I’m about halfway through the second level of Popup Dungeon’s roguelike Tower mode when the incorporeal wizard that runs the place decides he needs to chew out his wise-cracking vampire bat employee. He suggests my party break for lunch – considerate of him – and we find ourselves transported from a grimy dungeon to a welcomingly-lit seafood buffet. My new mission, as it goes, is to scoff as many free cheese biscuits as possible before the waitress gets wise and I’m forced to actually pay for something.
Popup Dungeon has been in development for six years, and some of the humour feels appropriately dated. Gags about trolling, emojis, and dank memes feel exhumed from a digital crypt and given a light dusting off before being shoved into the final game. The whole thing still comes together well – the biscuit quest totally worked for me – as a knowing love for creaky tabletop tropes shines through. I’m clicking through story tiles to make decisions, and the game occasionally prompts me to roll a physical D20 to pass a skill check, whether it’s to hide biscuits, distract the waitress, or various other daring acts of roguery. Altogether, It’s a breezy, visually neat choose your own adventure system.
The general idea here is that players can easily create their own dungeon romps from images, sound and text. It’s not only these story sections that you can modify, but the combat too. You can tweak or create monsters, characters, spells, and equipment. It’s fortunate that the game offers so much room for modification because as it stands, the bulk of what you’ll actually be playing through in Popup Dungeon feels like a placeholder. The simplified tile-based tactical action prioritises style and variety in place of tactics or tension.
Combat is resolved on grid-based dungeons, using a system of initiative and action points. Those action points can be spent on either movement or character abilities. Abilities are represented as cards, but there’s no real deck-building elements here. Direct damage, healing, buffs, debuffs, and status effects all operate on a turn timer, and the more powerful abilities have cooldown.
It’s a diverse system that doesn’t skimp on synergy, but it never feels particularly exciting either. The animation is great, and leans into the papercraft stylings with small details, like the way slain creatures go up in flames like a scorched Rizla. The game enjoys its own animation a bit too much, though, which slows things down considerably. This, and trading turn-based blows here feels almost entirely devoid of consequence. You win, you move on to the next slow, simple fight. You lose, you do the same slow, simple fight again. It’s just all a bit, well, papery. As in frictionless and weightless.
The character selection really is something, though. You can have up to five characters in a party (it recommends three and difficulty scales accordingly) and there’s currently a few dozen in the game, plus dozens more on the Steam Workshop. I downloaded a character called the ‘30 year old boomer’ and shredded goblins with a lawnmower. Good times were had. And again, once that meme has died in about fourteen seconds time, the game is easily set up to let players make others. I assume this is less a case of Popup Dungeon trying to be hilarious, and more showing players the sort of things that are available to create and download. The deliberately immersion-breaking roster does its job here.
As far as the breadth of content goes, I can’t fault it. There’s a roguelite tower mode, some self-admitted endless grind modes, and some pre-written stories (which are genuinely enjoyable). There’s already a bunch of extra stuff on the Steam Workshop, including homages to Pokemon Blue and Red, of which I’ve taken screenshots in the hope of preserving them after the 48 hours it takes Nintendo to have them wiped from the surface of Valve’s servers. Alongside these are the actual creation tools, which are legible, well-designed menus with various tweakable parameters. I couldn’t find any tutorials in-game, but there are some great ones on the developer’s YouTube channel. All in, there’s a lot here.
I’m going to score this one more or less down the middle, and this is more a signifier of what I see as a game that could go either way, rather than a game of average quality. Popup Dungeon absolutely stands out, if only for its ambition, and if it attracts a dedicated, creative community, then the tools are here for some really nifty stuff to emerge. This is a problem in itself, of course. I’ve personally criticised Media Molecule’s Dreams for its reliance on the free time of players to add to its own value, so it would be unfair of me not to do the same here. I don’t feel it should be on a community of players to make a game a worthwhile buy for its audience, or profitable for its creators. I’d love to see some more dedicated developer content, because whoever’s doing the art and writing on that team has come up with some really endearing and sometimes genuinely funny writing. It’s not a bad game, by any means, but it’s currently a pile of bones waiting for a few dozen talented necromancers to really make the most of it.
I’ll add a ‘but’ here, because I’m a jaded tactics veteran, and your kids or young siblings probably aren’t. Though I don’t think the combat holds much for someone that plays a lot of tactics games, it’s simple and attractive enough that it could well really resonate with a younger audience. So, if you’re thinking of buying Popup Dungeon with a prospective mini-dungeon master, game designer or storyteller in mind, I’d say there’s some real fun to be had here.
Disclaimer: One of the voice actors for the game was TSA writer Miguel Moran. Please rest assured this has not influenced the review process for Popup Dungeon.
Update: Due to a communication error, the review was originally posted as a 5/10 instead of the 6/10 score agreed with our reviewer.