Dandy Ace encourages Hades comparisons, whether it intends to or not. Released a month after Hades and in the same manner – straight onto Game Pass – any path you take in critiquing Dandy Ace will eventually lead to Hades. This is a rogue-like dungeon crawler. It demands that you play it over and over. And it’s slick and kinetic, often feeling more like a bullet-hell shmup than a Diablo hack-and-slash.
Dandy Ace definitely doesn’t share a wardrobe or colour-swatch with Hades, though. This is a fabulous, garish-looking game, more interested in crashing Balan Wonderworld and Persona’s art styles together and watching the pink confetti fall. It takes a cue from its stage magician theme and ensures that the animations are flamboyant, the levels are dressed with decadence in mind, and the enemies are all yoinked from masquerades, theatre and the cast of Beauty and the Beast.
It looks wonderful, darling, and it’s absolutely Dandy Ace’s trump card. There’s no questioning that it looks the part, and the slickness of the animation, plus the pyrotechnics in the battles, all do a swell job of creating a sense of production value. Just as Hades felt like it had been buffed to the nth degree, so does Dandy Ace.
Without much in the way of foreplay, you are choosing a difficulty – four of them, starting with Normal – then heading straight into an arena. Rather than being room-based in the manner of Hades, the game maps are more like the other rogue-like dungeon crawler that launched on Game Pass in the last month: Boyfriend Dungeon. The entire level takes place on a single plane, but there’s a fog of war, so you can only see the room ahead of you. So you’re clearing areas, which in turn unlocks the gate to the next area, until you eventually reach an exit mirror and can move to a new region completely.
Combat leans away from melee and towards projectiles and spellcasting, to the degree that it almost feels like a twin-stick shooter. In fact, there’s a bit of ‘between-stools’ing here, as a twin-stick control method would have done Dandy Ace wonders. You are moving with the same analogue stick as you’re using to direct your projectile, and it denies you the chance to strafe or have more control over what you’re doing.
The spells you’re casting are on cooldowns, so you’ll want to make full use of your arsenal, or you’ll be limply tapping the X button to no avail. There are four attacks available at any time, mapped to the face buttons, and they’re represented by gaming’s mechanic du jour, the collectible card. You start with three, randomly chosen and spanning three types in Dandy Ace: Teleportation, Attack and Support. But you will soon acquire new ones as drops, and you can choose to socket them, discard them, or combine them with one of your currently socketed cards, effectively augmenting the attack with a secondary ability. A poison secondary ability can cause a Teleportation move to deal damage-over-time, for example, so there’s plenty of opportunity to experiment, creating builds that compliment each other.
It mostly works well. The cards you gain are varied enough to stop, read and decide where they slot into your loadout. Is your new card worth shunting out a special move that you use rarely? Or is it better as a combo, improving the attack, so it’s actually usable? These decisions come thick and fast in Dandy Ace.
A little too thick and fast, as it happens. Making these your primary loot, and dishing them out in every other room meant that we were stopping and starting more than we liked. Sure, the knowledge of what is and isn’t worth keeping grows over time, but we would have loved a collectible or drop that didn’t require such high maintenance. Stacking benefits, like the Boons in Hades, would have been welcome. And with a limited number of card slots that you can fill, you can – all too easily – reach a state where you stick to a build.
Except Dandy Ace knows this, and degrades your cards over time, ripping them away from you at points and forcing you to choose different ones. It’s an artificial, grimy way of doing it, and we’d have rathered an approach that made you want to do it yourself.
But combat largely does a job. Set your character up right, and you’ll be zooming about with damage-dealing teleports, peppering enemies with attacks that damage them over time, and unleashing board-wipes that either kill the screen or leave the enemies dazed. It feels fast and responsive, twin-stick opportunity aside, and everything is impactful-enough to feel good.
Yet Dandy Ace leaves us feeling cold, and it’s not just because Hades does all of this with far greater aplomb. It’s mostly down to how it handles progression, or the lack thereof.
Even on Normal Difficulty, this is a challenging game, and there’s little forgiveness for errors. But Dandy Ace has a surprisingly brutal approach to failure. You lose all your accumulated crystals, and these are used to purchase trinkets, which are about the only things that persist over runs. So, with each run, you might unlock trinkets (a choice of passive buffs on your character), and you might unlock new cards that enter the rotation in subsequent runs, but that’s it. And in our opinion, it’s nowhere near enough.
What tends to be the loop is that you beat a personal best and then die unceremoniously, but it won’t mean anything. You are not stronger, you’ve not unlocked anything new. And you have to waltz through the same, time-consuming levels to get where you were before. You’re a fabulous bee bouncing against a window. We can only think about Hades, and the sheer number of ways that you’re improving between battles, from relationships to trinkets to levels to weapons to hub areas. Here, you respawn at the same starting room, and question whether you have the will or care to dungeon-dive again, because the same yawning repetition awaits you. Sure, you might occasionally gain a key which shortens future runs, or gain a transformative trinket, but these are few and very far between, and the base, reasonably steep difficulty means that their absence hurts.
It felt like a glacial wall, and we kept getting a few handholds further and then sliding back down. But the wall wasn’t getting any easier to climb. After a while we lost enthusiasm. We don’t doubt that there will be people, perhaps with more patience, and with more skill, who find the climb easier and therefore don’t feel failure as starkly. But we weren’t those people.
So how do you make a case for Dandy Ace? You could say that it’s easy on the eyes. In the hands too, it feels good, with controls that are slick and combat that delivers heft. But it can feel more like a treadmill than a journey, as too little changes with each run, and you’re left with the sneaking suspicion that you are going nowhere. And when Zagreus is waiting for you in the bowels of Hades, on Game Pass no less, Dandy Ace’s offer just doesn’t look as enticing.
You can buy Dandy Ace for £16.74 from the Xbox Store. It is also available on Game Pass.