Review for Unicorn Dungeon
A knight who would be king going on a quest for the current regent to prove his worthiness to wear the crown is a familiar trope, but Stand Off Software’s 3D point-and-click title Unicorn Dungeon is no standard fantasy adventure. While much of the game includes familiar genre fare, it incorporates gameplay elements from the dungeon-crawling roguelike genre as well. While this mashup of play styles is less than successful, the entertaining anachronisms, irreverent humour, and against-type characters go a long way in making it up in this short introductory tale of Sir Typhil.
At the outset of his quest, Sir Typhil is in search of a unicorn. King Haldrin of Artovya has issued a challenge for his knights that whosoever can return with one shall be crowned the new king. Sir Typhil's journey has led him, clad head to toe in plate armour, to a goblin lair. The handful of characters occupying this underground fortress are one of the highlights of the game, as each one’s nature runs counter to expectation. There’s a princess who has imprisoned herself in the hope that a valiant knight will rescue and marry her. There’s also a troll guarding a portal who is more interested in a night at the tavern than maiming and killing. However, the standouts here have to be the goblins themselves. Instead of being bloodthirsty monsters, one is a shrewd businessman with a little shop of his own. Another is well versed in the etiquette and protocol of talking with royalty and members of other races. Their down-to-earth pragmatic approach to life really made me smile.
While not a laugh-a-minute, there are a fair few chuckles from the healthy dose of comedy both in what is said – the game is fully voiced – and in what is shown. When Typhil needs to impress the princess, he bombastically rattles off a list of titles that gets funnier the longer it goes on: “I am Prince Typhil of Creulor, Duke of Gyundin, Master of the order of Water Snakes, Warden of the Tryon Docks.” Elsewhere, an early sight gag appears in a long corridor in which tucked into the background is a bathroom sign, below which is just a simple wooden bucket.
The humour even finds ways to creep into the puzzles. Puzzle solving is generally straightforward, consisting mostly of the accumulation and use of inventory items. Off-kilter and anachronistic solutions are used to amusing effect, though never in ways that are illogical or obtuse. In one instance, Sir Typhil requires the blood of a virgin to break a magical seal. Unexpectedly, the game allows for the optional outright slaying of a certain character, although the result’s not quite what Typhil’s going for. In another example, the knight gets hold of a modern-day universal remote control, which he uses for the manipulation of magical portals.
The interface is mostly standard point-and-click, though with a few notable quirks. Instead of the normal convention of left-click to interact and right-click to examine, Unicorn Dungeon uses the right mouse button to switch between distinct modes for each, enabling you only to interact or examine hotspots at any given time before toggling to the other option. Hovering the cursor over hotspots displays a label naming the person or object. Even without these tooltips, though, they would be easy to find and identify as the locations throughout the game are sparsely decorated.
Indeed, everything on display here is fairly basic visually. Walking, talking, and collecting and using items are all done with little added embellishment like sophisticated animations or cinematic cutscenes. All the action takes places in a small handful of rooms, most of which feel like simple boxed dioramas with ye olde stonework lining the walls. The goblin shop consists of not much more than a couple of benches and shelving units displaying a few weapons and other trinkets. Elsewhere is a relatively barren dungeon with metal bars dividing the room in two with the cells in the background. It's all very swords and sorcery, with no particularly distinctive look of its own, at least in the adventure game portion of the tale.
That all changes when Sir Typhil must wander into the caverns beneath the goblin lair. Here the view switches from its hi-res 3D presentation to an overhead, rudimentary 16-colour pixel art display of a dungeon maze akin to something from the early 1980s. In typical roguelike fashion, Typhil moves through the paths and chambers in discrete turn-based steps via keyboard controls. Each move taken allows the assorted monsters in the dungeon to also move a step. Some specific monsters must be fought to get important inventory items, and though the low-level jackals can be run from, there are so many of them littering the maze you’ll inevitably get into skirmishes with them as well. Combat is conducted by moving in the direction of one of the creatures when standing right next to them, which causes a random amount of damage displayed in text at the bottom of the screen. The monster, if it survives, then strikes back, decreasing Typhil’s health. To attack the monster again, simply move in its direction once more on your next turn.
Different parts of the dungeon maze must be searched over the course of several visits to find key items Typhil needs in his quest. Early in the game this is relatively easy as he has full armour and a helmet to protect him and a sword to help fight the monsters. Throughout the course of the game, unfortunately, he loses both his helmet and his weapon. The former means that he’ll take more damage himself while the latter results in less damage to enemies. Consequently, this means that fights take more turns to complete, allowing the monsters to get in more attacks at higher damage. A double whammy on the increasingly vulnerable protagonist.
Taking Typhil's combat abilities away runs counter to conventional RPG design wisdom that ensures a character gets more powerful and capable so that they can face down increasingly difficult threats. Not so here. Instead of feeling like I was getting better at fighting, my diminished capacity was depressing and aggravating. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in my final run through the dungeon. By that point, Typhil had become so ineffective that even the low-level jackals, who were scarcely a threat at the start of the game, had transformed into lethal adversaries. So nerfed was the protagonist that this sequence devolved into pure random chance as to whether he could reach his destination alive or not – random chance that, based on my lone success after over a dozen runs, seems heavily weighted against the player.
In keeping with roguelike convention, dying in the dungeon automatically sends you back to where you entered with all progress lost. Even without dying, it's not as though you can clear out the dungeon to make things easier on yourself later, as enemies respawn every time you do. Couple all of that with the game's lack of a manual save – your progress is automatically recorded when you enter a new room in the adventure side of things – and you are left with a very annoying chunk of gameplay indeed. Sadly, my abiding memory from Unicorn Dungeon is the sheer frustration of trying to luck my way past the last roguelike gauntlet.
Typhil’s wanderings within the goblin fortress are accompanied by a selection of quite generic synthesized fantasy music. It fits the medieval-style setting and the loops never become too repetitive, although they don’t particularly stand out either. In keeping with the old-school dungeon maze aesthetic, the music there switches to an emulated chip tune melody, which is a nice touch. Sound effects are meagre but effective, with the realistic high-quality audio of the adventure sections similarly giving way to beeps and boops for the old-school dungeon runs.
Clocking in at only two hours, with a little over half of that time spent in the monster-filled maze, this is a very lightweight title. The result is that Unicorn Dungeon feels more like a tech demo than a full adventure game proper. Much of its play time comes from the dungeon crawling bolted on, and with the diminishing of Typhil’s prowess through the game, these sections are sure to be particularly discouraging to those less accustomed to roguelikes. The adventuring portion has a few decently thought-out puzzles, but the highlight is definitely the odd assortment of characters and their archetype-defying natures. Add it all up and this first entry in the Sir Typhil series is a modest debut to be sure, perhaps best left to completionists now. The good news is, it paved the way for bigger and better adventures still to come, though not without a few more bumps along the way.