There was genuine excitement when The Living Dungeon dropped into our review queue. Fans of tabletop games will agree that this genre is currently not well served on the Xbox One and even the Xbox 360's back catalogue is a little lacking, offering only a few that really break the mould alongside a whole host of more mainstream titles. If you enjoy games like Carcassonne and Catan online or Talisman and Dead of Winter in the physical space, The Living Dungeon is sure to pique your interest.
The Dungeon of the title is an ever changing environment filled with monsters, traps and (worst of all) other players. The playing field is made up of square rooms floating above an abyss, with the player tasked with either killing other players or reaching an exit to win the game. Each turn the player rolls five dice and then uses as many or as few of these as they like to progress towards their goal. The dice vary from basic skills like movement and attacking to more complex manoeuvres including dodging, leaping or even manipulating the environment. Every dungeon room can be rotated or flipped in order to open new paths or uncover secrets. The layout of the underside of a tile is unlikely to mirror that of the room above, so the floor can literally disappear from under your feet! End your turn in a hole or in a wall – you die. End your turn next to one of the stronger dungeon monsters – you die. End your turn in a square that has been enveloped by darkness – you die. You get the idea. There are many more ways to fail than there are to win, so each turn is a matter of carefully considering the consequences of your actions and those of the characters around you.
The single player mode does a decent job of introducing the rules and intricacies of the system by easing you in with a story that offers an opportunity to practice different strategies with varying levels of success. Gradually, you are introduced to new mechanics such as cards that grant special abilities and gems which can be used to re-roll any dice you may not like. These work well, especially since there is such a reliance on random dice rolls that it can be easy to end up stuck in a loop of rolling and making no real progress while you wait for something you may actually want to use. This is a real problem in single player, since you can only plan so far and then it's a case of hoping the dice roll in your favour.
The campaign parades an array of characters in front of you and loosely tries to tie them together into something resembling a story. Alas, it's not a particularly successful story, since characters are largely unlikeable and the voice acting can politely be described as being serviceable. Levels vary between normal rounds of the game and puzzles with a defined answer, intended to teach you a new strategy for multiplayer play. In the later levels, these puzzle stages can be quite tricky, as the requirements to win become more and more elaborate and it becomes less clear how best to approach the problem. It can be quite frustrating and the fact that the cut scenes aren't skippable becomes annoying, despite the fact that they aren't particularly long, when you're retrying the same level for the umpteenth time.
As if there wasn't enough potential death at every turn, the dungeon itself is playing against you, rolling its own dice and taking actions each round. This can be as innocuous as placing an additional enemy on the board or moving room tiles around, to the more vicious spawning of insta-killing Darkness on top of your player or dropping you down a great big hole, although the dungeon AI does a good job of making you feel challenged and keeping things interesting. The enemy AI does not fare so well unfortunately. Firstly, every time the AI takes a turn, a message comes up to let you know the AI is thinking and at times this takes just long enough to make you wonder if the game has crashed. Also, why is the AI thinking? Surely this is not necessary on a console with the processing power of the Xbox One? When the AI has finally made its decision, that decision can be very baffling. On several occasions the computer controlled characters would just walk out into the abyss, turn around and go back to where they started. Also, there are times where it wouldn't pick up cards or take gems that were available – the behaviour simply made no sense.
The key impression that the single player leaves is that there's a lack of polish. Visually, the dungeons are a sea of brown and bronze. Characters blend into the background and the camera shifts to focus on the active character each turn, which then requires you to take a moment to figure out which brownish-bronze blob belongs to you and how the enemies moves may or may not affect you. The framerate drops constantly and characters stutter and lag their way through their moves, making the long, slow animations take even longer. The average voice acting is helpfully subtitled, but these subtitles are shown over a scrolled background and the words often don't fit and extend beyond the boundaries, becoming lost and illegible in the background art.
The local multiplayer allows you to cram up to nine players onto your sofa, passing the controller each turn and inflicting increasingly gruesome deaths upon each other (in the game, silly.) Any number of these players can be played by the AI and those who feel particularly vindictive can decide to play as the dungeon itself. If no one fancies taking control of the environment, AI can be set to your preferred level of aggression or indifference. Games can be customised in great detail, with the option to play in teams or individually, based on your personal taste, and the modes available include free for all death matches and more tactical escape challenges, so there's sure to be something to capture the collective mood in the room. Games generally last around 30 minutes, which means that it's unlikely anyone will get too bored if they get knocked out early.
In multiplayer, it's also possible to view the dungeon as a tabletop game in a tavern, complete with background chatter and clinking of glasses. You'd hope that this would make turns a little quicker, as it's possible to change character movement to mimic game pieces. Unfortunately, any time saved through the smoother movement is lost to a painfully slow dice rolling animation. It's also difficult to see what's going on, making it a strain to ensure that you don't accidentally drop your character into an abyss because the tile blended with the wooden surface of the table and you didn't move the camera to check.
Overall, the experience is far preferable in multiplayer to that found in The Living Dungeon's single player modes and it's likely that this is where you'll want to spend your time, especially if you can convince a few friends to join you. Playing against the AI is okay, although it can be annoying waiting for it to make decisions, but at least this will provide an opportunity to play the game on your own once you've completed the single player mode.
Since The Living Dungeon is actually quite an interesting board game, the multiplayer side of things does a decent job at entertaining. The banter with your friends makes up for overly long wait times and the never ending brown of the environment. The missing online play is almost essential for a title like this though, since the main reason to play tabletop games on a console is not being able to wrangle eight other people to your house (or being too lazy to tidy up.) For the times your friends can't make it, the single player campaign offers a frustrating distraction. But the poor AI, unlikeable characters, and levels that take seemingly forever to complete due to unlucky dice rolls make The Living Dungeon only for those with active social lives.