Who do you aim an Adventure Time game at? The Cartoon Network hit has achieved a huge cross-generational appeal, seemingly equally popular with both kids and adults, not only because of its wacky, subversive humour but because of its willingness to tackle genuine emotional issues and develop its characters and lore. It’s a consistently beautiful, hilarious show, and one so in love with imagination and creativity that it seems like a perfect candidate for a videogame...but that central question of who is going to want to play it remains.
With Explore the Dungeon, developers WayForward have hedged their bets a bit and created a bizarre little Gauntlet knock-off, a simple game that children can easily pick up, but one that also takes aim at the nostalgic with its SNES-inspired graphics. WayForward’s mercenary approach to licensed releases has yielded all kinds of results over the last few years, but unfortunately this is one of their weaker efforts.
The premise is simple. You and up to three other players pick from a handful of characters from the show and explore the dungeon beneath the Candy Kingdom, because Princess Bubblegum doesn’t know why the prisoners are escaping (hence the name). There are 100 floors of light action-RPG fighting and exploring, with each character having their own stats and abilities that can be augmented by purchasing upgrades and finding badges throughout the dungeon.
As a premise this is all well and good, but terminal dullness starts to set in around Floor 21 and doesn’t let up. The lack of online play is a shame, but also makes the game’s intentions very clear – it’s aimed at kids who want to play with friends or their parents, or at stoners who have just finished watching their season 2 DVDs (and eating all the Doritos they bought) and want to sit around the TV and play something simple and recognisable for a few hours. In these circumstances the game’s going to get some decent time put into it, but if your kids are asking for a copy for Christmas, they’re not going to get much out of it without some willing siblings to play against.
This stoner angle explains the general dearth of humour in the game as well. Adventure Time is a very funny show, but almost none of that humour has made it through. The proper voice actors are all present, but they’ve been given very little material to work with, and the gameplay, while in line with the show’s perchance for quests, is dull and simplistic in a way the episodes never are.
It’s not so much that Explore the Dungeon isn’t occasionally enjoyable – it can have its moments, on a level by level basis, and finding and testing out secondary weapons can make for some good times. But damn, does it feel lazy. The whole retro visual overlay thing might seem like a good fit, but in practice nothing is really done with it. They’re not being playful, like the cutscenes in Blood Dragon were: the game resembles a HD upgrade of a fairly plain SNES game that probably didn’t need to be dug up.
The gameplay is extraordinarily repetitive, which isn’t an issue early on but starts to become one once the complexity ramps up. You can only exit out and save your progress every five levels, and as the levels get more expansive and difficult, panic can start to set in each time you start playing – the idea of dying three levels in and needing to start the whole tedious affair again becomes terrifying.
It’s a shame that Explore the Dungeon, despite its adherence to maintaining the characters’ personalities and its clear admiration of the source material, misses the point of what makes Adventure Time work. It’s a lazy piece of design, one that has no business carrying a $60 price tag when it feels like it could have been ripped straight from a browser.