GAME REVIEWS

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dungeon Explorer II

~ DUNGEON EXPLORER II ~
Hudson Soft / TTI
Super CD-ROM
1993

Fifty years after a heroic band of dungeon explorers pummeled the sinister Natas, the country of Oddesia once again finds itself in serious trouble. The precious Ora Stone, which was cherished so highly by Natas in the original Dungeon Explorer, has fallen into the execrable hands of a demonic being named Phades. Not one for half measures or small talk, Phades resurrects Natas and, while cunningly acting as Natas’ minion, sets plans in action to conquer Oddesia--and the rest of the world with it. Thankfully, the last few of the great dungeon explorers still happen to reside in Oddesia, and off they set, not only to slay Natas once and for all but also to thwart the covert ambitions of his malicious henchman.



Dungeon Explorer successfully merged the mechanics of Gauntlet with slick 16-bit superficials, and it was a huge hit with Turbo fans. However, while DE did transform Gauntlet into more of an adventure than a maze-crawler by inserting towns, bosses, and an advancing story, it's still a decidedly linear adventure, with players asked to migrate strictly from one locale to the next while demolishing the hordes of enemies that act as Natas’ guard. Dungeon Explorer II, on the other hand, is so much more than that: it’s a full-blown epic chock-full of sidequests, secrets, and surprises.



The vintage Gauntlet-style gameplay boasted by the first DE is still intact in DE2, with the action viewed from an overhead perspective and enemies born from small, circular generators located in abundance throughout the land. Along with a primary weapon that can be hurled endlessly at enemies, each character has specific varieties of black and white magic at his or her disposal. Black magic is typically used when on the offensive, while white usually contains healing or defensive properties. Potions, which can be found at odd spots throughout Oddesia or obtained by defeating villains, are necessary to make use of spells. Players can select from eight different characters at the beginning of the game, with each differing from the rest in strength, speed, and magic power.



You'll meet up with additional characters who'll be willing to help you on your quest, among whom are a droid, a monk, and an engineer.



At any point during your journey, you can stop by a tavern and switch to a different character with no penalty being assessed to your stats--a very nice feature indeed, especially considering that various NPCs in Oddesia will react to you differently depending on which character you're using. A certain wizard will teach you a new type of magic should you be playing as a witch, while you'll be allowed to enter the Dwarf Woods only if you are using Dorz, the dwarves’ king. Opportunities for experimentation are limited in the first episode of the series, but they present themselves in abundance in DE2.



One of the game’s nicest features is the option for as many as five players to undertake the mission simultaneously. It’s true that the action can get quite hectic with five brash warriors charging around the screen at once, and the game is significantly easier when there are more good guys present to deal with the relentless enemy forces. Nonetheless, it’s rare for action-RPGs to offer the opportunity for more than one person to participate in the gameplay, and if the members of your party can manage to work reasonably well together, you will find few experiences in gaming as enjoyably chaotic as multiplayer DE2.



There is a catch involved with the multiplayer mode that should be mentioned, however, and it involves the game’s method of powering characters up. Instead of utilizing the standard system of experience points, DE2 awards each member of your party a crystal after you stomp on a boss. Each crystal that you obtain raises your character’s level by one. However, a party member must be alive when a boss is beaten in order to receive a level booster. In other words, if you happen to lose a life while battling a boss, and your allies manage to defeat said boss before you can hit “Run” and rejoin play, you'll be deprived of a precious crystal. Thankfully, your party will be allowed to return to the boss’s lair afterwards and smack him around for a second time so that you can power up.



While the first Dungeon Explorer basically holds players’ hands through each step of its adventure, allowing for very little independent exploration, DE2 offers lots of areas and subquests that aren’t relevant to the main storyline. Exploring every nook and cranny of Oddesia will enable you to boost your stats and meet additional playable characters. Subplots and boss creatures await you in places where you least expect them, adding to the depth and spontaneity of the adventure. If you take full advantage of all that the game offers, you'll be able to choose from over a dozen playable characters and battle over two dozen bosses.



As you will soon discover while traveling through the game’s many dungeons, towns, forests, and caves, the land of Oddesia is absolutely enormous--probably ten times the size of the country presented in the original DE. Although backtracking is rarely necessary, you might wish to return to certain areas that you hadn’t explored thoroughly the first time around (a good idea considering the secret characters and bonuses that can be discovered), which leads to another neat feature of DE2. In most towns, you may visit the home of a wizard who can teleport you to locations that you visited earlier; all it will cost you is a single potion. This is a nice way of dealing with the overwhelming enormity of Oddesia, and it will encourage you to conduct as much independent exploration as possible.



Should you need a break from the insanely fast-paced action, you can always pay a visit to one of the local grim reapers and challenge him to a quick game of blackjack. At stake is your life. Beat the reaper to add an extra life to your supply; lose, and one life will be depleted from your stock, and you'll be subjected to some of the reaper’s wisecracks. It’s definitely an enjoyable diversion when the action begins to get a little too heavy, and the reaper’s sense of humor will likely keep you entertained even if you’re getting your butt kicked in blackjack.



In addition to the intense multiplayer gameplay and the many secrets, subplots, and mini-games, Dungeon Explorer II boasts a superb storyline. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the main plot; there is plenty of depth to this adventure, primarily thanks to its fascinating villain.



The scrawny yet sinister Phades, whose grinning countenance is featured on the game’s cover, is immensely compelling, possibly due to the fact that he is just as much of a threat to the evil side as to the good. It’s fascinating to watch the animated intermission scenes during which Phades obediently deals with Natas only to identify and dissect his “leader’s” insecurities and weaknesses once alone. Phades cares little for Natas’ ambitions and wishes to crush him just as convincingly as he wishes to destroy your own party of heroes (think of Galvatron’s relationship with Unicron in the legendary Transformers film and you'll have a surprisingly accurate idea of how Phades feels about Natas). Such interaction between villains is far too rare in video games and is especially impressive when you consider that DE2 was designed so many years ago.



Despite the fact that Natas is typically referred to as the “great evil” of the Dungeon Explorer games, it's Phades, with his penchants for stealing precious stones, killing kings, and wreaking havoc in general, who will act as your primary (and most dangerous) adversary in this adventure. You will spend much of your journey hunting for Phades similar to the manner in which Cloud and company chase after Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII.



Phades’ actions grow more shocking and wicked as the game goes on, and he occasionally drops by to taunt your party and present you with one of his pet behemoths, whom you will, of course, be forced to do battle with.



Dungeon Explorer II’s captivating story is aided by the unconfined use of cinemas throughout the adventure. These scenes add to the drama immeasurably and stand as the game’s greatest visual moments. The graphics during actual play are a small step above the original DE’s, never particularly flashy but still immensely effective. The bosses are reasonably large, and most of the locales are bright and colorful enough. Some of the caves and dungeons are a little too drab and simplistic, but if visuals are going to be drab, they might as well be drab while depicting caves and dungeons, right?



The first Dungeon Explorer boasts some of the best music one could ever hope to hear in a 16-bit game, yet this sequel goes above and beyond that, primarily by employing incredible CD remixes of many of the greatest tunes featured in the original title. I didn't acquire DE2 until a good ten years had passed since I'd conquered the first one; yet I was able to recognize the redone tracks the second they began playing, and I was completely blown away by them. Veteran DE players will undoubtedly find feelings of nostalgia evoked by this music, but at the same time, they'll realize the superiority of the adventure they are currently immersed in. That’s why Dungeon Explorer II is such a massive success as a sequel: it makes players appreciate the greatness of the original episode while seeing how far the series has come with the followup.



If there is any complaint I might have regarding the game’s audio, it involves the voice acting. It’s not bad by any means, but the actors tend towards the overdramatic, which almost kills the power of some scenes. Otherwise, the sound effects are simple but unobtrusive, while the music adds to the atmosphere of each scene immeasurably.



Dungeon Explorer II ranks as one of the greatest Duo games and belongs in the libraries of all fans of the action-RPG genre, particularly those who enjoy the first DE. So track down a copy immediately and get started with your quest; Phades will be anxious to meet you.

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