Konfa Games and the publishers at tinyBuild have delivered Despot’s Game: Dystopian Army Builder to the world; it is an odd game to try to describe. According to the developers, it’s “a rogue-like tactics army battler”, which tells us precisely nothing about what the game actually is. Luckily I have been playing this odd title for a while now and will happily share what I have learned in my (many) failed attempts to get out of the hell that we find ourselves in. So come with me to a world of puny humans and monsters as we attempt to survive.
With a game like this, a narrative is not required, which is lucky, all things considered. The background is that we have awoken in a labyrinth of some kind, a bunch of squishy humans, and while we are naked and alone, at least we have a variety of deadly weapons to hand. And that’s the main thing, right? So, as far as I can tell, there is our group (yay!) and the rest of the known universe (boo!) and there can only be one winner. With me so far?
The presentation of Despot’s Game is very appealing, actually. The humans that we control are cute little pink blobs, whilst the enemies range from robots up to weird nightmare type creatures, all trying to make us not alive any more. The game is laid out as a series of rooms, with you having to choose which direction you go in after finishing the previous chamber. The presentation is certainly very cute, all things considered.
Sound works very well too, with the heartbreaking “squeak” as one of your units expires, and the satisfying sound of the various weaponry all working very well. In a way, while the presentation could be described almost as minimalist, it manages to convey exactly what is going on in the game at any moment, and you’re never in any doubt as to whether you are winning or losing.
However, when I see the term roguelike attached to a game, I tend to run very fast in the opposite direction, as I find the whole roguelike thing a bit of a turn off. I much prefer to take a character and make them stronger, in an RPG style, than start fresh each time. Here, however, this doesn’t matter. Let me explain the gameplay loop.
We start in the first room of the first level every time, with a small collection of humans. The idea is to progress through the chambers, making your army stronger and better armed as you go. The roguelike element comes in the form of rewards when you fail, with various new options being opened up each time you fail. For instance, losing three times unlocks easy mode, but to be honest this is somewhat badly named, as it is far from that. Still, having a few more strings to your bow makes you stronger the next run, and this is where the hook comes into play.
Every good or great game has a hook somewhere, a compulsion to play that comes out when you begin. In Diablo III or Destiny 2, it is the possibility of loot. In Persona 4 Golden it is rescuing people. Here, in Despot’s Game it is the possibility of just clearing that one more chamber, getting to the next biome and maybe even getting all the way to the end.
As you progress through the level, you will come across a variety of shops that you can buy things from. The first type of shop sells food, which you need to keep your army going. Each member of your army needs one food to change rooms, so as you can see, the bigger your army, the more food you need. Luckily, if you run out of food, you can sacrifice some of your army to make food for the rest. Cannibalism eh? I guess food is food…
The second shop allows you to buy reinforcements, and weapons for those reinforcements; it is here where the tactics come into play. There are also rooms where you can choose mutations that affect the way your team works, with a variety of effects able to be used. And finally, after beating a boss, you can choose a “button” that can be used before a match, such as healing or not requiring food to fight, for instance.
There are various types of classes that your humans can become by giving them weapons. A sword makes a human into a fighter, for instance, while a dark mantle will make them a mage, and so on. There are five different weapons in each class, and having all five in play at the same time gives that particular class a buff. If you are looking for a specific weapon, you can ask the shop to reroll and offer new choices, and in this way you can tailor your team to match your fighting style. Maybe you prefer to have ranged fighter, with crossbows and such, or magic users shooting fireballs from a distance? Maybe you are more the melee type, in the face of the enemy, smacking them with swords? To be honest, I’ve found a mixture is the way to go – fighter at the front, and then ranged behind.
The only input you can have into the fights that happen comes at the start, as you position your fighters according to their strengths. Healers and ranged at the back, the melee tanks at the front always seems to work for me, but you need to tailor your approach to the foes you are going to face. As an example, one of the bosses charges through the lines and then attacks wherever he ends up, so any plan goes straight out the window. Once the fight begins, you have to rely on your team, and any weaknesses will be brutally exposed.
There are some other options if you tire of running the levels again, including Brawl, which pits you against other player in a PvP style. You have a few chambers to build your army, and then the big showdown comes. Obviously, as you get further in, it gets harder, and this can be a fun diversion. There are also a set of challenges to complete, and even a King of the Hill mode, but you can only access this by clearing the base game. Be warned, it isn’t available to those playing on easy, either…
Despot’s Game: Dystopian Army Builder is a pleasant surprise. It has a real one more go appeal, a hook that will drag you back in over and over again. The sheer amount of team building options is remarkable. Every run is different as well, so the replayability is nailed on. The reasons to not give Despot’s Game: Dystopian Army Builder a go are very small indeed.
Despot’s Game: Dystopian Army Builder is on the Xbox Store