also allowed areas to extend upwards rather than simply outwards, a feature which has been gleefully seized upon by Nexus’ enemy designers. The game’s rare dragons and stone golems can now truly tower over you, the party only about waist high at best when in melee range. Beyond some extra headroom this technical innovation is also used to introduce something that would’ve been completely impossible before – above and below points occurring in the same room. Stone bridges loom overhead hinting at areas to come, monsters may noisily roam the gloom below, and switches can now raise or lower platforms nearby, creating a path where there wasn’t one before. As with everything else great care has been taken to integrate this into Dungeon Master’s pre-existing style, a little twist to the established rules rather than forced in for the sake of modernity. The goal is still to grab the key, to find the path to the other side, to solve the riddle that grants access to a valuable item, to avoid the deadly trap – the only difference is the final destination might be above or below where you’re standing, rather than off to the side.

Ah yes, traps. These too have been given a remarkable overhaul, the usual array of fireball-spitting orifices, hidden pitfalls, and sudden monsters embellished with a few 3D-enabled tricks. In one room everyone’s favourite Jill Sandwich maker makes a welcome appearance, locking the exits before slowly squashing the entire party flat if the tantalisingly unique staff lying on top of what is obviously a pressure plate isn’t swapped out for the correct item. Several floors down another cunning mechanism lies in wait, crushing those who thought they could lazily grab some suspiciously unguarded valuables between spiked walls. In both of these instances and more the upcoming deaths are heavily telegraphed to the point of plastering bespoke paintings and messages on the surrounding walls that do everything short of outright saying “Don’t grab this unless you know exactly what you’re doing, and what you should be doing is [this], you dummy“, even going so far to include the occasional mini first-person cutscene highlighting exactly what you’ve just set off. As you can save the game at any time deliberately stepping into Nexus’ very worst snares is actually pretty good fun – you get all the drama of a fatally inescapable scenario, but always know you can restart right outside the exact same door when it’s over.

Seeing as this is the console exclusive sequel to what has always been first and foremost a mouse-controlled computer game there was always a chance the biggest obstacle of them all wouldn’t be some tricky riddle or cunning trap but the interface, especially as what’s here visually sticks as closely as it does to the original Atari ST game’s interface. Fortunately Nexus’ controls have been given just as much thought as its well-made puzzles, and the game finds a way to make its unavoidable complexity feel enjoyably responsive even though it’s being experienced via a pad better suited to extended Vampire Savior sessions (Nexus is optionally compatible with the Saturn’s analogue pad, but not the mouse) than clicky dungeon action.

In cursor mode all party movement is disabled, allowing you to manually move a disembodied hand around your current field of view, the camera helpfully tilting slightly at the edges to help you reach anything not quite in shot. Too slow? Don’t worry, Nexus has already thought of that. A quick tap of the Y button will immediately snap the cursor to the closest visible interactive object, and pressing the same button again will cycle through every item you can touch within the hand’s generous range. Once you’ve settled on the object of your desire you’re only a single context-sensitive press away from activating a lever, reading a message, or picking up a shiny gem, and squirrelling away a wheel of cheese or loosed arrow into the party’s shared inventory only takes a single button press more – all without having top open up a menu or manually drag the item over to a character’s status window. It’s even possible to temporarily place the last item taken in a special “nowhere” slot, saving you from putting the latest key away just so you can dig it out again a short walk later. It’s all as convenient as it could possibly be, while still retaining just enough friction for every interaction to require some time and thought behind it: a thrown dagger lost forever unless you have the time to stop and pick it up, unlocking a door to whatever lies beyond requiring just enough of a pause for a slight sense of unease to kick in.

Attacking has also been greatly streamlined. No longer do you have to decide if every character’s going to slash, chop, swing, throw, or whatever the heck else they can do every action as weapons now operate on a simple power meter, with longer charges naturally dealing more powerful blows. You can either set it so only the current leader attacks (switched between as you please via the L and R buttons), or so everyone currently able to does – and this includes back-row characters armed with throwing weapons, the game even taking care to automatically refill their ammo from your inventory. There’s an optional enemy health bar display in there too if you want it, making it easy to see if you’re easily tearing through a minor foe or should begin quaffing strength boosting potions like your life depends on it.

As the basics are so straightforward you have the time to concentrate on the really important things, which in Nexus’ case is mostly down to your personal reaction speed and party positioning. Everything plays out in real-time here, meaning it’s possible to attack then back off before an Ant Man or Giggler can retaliate, or sidestep out of a cloud of poison gas. Enemies may even block attacks if you mistime your assault, squandering what could have been a powerful blow. I’ve always felt this action element is one of the things that made Dungeon Master so special: picking a monster off from a distance or learning to “dance” around a pillar will help you live longer than any piece of rare armour ever could, and when you’re forced to meet them up close – perhaps literally with your back against a wall – it feels tense and dangerous in a way even the most demanding random encounters can’t match.

Dungeon Master’s unique magic system has also been given a console-friendly revamp, placing the iconic rune based system on a small wheel so you’re never more than a direction+button press away from every symbol. Cueing up a magic spell so it’s ready to go when you need it is as easy as inputting the correct combination and then not hitting the cast button until you’re ready, and repeating the last spell used is as simple as giving the cast button another prod, making it easy to spam the new heal-all spell in a panic or unleash a barrage of ghostbusting Des Ew blasts on a brilliantly creepy ghost, especially as projectile magic (throwing weapons too) has some slight tracking to it – so long as you’re pointing in roughly the right direction and there’s nothing in the way, the spell will hit its target.

There’s a list of successfully cast spells for you to read any time you need them, saving you from dragging a million scrolls around or writing them all out, and it’s now possible to make potions straight from a menu, so you no longer have to place empty flasks in your designated priest’s hands and then keep swapping them out to build up your supplies. Old hands will find many classic spell combinations make a welcome return – this is especially significant as each rune is not just a shape to click on but a meaningful contribution to the completed magic’s form (“life” “fire” “to project”, etc.) – although everything relating to using a magic map has been removed due to Dungeon Master Nexus’ inclusion of a helpful minimap system.

This minimap can be called up at any time, although if you’re playing on the Normal difficulty setting (of two – the other is Easy) its consumes a noticeable amount of mana to keep on-screen. It’s a strangely passive effort compared to other dungeon crawlers, always showing a localised segment of the full floor map and automatically marking doors, fountains, warps, and other significant features even if you haven’t interacted with them yet. This means you can see the layout of rooms off in the gloom or even areas you didn’t know existed just because they happen to be physically close by – the map will even indicate where some false walls are too (from my own playthrough it seemed to be the level-progressing ones that were marked).

What looks like it could be a game-breaking crutch actually allows Nexus to keep a few sneaky ideas – not all walls will be solid, not every warp is visible – without turning it into a game of brushing against every flat surface or dragging out some graph paper and a pencil. If anything the minimap shows how great the underlying level design really is, as over time you learn to spot all sorts of little “tells” for yourself, and can see the map only helps to make them obvious, but it’s always an aid rather than a necessity.

Not having to worry about whether the door you wanted to get back to was first or second left past the Screamer gives you the chance to soak in the sounds of the wind howling through dark passageways or water dripping from an unseen source, or to stop and stare for a while at the numerous visual details that transform Nexus from a well made game into a spectacular adventure.

There’s an astonishing amount of visual variation even within a single floor – some places are grandiose locations frozen in time, others crumbling and forgotten – but better still is the way so many of these details directly contribute to the interactive side of the dungeon-diving experience: ornate paintings can conceal a wall’s coin slot, a gravestone might have a small button hiding in plain sight, or a dragon’s lair may contain multiple piles of ash – all that remains of the adventurers that dared to take on the beast before you, and a silent warning to approach it with extreme caution.

Even with all of the tweaks and changes going on in here (some of which would have been considered nothing short of sacrilegious if they hadn’t worked out) it’s always clear Dungeon Master Nexus understands the appeal of Dungeon Master specifically, and only ever hopes to be a game that honours and expands upon its predecessor’s winning formula. Neither a timid tracing of a famed classic nor a callous bulldoze across gaming history, Nexus is perhaps one of the finest examples of a sensitive and successful sequel to an important earlier work gaming has ever produced.

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2 thoughts on “Authentically different

  1. I found your website through a Google recommended link on castlevania and anther hyper link to a ‘horribly named website’.
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    David

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