I’ve been keeping a casual eye on Mad Mimic Games’ upcoming magician-themed roguelike Dandy Ace since I discovered it via the Steam Game Festival, Summer Edition. I play quite a lot of roguelikes and roguelites and am always looking for more. Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t have time to try the demo out, but when the chance to try out an exclusive preview build came up, I jumped at the chance to give it a shot.
As it’s a preview build, the game is not yet finished. It’s quite polished, but it’s still an incomplete product. As such, I will be shying away from discussing any potential technical issues and instead discuss only design flaws that I don’t see changing in any significant way between now and release.
Dandy Ace is an isometric action game with extremely light RPG elements, in which you play as a handsome magician, the titular Dandy Ace, with “mediocre” tricks that has overtaken a less handsome magician with “good” tricks that feels slighted by you. Hellbent on revenge, he throws you into a magic mirror that contains a palace and a ton of enemies that you have to fight your way through. If you die, the mirror brings you back to life over and over so that the torment continues, giving an in-universe reason for your ability to continue playing after you’ve died.
Your arsenal consists of up to four abilities and four augments. As you play, you will pick up cards that can be slotted into any of the ability or augment slots. Cards are split into three categories: pink, or basic attacks; blue, or movement abilities; and yellow, or utility abilities. As abilities, these cards offer a varied, but often situational, set of options in combat, whereas they will often impart their essence onto another card as an augment. For example, the Dazzling Display ability is an extremely short-range stun, which often does not provide much of an advantage, but, as an augment, Dazzling Display can add stun to any other card, giving it much more use. Some cards even go so far as to add different augments to cards of different colors.
There is a light sense of progression in the sense that each card comes in tiers, with higher tiers dropping the further you make it into the palace. However, these are primarily just damage buffs. Augments aren’t affected at all, which is understandable, but a bit disappointing.
All other progression is offered in a roguelite fashion. When you start the game, only a small set of cards is unlocked. As you play, blueprints for new cards will drop, along with a currency called crystals. Whenever you successfully make it through a level, you visit a camp run by your allies, one of which lets you add one new talent per level completed, while the other allows you to turn in blueprints and make the cards. Once you’ve turned in a blueprint, it is permanently unlocked in her shop and you can even partially pay for the card, rather than paying for it all at once. Once it is fully paid for, however, you get one copy right away and it goes into the pool of cards that can drop at random.
This system is incredibly intuitive and quite well-designed. What makes it even better is the fact that you can reconfigure your build at will. Don’t like having the stun effect on your Cosmic Vortex? Don’t worry. You can just move the augment card to another card that it’s more suited to. This is especially useful as more cards drop, as you can simply replace a lower-tier version of a card with the higher-tier versions you find as you progress.
Another reason that it’s great is simply that it’s customizable. Even right off the bat, there are so many combinations that you can utilize in different ways and that number only grows as you play. Initially, I was partial to using the Starburst card to add push to my dash, allowing me to push enemies out of the way as I dashed through them. Eventually, I opted for a more damage-focused augment, such as Cosmic Vortex’s Minor Vortex augment, on my dash, instead.
However, there’s also a downside to the exact way in which this is implemented. At the beginning of each run, you’re given one blue card, one pink card, and one yellow card. These are completely random, other than the blue card, which seems to always be your basic dash ability. When you first start out, you only have so many pink cards and most of them are designed in a certain way, such that you can attack fairly quickly and each third attack will deal extra damage. As you unlock additional cards, this is no longer true. Some might deal more damage, but require you to stand still. Some might require you to charge them up for optimal damage. The more you unlock, the more cards have certain caveats that make combat slower and, at the beginning of the game, when you have less augments and potentially only the short-range stun Dazzling Display as an alternate attack, certain starts can be incredibly painful.
In fact, it’s many of these same cards that have led me to certain conclusions about the way that combat is implemented. In Dandy Ace, unless you are casting a movement ability, you have to stand still when casting. Sometimes, this is only for a fraction of a second. Sometimes, this is much longer—the Cosmic Vortex ability forces you to stay still for a full five seconds, which basically makes it useless unless combined with a stun. Enemies attack fast and there are often a lot of them at once. I’ve found that that combination leads to a lot of situations where you can lock yourself in place just long enough that you get hit.
I’m fairly certain that the reason for this is that it makes combat more deliberate. If you can’t move while attacking, you have to be extremely careful about when you decide to attack. However, this is one of my least favorite features in all of gaming. I play a caster basically every chance I get in other games and nothing is more frustrating than not having at least one basic attack to fall back on that allows you to move and cast at the same time. It’s incredibly limiting in the worst way and the fact that your movement abilities deal damage doesn’t really make up for it. You absolutely have to be able to use your pink cards in order to make it through encounters.
But there’s another reason that this exact design decision is frustrating: It can get really difficult to see enemy projectiles in larger encounters. Almost every single spell effect is a massive, opaque sprite with tons of effects following suit. There’s not a lot of space in each encounter’s zone, nor are pathways throughout the levels particularly large. There’s already very little space to dodge. It doesn’t take long before different effects start stacking either with other effects or with enemies, obscuring telegraphs. This can make getting through encounters quickly frustrating, as you have to decide whether you want to risk literally not seeing what’s going on around you clearly or if you want to just take the encounter slower and not risk your health. Especially when you’re in the early game, in the Entrance Hall, just trying to get through the mandatory opening level, it’s easy to begin to feel like you’re being held back by the game’s design. You’ve been through this multiple times. You know how to defeat the enemies quickly. You just can’t because you have neither the cards for it nor the ability to clearly see what’s going on around you.
This is heavily compounded by the fact that the game simply doesn’t reward you enough. If I were to make an estimate, there are no less than 10 encounters per area, granted you explore a decent amount of that area, which is often necessary before you start obtaining card suit-themed keys that allow you to unlock new pathways. A disproportionate amount of first encounters, which always occur right after you’ve either started at or gone back to full health, drop healing items. It is unlikely that any single level will award you more than two blueprints and, often, you don’t get more than two card drops per level from encounters. Combined with an average of two more fights that give healing items, often the same ones that offer other drops, you have, if you’re lucky, a maximum of seven encounters that give you anything, with a maximum of three that offer healing items, one of which is often useless. Obviously, since this is the maximum, we’re often closer to five encounters that grant items of any kind. Thus, you can often go long periods of time without any healing whatsoever, even after more difficult fights. I once spent something like three encounters at around four health points before succumbing to death because not a single encounter after that dropped a healing item, but I was incredibly lucky in terms of not getting hit.
To be completely fair, there is an inventory system of some sort that allows you to carry potions with you, but, after two hours of play, I have never once had a potion, with the meter consistently sitting at 0/0. At this point in time, I have no idea how that system works. There is a relatively high chance that it is related to boss fights, but I did not reach Axolangelo, the only boss mentioned anywhere in the game’s promotional materials, once in my time playing, much less defeat him, and, to be frank, I didn’t feel particularly motivated to, which I will get into more later.
These considerations might not be as much of an issue if you reliably obtained a blink card early on, but you often don’t. Many times, you’re stuck with a dash, often only the basic dash, for the entirety of the Entrance Hall. This may seem like it’s not a big deal, but the difference is non-trivial. When you dash, you’re still physically present in the world for the entirety of the ability, meaning you can still be hit during the dash and you can’t cross objects or gaps in the level. This is not true for blink, which is a short-range teleport from one position to another, allowing you to do all of those things. The tactical advantages of having a blink ability are significant and can vastly ease the burden of having massive projectiles thrown at you from all angles in small zones early on.
A bigger problem, however, is that it doesn’t feel like the game scales particularly well. Part of that might be issues with the nebulous way that progression is currently implemented. At present, you start out making your way through more generic levels of increasing difficulty, constantly being forced to pass by card suit-themed gates that you don’t have the keys for. Eventually, you find the diamond key and can open diamond gates. Oddly, there is a gate for each suit in every level—not all of them seem to block paths to portals to new levels, but that may be because those levels simply don’t exist yet. The problem with this is that it’s not clear when you’re supposed to enter the levels that the portals behind the gates lead to. Am I supposed to jump straight from the Entrance Hall to the Courtyard? Am I supposed to build up my strength before going there? My instinct, when obtaining a key, is to immediately go through the gate that it goes to. However, I’ve failed to make it through the Courtyard every time I’ve entered, regardless.
But the Courtyard provides more insight into the game’s odd sense of difficulty scaling. It’s actually oddly similar to the issue I had with Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time. As you progress through the game, the game seems like it wants to overwhelm more than it wants to challenge. There’s a non-trivial difference between throwing tons of enemies at you that each leave a trail that damages you, as the slimes do in the Courtyard, and having a single enemy that creates multiple trails. In one case, you have multiple targets that all have to be defeated or the ground is simply covered in trails you can’t cross, whereas the other has a single enemy that’s deliberately designed around zoning the player.
It’s evident that levels like the Courtyard are designed in a way that you’re intended to have higher-tier cards, each with augments on them, but, even with those in place, I found it difficult because there was just so much going on. While earlier levels have no environmental hazards and some later levels have a few environmental hazards, like spike traps, the Courtyard has tons of space zoned off by thorny vines that damage you if you step on them. It has towers that shoot absolutely massive poison clouds, zoning you. It has large slimes that leave behind a trail that damages and zones you and split into smaller slimes that zone even more ground. It has even larger slimes that zone large circular areas and take quite a lot of damage to defeat, then splitting into the aforementioned smaller slimes. Then, on top of all of that, you have the enemies that don’t do quite as much zoning. For a game with as little vertical progression as this one, it really expects you to be able to deal with quite a lot.
It may very well be that it’s designed with repeated failures in mind. Perhaps you are intended to have to grind out cards that are much more useful than those that you get in the beginning, but that’s not an appealing proposition. If I am dealing both fire and poison to enemies, stunning them, and then dealing damage on top of that, there shouldn’t be a situation where I am easily overwhelmed in a level that can be accessed from the very first level—at least not without a much more clear warning about it. But, more importantly than that, in a game with so much visual clutter, you absolutely should not be trying to overwhelm players with a large number of enemies that almost all have the ability to zone the player in a small area that is already zoned by environmental hazards.
To be completely fair, if you go sequentially, avoiding the gated levels, then the difficulty scaling is much better. The issues mentioned above still apply, in that it is still difficult to deal with large groups of enemies for reasons that it simply shouldn’t be, but it is a much better experience overall. The problem is that, as mentioned, the acquisition of keys that open gates that you’ve passed in every level doesn’t indicate that you should avoid the gates.
The biggest problem, however, is that the environments simply aren’t interesting. They’re all square. They’re all small. The way they’re going to be utilized is predictable by way of perches for tower enemies and gates that denote that you’re about to be locked into a fight. Nothing in any of them is breakable. It takes forever before you start to encounter environmental hazards and, once you do, they’re incredibly limited in scope. Once you’ve gone through your tenth run or so, the early levels really start to drag, even exempting the issues with not being able to speed through them that I mentioned above. I desperately wanted a shortcut through the Entrance Hall, in particular, and I simply wasn’t given one.
I should also note that I highly disagree with the developers’ recommendation of using a gamepad. On a gamepad, you are forced to move and aim with the same stick. The game offers auto-aim to compensate for this, but that isn’t really a good enough solution, as you still have to vaguely be facing the enemy you want to attack, which means you have to move towards them, slowing things down. I wanted to be able to decouple movement and aiming, but I couldn’t. On keyboard and mouse, they are automatically decoupled, which makes the experience much, much more pleasant. Hopefully, this is something that is fixed as development continues, but it also seems to be a very deliberate choice, so it very well may not be.
Dandy Ace is an odd game in the sense that it really wants you to plan ahead without giving you the room that you need to plan ahead. It thrives on making challenges difficult by zoning you into small areas and throwing large projectiles and hordes of enemies at you; it is notably less difficult when it does not do so. A lot of the issues I’ve mentioned may yet be improved, but others still seem integral to the way that the game is designed—at the very least, I hope that they find a way to make environments more fun, so that early levels are much less of a chore to go through multiple times. It’s a shame that this is the case, as the card system is actually rather fun to use and develop combos with. There’s a fun game here; it’s just buried in a few questionable, but significant, decisions.
|Playtime||Did we receive a press copy?|
|2.2 hours||Yes, a preview build from Critical Hit|
Dandy Ace is currently on Kickstarter with a $25,000 goal. The Kickstarter ends on September 24th and has raised $2893 as of this writing.