I’ve recently been playing a lot of One Step From Eden and Dicey Dungeons and that got me thinking about what core gameplay loops I respond positively to. Both games fall within the rogue-like genre, but one has really captured my attention over the last several weeks while the other has left me wanting. Despite their similarities, the core experience is fairly different and I think that’s worth looking at.
So first off, what even are either of these games?
One Step From Eden is a spiritual successor to the Mega Man Battle Network games. These games are an RPG spin-off of the platforming Mega Man games wherein you dodge enemy attacks by moving around a grid while firing back your own counter attacks. Eden plays similarly, but ramps up the complexity of the enemy attacks considerably giving it a bullet-hell feel.
Eden also features light deck building elements. You collect spells throughout your journey to customize what attacks your character has during combat. These spells are added to a deck which is shuffled throughout combat, so you constantly have to adjust your strategy based on what spells you draw and when you draw them. The combination of these ideas creates a dynamic battle system where players constantly have to adjust their game plan based on the availability of their abilities and the attacking state of the enemy.
Dicey Dungeons is a dungeon crawler where you explore randomly generated dungeons collecting equipment and fighting baddies culminating in a final boss fight. Each run has set parameters which impose additional stipulations on the player and shift the general flow of Dicey as well as the player’s game plan. Examples include lowering the player’s health with every level-up, stealing abilities from enemies rather than finding equipment, or having to scrap a piece of equipment after every fight. These radically change how you must approach your trip through the dungeon, as well as individual combat encounters.
The big differentiating factor that Dicey has from its contemporaries is its use of randomness. Each turn during combat you’re dealt a hand of dice with which to use your equipment. Many of the different equipment options you’ll encounter only work with specific dice values. Some only accept values of three or lower. Other require an even number. Others still will take any dice roll, but trigger an additional effect if a six is used. This forces the player to adapt to whatever randomness they are dealt each turn making the best of it and, similar to Eden, creates a dynamic combat system for players.
We’ve established that both games force the player to be flexible while adjusting to a variety of changing parameters. This creates a ton of variety in moment to moment gameplay and repeated attempts through their respective gauntlet of challenges. So why is it that I’ve responded a lot more positively to one over the other?
Short answer: system mastery.
Late last year I completed the Quantic Foundry gamer motivation profile and my results were overwhelming skewed toward certain categories. Mastery of a game, both through strategy and challenge, came up as my highest category and I believe that goes a long way to explaining the dissonance between my experience with both of these games.
You see, Eden begins with one of the most unreasonable learning curves I’ve ever experienced in a game. There is so much happening on screen that it feels entirely overwhelming. Were it not for how bloody stubborn I am I would have given up on it after the first several hours. There was one point where I was so frustrated that Mir asked why I was still playing the game because I didn’t seem to be enjoying it.
The thing is, despite my grunts of frustration I was seeing slow improvement. The first time I played I barely made it to the fourth boss. Half a dozen runs later I was able to make it to the sixth boss. After a dozen I’d made it to the final boss. Shortly thereafter I finally emerged victorious. Following that triumph about half of my attempts to get into Eden would result in success. This gradual improvement is what made One Step from Eden so enjoyable for me. I was slowly getting over that wall of difficulty with the lessons and muscle memory I took away from each session. This is at the heart of what made One Step From Eden so compelling.
By contrast the same hasn’t really held true in Dicey Dungeons. The initial difficulty curve is far lower, but both success and failure rarely feel as though they were earned. You can, in practice, make all of the correct moves based on what dice rolls you received and still lose. There isn’t much of anything to learn or master for future runs. Success is based on a combination of your ability to adapt and the whims of the dice.
Due to this difference in design, I haven’t felt compelled to play Dicey Dungeons. I’m still chugging through it because I don’t find it offensive to where I’d stop playing outright, but the experience has been pretty muted compared to Eden, or frankly most of the rogue-likes I’ve played. There just isn’t anything to latch onto and improve with each run so as to increase my odds of success in future.
I don’t think that makes either of these experiences better or worse in comparison to one another, but One Step From Eden is certainly a lot more compelling, at least for my money it is. The more random nature of Dicey Dungeons may have put me off, but it is certainly a lot more approachable and people have certainly taken notice.
So that’s my opinion, but where do you stand? Do you prefer when a game’s systems allow you to slowly improve overtime like Eden, or are you a bigger fan of more chance driven systems like Dicey? Or do you despite rogue-likes in all forms? Chime off in the comments so we can have some argumentative discussion.