Game review: Monster’s Den: Book of Dread

Guest Review by Tof Eklund

Monster’s Den and its sequel Monster’s Den: Book of Dread are pure hack-and-slash. As Book of Dread is half-sequel, half updated version (it includes the
original dungeon in Monster’s Den in it), this review effectively covers both games. The Monster’s Den games incorporate old-school front and back row turn-based combat as well as the sort of magic equipment, skills, and shopping we’ve come to expect since Diablo. Story in these games is intentionally nominal (you’re exploring a dungeon to rid it of evil, whaddayawant?) and exploration is simplified to a nicety, so it all comes down to inventory management and combat.

The Book of Dread is part of a RPG sub-genre intended to be picked up and put down easily, the “lunch break” CRPG. This genre’s most celebrated title is Desktop Dungeons and its archetype is probably Fastcrawl. Desktop Dungeons is very puzzle-like in its balance, with emphasis on careful exploration in a vaguely “Minesweepery” way, and while exploration is less important in Fastcrawl, that game still features locks, traps and puzzles. Monster’s Den falls at the other extreme, using its map mostly to allow the player to pick his or her battles and eschewing puzzles in favor of randomized combat and treasure.

The original Monster’s Den came out a year after Fastcrawl and may have helped kill that game by being more convenient (Flash) and less expensive (free). Perhaps the most important part of the game is selecting the characters that form your party at the beginning of the game. Figuring out how you want to combine the skills of different classes is half the fun of the game. Unlike some Flash RPGS (the Sonny games, for example), there is no Diablo II-style skill tree so you can get the skill you want most as soon as you hit level 2. Book of Dread increases the number of classes from 5 to 7 (on Kongregate – only 6 on other sites) and enables some new strategies.

Combat can be pretty intense, though focusing on one strategy tends to trump flexibility with the exception of a few skills and items that are much more effective against specific enemies (the Cleric’s Smite skill v.s. Undead, for example). Each level of the dungeon (in both dungeons) will have only monsters of one type, so knowing when to put Smite back in your Cleric’s skill set is a no-brainer.

The boss fights (1 per level) remain relatively interesting as a chance to buff up with pre-combat bonus potions and an increased chance of having to fight with a cog or two missing from your war machine.

This game’s weakness is a common one to RPGs – repetitiousness. Once one has maximized one’s equipment for a particular strategy, there’s little reason to vary it, and the lack of story means there’s no new plot to unlock. Worse, the items and monsters cycle: it doesn’t take long to see that you’re only getting the same kinds of equipment with higher bonuses, and fighting the same monsters with higher stats.

Taken to an extreme, this sort of gameplay becomes either slow and animation heavy, as with Adventure Quest and its free cousins, or automatic, as with the parodic Progress Quest or the bizarrely irony-free Infinite
Tower RPG
. Book of Dread plays quickly and offers a nice range of options for customizing the difficulty and feel of the game – the “no energy regeneration in combat” option makes the game play in a very different way, but also renders a number of skills useless in a decidedly uneven way.

Daniel Stradwick deserves kudos for these games, which he created single-handed, and “Book of Dread” has remained one of the most popular games on Kongregate as it offers a satisfying hack and slash experience in a free game. I prefer my RPGs have strong, interesting stories, but here the lack of plot means that there’s little reason not to abandon a game when the grinding gets stale, and not having a story is better than having a hackneyed cliche of a story.

The game option I’m most likely to return to is the “hopeless siege” scenario as it gives you a party of 10th level characters and a single trip to the store with a decent war chest before sending endless waves of monsters at you with no chance to recover (eliminating the already marginalized exploration mechanic entirely).

Stradwick has collaborated on a Dragon Age tie-in Flash RPG and has two more Monster’s Den games in the works (the ambitious Godfall and an interim game using the Godfall engine called Chronicles). You can find info and links here. We’ll see if Godfall ups the ante in an interesting way, preferably with tiered addition of new game elements and a significant plot. Of course, if it does, it will almost certainly have to sacrifice some of the “pick up and play” appeal of the existing games.

Verdict: 3/5. Monster’s Den: Book of Dread comes out of the gate stong, setting reasonable goals, and hitting them with precision for the first half hour to an hour of play. After that, however, the lack of new elements (same monsters, same skills, same equipment) drags the game down. It’s a good “lunchbreak” hack and slash, but lacks staying power.

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