In the real world, I probably use three or four keys in the average month, but on the Xbox I get through hundreds. Video games absolutely love them: master keys, coloured keys, keycards… they’re everywhere.
Dungeon Color (it hurts to use the U.S. spelling), loves keys more than most. But it’s got an unusual take on them: what if the main character WAS the key? Sure, they may not look like one, but they are a walking-talking key, able to open doors based on the colour of the fire that flickers on their head. If the door and fire match, the door opens. It certainly makes a change from carrying a wallet of keycards around.
It’s a simple old set up, and things become clear as day in the opening level. The main character, a dumpy looking candle-golem-thing, is looking to escape a dungeon (nobody wants to settle down in one, do they?). Escaping means making their way to a blazing inferno that represents the end of the level and chucking himself into it. It’s only now that we’re writing things down that it feels odd.
On the way to each level’s exit are some coloured doors. As mentioned, they open up when the fire on the main character’s head is the same colour. So, candle-child is waddling over to smaller bonfires, so that they can swap out their colour for the one they need, eventually making their way to the exit. The biggest worry?: getting stuck in a room without the correct coloured hairdo to escape it. When that happens, you slam the B button to eject and start afresh.
Every ten levels, a new idea gets chucked on the pyre. Warps take the candle-child from one of the rooms to the other. Switches create one-way doors that they can’t return through. Spinning tokens can be collected once to change a bonfire to a different colour. The riffs on the formula come just often enough to keep everything trundling along.
That is very much it. There’s no frillery here: there are fifty levels all in – no additional modes, difficulties or collectibles to complicate anything. You get an achievement every five levels for your troubles. Complete them all and there is no reason to replay.
Dungeon Color’s simplicity is a double-edged sword. There’s no confusion over what you have to do, and its gimmick is immediate and attractive. Start playing Dungeon Color, and you will be speeding through the levels without a problem. More often than not, you will be reverse-engineering a path to the door, working out which colours or keys are needed to get there. Once you have that approach, the levels fall like dominoes.
But they fall far too easily. Dungeon Color really struggles to find challenge or interest in its central premise. Too often, it’s abundantly clear what you have to do and how to do it. If the exit is blocked by a blue door, you’re going to need to be blue. That will mean getting to a blue bonfire, which might be locked by a red door, so there will be a slight detour on the way. But it’s little more than a sequence of tasks, a colour-based shopping list, and you can feel the designers desperately scrabbling around for something that livens it up.
Sometimes they opt for dirty tricks. Thanks to the game not quite being top-down, the designers are able to tuck gaps next to doors, or to add the tiniest of gaps around bonfires, yet make it look like there aren’t gaps. The slightly isometric viewpoint obscures them. It’s using these slight optical illusions that the designers will hide the solution to the puzzle, and it just felt a bit underhand. They’re not what we’d call a puzzle. They’re just tripwires.
Dungeon Color does find some challenge at roughly level thirty-five out of fifty. It’s too late for our tastes, but it’s great that it gets there. The key is a devious mechanic where you can pick up a token and swap the colours of bonfires. Dungeon Color starts getting ballsy and throws in lots of these tokens at once, making it a brainfuddle to try to untangle which token is needed and when. You can tell that the designers are having a whale of a time, as they chuck in bucketloads of red herrings. We completed one level where we ignored half of the dungeon entirely.
That’s what we were hoping for. These levels are tricksy, puckish, and can take a good few minutes of playing and failing, over and over again. What we would have given to have a full game of them. But, ultimately, the last fifteen puzzles don’t last more than forty-five minutes. If the developer Gagonfe had a touch more confidence in the mechanic and brought it in earlier, we would have been golden.
As it stands, Dungeon Color is fine if a bit timid. It’s overly afraid that players will get stuck, so it takes measures that are way too extreme: it strips out anything that might resemble challenge or interest for the first two-thirds of the game. Yet, just as we wondered whether the colour-swapping concept was the problem, a single mechanic made the difference. With its introduction, Dungeon Color burned brightly for the fifteen levels that remained. If you can take the slow-build, it might just be enough.
You can buy Dungeon Color from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S