REVIEW: Dungeon Magic: Sword of the Elements

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Dungeon Magic: Sword of the Elements (different from Taito’s arcade beat-‘em-up, Dungeon Magic) is probably the most difficult RPG I’ve ever played (followed by Battlemaster for the Genesis). It’s a first-person, single character RPG with the toughest enemies, largest dungeons, and most directionless progression possible.

Most annoying, Dungeon Magic only draws the walls 2 steps in front of you, making it easy to get lost and difficult to accurately map—even more so since the overworld, dungeons, and towns are sprawling and completely featureless. There is a map spell, but learning it is tricky and involves some trial and error, and it doesn’t work in town. Also, the dungeons are quite maze-like with lots of back and forth between levels, so even a map doesn’t solve them entirely. Then there is food and water to keep track of while you wander.

The magic system is cryptic. There are 5 schools (some more useful than others). You choose one at the start, but get them all eventually. Spells involve stringing together symbols to trigger basic magic effects (attack, status restore, map, teleportation, etc.). There are no magic points, instead spells takes away from your health. The loss is significant with the powerful attack spells, or when you’re curing status effects all the time.

The status effects are murder. Poison rapidly drains you, your stats are often halved, and monsters use these liberally. Coupled with losing health for curing yourself, even when you reach max level, the weakest monsters are still a nuisance. But combat would be a grind even barring status effects. Strong monsters can kill you in 2 hits, while you whittle them away over dozens of turns. The final dungeon requires an intimate knowledge of the combat system (of which there is a very detailed FAQ out there somewhere). Using cheap hit detection exploits and abusing faulty monster AI is required, which feels lame, but Dungeon Magic seems unwinnable without these measures.

It’s hard for me to say how good or bad Dungeon Magic is. Its intense difficulty is a spectacle to behold, but often, it’s a frustrating exercise in chance. That said, I spent all the infuriating hours it takes to conquer this cruel game, so there’s something redeeming that kept me coming back.

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NES-DM-USA-C

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