There are some high-falutin descriptions on The Sealed Ampoule, making it seem more complicated than it really is. It’s described as an ‘agriculturalisation’ game, a farming rogue-like, an alchemical dungeon-crawler and more, and it’s overcooking something that, in practice, is so simple that you could play it in your sleep.
Once you strip everything out, The Sealed Ampoule is a remarkably simple dungeon-crawler. It’s all about that pure, gamey thrill of delving further down floors than you have ever delved before, gaining resources that make you more capable of delving in the future. It all revolves around that risk-reward nucleus, as the next floor might lead to your death. losing a shedload of resources that you’ve acquired, or it could lead to a bounty that you’ve never encountered before.
It’s so simple that it even dispenses with some of the stuff that you might have come to expect. Movement is turn-based, on a grid that could have been drawn on square paper. And combat is nothing more than pointing at an enemy and walking into it, letting the game roll the dice to determine the damage you deal. This is a dungeon crawler reduced down, almost to the point of a paper prototype.
So, why all those mentions of ‘agriculturisation’ and farming? Partly it’s to do with the game’s theme, but there’s also a couple of layers on top of the simple dungeon roguelike. While they don’t change what you’re doing, they’re changing the reasons why, and they’re the special sauce that turns The Sealed Ampoule from a too-simple dungeon toy, to a devastatingly addictive idle-clicker.
In The Sealed Ampoule you play Irene, a novice alchemist who has picked up a dungeon – the sealed ampoule of the title – for a few bucks from the back pages of a newspaper. She hopes it will generate enough alchemical produce that she can kickstart her career. But on plunging into its first few levels, it’s clear that it’s got some baggage. For one, it’s filled with baddies, mostly magical cuboids, animated plushies and the odd emanation. For two, its original owner lies dead on one of the floors, a couple of nonsense-talking twins standing over him like rejects from The Shining.
Most people would take a trip to the police station, but Irene is determined to solve this mystery while simultaneously progressing her alchemical abilities by acquiring ingredients from the dungeon floors. It’s probably not the most moral or ethical response to her quandary, but we’re in the land of video games, so we’ll let Irene off.
That reveals the game’s fleshy underbelly, which is a simple roguelike approach of killing monsters for resources, picking up resources from the floor, and generally hoovering up everything you can get your hands on. An exit portal temptingly beckons you onward, offering the choice that we mentioned before. A new floor offers plentiful bounty, but die to a magical doohickey and a sizeable chunk of your inventory will dissipate into the aether (there’s no Dark Souls-like dumping of your goods onto the floor).
When you’re back in your house, after succumbing to a floor or exiting via a portal, the good stuff begins to show. The resources can do some expected but undeniably satisfying things, like unlocking passive and active abilities on Irene. But you can also spend your resources on the dungeon floors, and this is where The Sealed Ampoule gets exciting and altogether unexpected.
Each floor can have its Farm Level and Magic Level upgraded twice. An amount of resources unlocks these tiers. Increase a floor’s Farm Level, and the dungeon floor constricts to the size of a small box. Suddenly, you are not exploring vast open dungeons: you are rinsing a floor no bigger than the insides of a treasure chest, equally full of goodies and monsters. Effectively, you are spending resources to make each dungeon floor more efficient, and that means a dungeon-crawl suddenly becomes a pocket-sized sprint rather than a marathon.
Man, it’s such a clever and brilliant mechanic. It turns this dungeon crawler into a clicker, as you are spamming through levels, literally sucking up resources thanks to unlocked abilities that turn you into a magnet. So many roguelikes struggle to overcome an inherent issue in the genre: that replaying the dull bits gets tiresome. Here, you can fold them all up and tuck them into a shoebox. You don’t skip those tiresome bits, but you are rewarded from them, so it’s the best of all worlds.
Upgrading a dungeon floor’s Magic Level is no-less brilliant. As a floor gets zhuzhed, suddenly there are magical portals that you can step in to temporarily upgrade Irene. You are bolstering dungeon floors so that they can power you up to reach further dungeon floors. Neat-o.
But our favourite mechanic comes from that confusing ‘argiculturisation’ term we mentioned at the start of the review. Upgrade a floor’s Farm and Magic Level to its maximum, find a specific item in the dungeon, and suddenly you have the option to compress dozens of dungeon floors into a single dungeon floor. These compressed floors resemble an episode of Supermarket Sweep. Suddenly, you can rattle through dozens of floors in one go, filling your trolley with goodies as you go. Something that took fifteen minutes at the start of the game suddenly takes you five seconds. And that knowledge brings a superlative amount of joy.
That’s the essence of The Sealed Ampoule. It borrows ideas from clicker games and transplants them into the RPG dungeon crawler, and with a great deal of success. The feelings you get from the very best clickers – where you’re accelerating up a ramp that would have been otherwise difficult in early parts of the game – are carried over here, and it can make it completely un-put-downable, which is a word that you only see on the back of Dan Brown novels. It really is that addictive.
Now’s time for the ‘Buts’, and there are a few. The Sealed Ampoule is unflinchingly ugly. It seems to know that it has a sweet, caramel core of addictiveness, and does nothing to dress it up or present it well. Enemies in particular look like they were prototyped and never updated.
It’s also prone to all of the foibles that come with a clicker game: it is, after all, pressing a few buttons over and over again which is not for everyone, as the cries of ‘it’s not a game’ rise up from the rear. And for all the wonderful, utterly stealable mechanics that makes the dungeon more compact, it still finds time to be laborious. It needed more in the combat, particularly in terms of outfitting Irene with better weapons, augments and upgrades. Hitting a cube never really changes throughout. And for all of the game content here – and there is an absolute shedload, with 200 floors – there aren’t enough scripted moments within the story to offer respite. Those moments are also a tad abstract in their makeup, never fully engaging.
Recommending The Sealed Ampoule makes me feel like a drug dealer. I’m offering you a game that, after a hit or two, completely dominates your life, perhaps to its detriment. It has the acceleration of an idle clicker, and the moreishness of a roguelike, and the combination is an addiction cocktail that is hard to shake. There is a nagging sense that The Sealed Ampoule should be offering more in return – more story, moments or character upgrades to leaven the repetition – but, by golly, once you pop a dungeon, you really can’t stop.
You can buy The Sealed Ampoule from the Xbox Store