Diorama Dungeoncrawl is a retro hack and slasher from Alec S, otherwise known as Renegade Sector Games. Released on Steam in 2019, the game has now made its way over to PSN courtesy of prolific publishers eastasiasoft.
Promising a low-poly 16-bit style adventure, the idea here is that you get the standard Golden Axe style fantasy-themed thumpery but in a 3D environment where monsters and traps lie in wait to prevent you from battling through the game’s seven stages and facing off against the wizard who trapped you in the “living castle” where the game is set.
With just a basic control system (left-stick/d-pad movement and a button each for jumping and attacking), your job is to progress through the many rooms that make up each level. And basic it all is, pretty much from the off. From the opening storytelling scenes which are literally just text (no graphics at all and in a not great font too), to the visuals and gameplay, everything here is as simple as it gets.
You play as a knight of some sort who is armed with a hammer. You walk from screen to screen while enemies try to stop your progress with either melee weapons or ranged magic attacks. The first enemies are the former type and here you’ll soon realise the limitations of using a hammer given that it’s slow, has barely any reach and your knight only has one move (a vertical swing). Timing your attacks against the AI’s is tricky at best and irritating at worst. It’s just not the right tool for the job. To take from one of this game’s inspirations it’s like playing Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins but being made to play it all with the fireball.
Combine that with your slow movement and the AI’s basic but random timing and the game can be pretty frustrating. This gets worse as more enemies are added to the fray later on in the first level and is compounded by the game’s biggest design flaw which is the its perspective. Lining up attacks is needlessly awkward much of the time and that viewpoint has harsher consequences later on.
You don’t pick up any new weapons or upgrades in your journey save for a handful of ‘special’ attacks which are activated by holding the attack button. However, these are slow, weak and clunky to use and so we abandoned them pretty quickly when it became apparent that trying to use them was just going to get us killed.
As you progress through a level you’ll pass through checkpoints. You have an unlimited number of lives and so progress becomes about getting to the next one. They’re not brilliantly placed but you’ll always be pleased to see one, just to know you won’t have to replay the previous section. Each level is also inhabited by a couple of bosses. These encounters are pretty varied with some being pretty easy while others are an absolute pain. The ‘Were Bear’ being one of the worst given that its collision detection and sprawling attacks definitely put the odds in its favour. Trying to read that thing with this perspective and counter it with your slow movement and stupid hammer was a recipe in frustration.
However, it’s not just the combat that presented us with maddening moments. The game’s later levels feature more and more platforming sections where moving platforms and spiked traps make up much of the level design. Unfortunately the game’s clumsy visuals and forced perspective made these sections pretty unenjoyable, especially when you factor in enemies. It’s pretty telling that the developer threw in an old-school invincibility cheat to help keep up eastasiasoft’s MO of providing cheap and easy platinums.
It’s not all bad news though. There’s a bit of variety across the game’s seven stages with different background graphics and music coming into play and the game holds together without bugging out. There’s also a curious charm to it that might appeal to retro gamers. Although, that said, the visuals are a bit of a weird one. Most retro-themed games on PSN have a recognisable style to them. There’s usually an identifiable look such as a 2D SNES style or a Doom/Wolfenstein old-school FPS aesthetic.
The visuals here don’t really match with anything we’ve seen. One reviewer out there described it as having a Commodore 64 look but this type of polygonal 3D would have been too much for the C64 and it’s successor, the Amiga. And yet the visuals are so deliberately simple that they almost could still be from the early ’90s but on a format that never gained popularity. Like a worse 3DO or something. It’s an interesting look but not necessarily a good one.
To be honest, we’re not really sure about this one. The main selling point on PSN is the old faithful double platinum, if that’s your thing, but we can’t imagine playing this on something like the Switch, for example, as there’s just no real reason to recommend it apart from the fact that at least it’s not like every other indie hack and slasher out there. It’s as if the developer has committed so much to the idea of making an old-style game that he’s then forgotten to include any of the much-needed progress and quality of life mechanics that have improved retro-gaming over the years.
+ Simple but tough gameplay
+ Unique visual style
- Frustrating perspective
- Fairly unappealing visual style