Dungeon Encounters is Square Encounters’ best game in years

What are the most important aspects of role-playing games? Is it a character or a story? An artistic vision for a credible and fantastic world? Or mechanical principle? Hiroyuki Ito thinks it is the latter.

Maybe we should listen to him. Ito’s resume speaks for itself—he participated in all the earliest Final Fantasy games, but began to play an important role in Final Fantasy 4. He contributed the Active Time Battle (ATB) system to the game, which is a great game design work that will become the decisive feature of the entire Final Fantasy series and the Japanese RPG sub-genre. Then he continued to expand his work system and became the chief battle planner for Final Fantasy 5. He co-directed Final Fantasy VI with Kitase Yoshinobu, contributed to the greatest time wheel in history, and designed crazy battles and character development mechanisms for Final Fantasy 8.

Perhaps most importantly, he is the director of the two best games in the Final Fantasy series-9 and 12. These two very different games are incredible in their own right. The game is made by the team. As an industry, we have a bad habit of giving too much credit to the big names-but it is undeniable that Ito Hiroyuki is a huge influence and the most important and smartest in Japan. One of the game designers. If we put aside things like art and stories, he must be the most famous employee of Square Enix. His game design for FF is what Nobuo Uematsu does to music; a super master. Even the unstoppable force Tetsu Nomura said that he thinks Ito is one of only four people he considers to be a “predecessor.”

So when Ito has a new game, I always sit up and pay attention. Dungeon encounter It’s his latest game-and it’s been a while. He has not directed any work since Final Fantasy XII in 2006 and 2007, and in the following 14 years, he has only three credits without special thanks or supervision. But he is back-oh my goodness, “Dungeon Encounter” is an Ito game.

I mean two things, mainly. First, it was stripped back. There are no unnecessary requirements here. This is a game about mechanics and systems. It is the kind of thing designed by people who have talked about watching Formula One and American football and put forward in-depth game design concepts (ATB and FF12’s Gambit System, respectively). This may be the most streamlined game Ito has ever made-obviously super cheap and super simple-but once you touch the surface, it will be shocking.

If you come to Japan RPG and Square Enix games just for the story and characters, then this is obviously not for you. When it launches, Dungeon Encounters provides you with a basic story entry, basically an RPG metaphor that is deliberately memorized. A huge maze full of evil creatures appeared near a quiet town. Evil beasts are poured out from the maze; heroes are summoned to enter the maze, draw its depth and defeat the creatures in it. That’s it. No more settings. With two legends, you enter the game. In fact, everything you see from here is used for mechanical gaming purposes.

The game world is like this; the squares on the old world paper texture. Do you understand what I mean by board games?

You pick some party members from those available and enter the dungeon. As you progress, you can earn coins, unlock more floors in the dungeon, discover new abilities, fill in animal parables, and be able to exchange different party members at will. The dungeon takes the form of squares that you move-almost like a board game-some squares will trigger events, mainly battles. This is a turn-based ATB affair, and your abilities will depend on the composition and equipment of your team and the level of your character.

Looking at it, I am keenly aware that this can be a physical board game-this is its visual simplicity. I want to know if it is designed like this. The battle has a slight flashing animation to indicate spells and so on, but in reality it’s all about checking statistics and gauges, planning the next move to try to lead the enemy and keep your team alive. A line by Leonado da Vinci concluded that “simplicity is the ultimate complexity” and “Dungeon Encounter” feels like a rare expression of this idea in a video game. Everything has been streamlined to a minimum-but by doing so, the focus has shifted to the core of the game.

Like most of Ito’s designs, the dungeon encounter may seem simple at first, but the more you play, the more its depth will be exposed to you. Hidden under a simple game, it will only make you hit the standard attack button in the first few layers, suddenly becoming vibrant and exciting. The design is delicately balanced in a way that is difficult to fully describe-but it constantly encourages you to step out of your comfort zone and reach floors and areas where you are under-level but the rewards are too good to resist. When you enter about twenty floors of the dungeon, you are spinning a few plates and making some serious strategy making.

The battle is like a stripped-down version of the Final Fantasy encounter, but by bringing it back to the basics, it reveals a subtle depth.

Like I said, this is a mechanical game. These are nuts and bolts. There are some cute character art from Ryoma Ito (Final Fantasy 12, Tactics Advance, etc.) and great music from Nobuo Uematsu (no damn introduction needed), but all of these things are the real background. First and foremost, this is a game about its design and how its various aspects interact and interlock to create a game that is both a puzzle game and a role-playing game. Even though they are all very similar in function, the act of advancing through the maze floor is exciting, figuring out how to use the items or equipment you find is fun, and the tiles that fill each dungeon floor will indeed be very satisfying. The way it plays with RPG-type expectations and metaphors reminds me of another simple great work this year, Loop Hero.

This is great. However, my concern is that the streamlined nature of this game may be delayed. Of course, I didn’t fully get the confidence about this game from Square Enix-I can read two press releases about it by skimming in my inbox. To be fair, its announcement and release are only two weeks apart-but I also received four Guardians of the Galaxy news alerts during the same period. VG247 did not receive a proposal to review the code, even on the day of its release. This makes me worry that this might be a bit nonsense — you know how publishers sometimes hide games — but in fact, the hype machine is just dormant for what might be Square Enix’s best game of the year, probably because it’s not loud and Sexy graphics and gorgeous cutscenes. This makes me a little sad. If it’s an indie game, independent professional publishers will make a lot of money; they will know it’s special.

What does not make me sad is that after so many years, Square Enix’s most talented designers still have not lost it. This is as low-budget and simple as the games of large publishers, but eight years after I asked Square Enix executive Ito where he was hiding, some fans were disappointed that he did not participate. In FF16, he Sent this to the world: a lofty game design that is likely to be applicable to larger games in the future.

Dungeon Encounters are something special. I only played half of it (at least, according to the number of floors advertised), but it has quietly become one of my favorite games in 2021. Don’t fall asleep just because it is not gorgeous. Now available on PS4, Switch, And computer.