Despot’s Game caught my fancy a few months back when we were offered up a review code. Pixel art mayhem with chill music and roguelike properties had me sold. Seeing it announced for Game Pass shortly before its release was a nice surprise as well. After spending a few dozen hours with the game I’m happy to say that it’s deeper than it looks and is another solid addition to the Xbox platform and Game Pass service. Let’s break down why.
Build, Die, Repeat
Despot’s Game is all about the 2nd part of its title, Dystopian Army Building. You are stuck in a seemingly never-ending game run by an evil robot. They are forcing you to build an army of (initially naked) humans so that you can fight your way through hordes of enemies. To help you survive and thrive you have an enormous assortment of weaponry to give your soldiers, turning them into dozens of different types of fighters who cover a large amount of classes. What spawns where is a major piece to each run, and you’ll want to try and match class types to gain special abilities. Have three cultists, well now they can work together to summon a tentacle monster who deals enormous damage. During fights, well you just watch and hope that you set things up well enough. There are “buttons” which you get to choose at the end of each floor. They can be extremely powerful and range from “killing every non boss monster in a room” to “healing your entire team 30%”. It’s a strategy game with no real mid-fight control elements, and thanks to that it felt fine playing on a controller.
Anytime outside of fights you can choose where each member of your army is positioned. There is a button that allows auto-positioning and I admit in my later runs I started letting the game handle this as it worked well, hell sometimes even better than my own setups. For any successful run you will need a large number of healers and tanks though, which can be out of your control if the randomized nature of the gear doesn’t pan out. Everything in the game operates on the coins currency. You’ll use these to buy gear, upgrade gear, upgrade your talents (which we’ll get to in a bit) and importantly to buy food. Every time you move from room to room, you’ll use up your food supply by an amount tied to the size of your army. If you run out, you’ll suffer a 30% damage penalty which can be fatal in the later stages of a run.
To find food you’ll need to keep an eye for its icon on the grid-based map. The map layout, like most other things, is procedurally generated as well in the main campaign mode. Most rooms feature enemies, and after you defeat them you can buy various gear items or mutations. The mutations and your choice on what you buy or earn through narrative rooms (which I’ll get into in a bit) are key to being successful. Most mutations are percentage modifiers buffing certain classes of your crew. Occasionally I did run into a frustrating run where I had an army full of fencers yet all my mutations were for other classes, and I simply could not pump out enough damage to keep up with the enemy count.
Overall things felt decently balanced for the most part, as long as you aren’t like me for the first few hours and completely forget about the per-run leveling tree. The talent tree, much like everything else, uses the coin currency and if you ignore it like I did things will be a lot tougher on you than they would be otherwise. It is frustrating that there is only one currency, as it makes leveling each area increasingly more difficult in a way I simply didn’t find fun. I could have an incredibly dangerous pretzel-throwing army member, or give everyone 10 more hit points, but rarely both. Most of the time the food management system is the biggest deterrent to actually upgrading anything because exploring leads to you constantly having to spend all your coins on food. Exploring can be worth it at times due to the narrative rooms. The writing in them can be hilarious, and if you are able to complete the basic per-floor quests you’re generally rewarded with something useful.
Pixel Art Battlefields, Fantastic Music, and Lots of Modes
Graphically the game is on the plainer side of the pixel-art style. Animations are decent and I like the art style overall but it’s by no means a looker. The various outfits given to your army as you gear them up make their roles clear and easy to understand before you read the descriptions and the enemy designs vary from really basic and tiny to quite nice looking and very large. The music is solid with a mix of various synthy tunes to accompany you on each run. While there is no voice acting there is a decent amount of writing and it’s great. It never takes itself seriously and it helps elevate what otherwise would have felt like too light of a package without it.
There is a decent smattering of modes on-hand but the only one that really grabbed me was the default dungeon run one. There are a series of challenge modes with specific gear and room layouts you can take on as you work your way up the online leaderboards, as well as a pseudo-PVP one where you’ll run through an endless number of linear rooms trying to build up an army to take on computer-controlled versions of teams that other players had come up with. The main mode has a large number of modifiers though most are tied to specific requirements, some of which can take a while to unlock.
In the end, what seems to be a light package on the surface gains a lot of depth as you play through each mode and unlock various mutations and gear pieces so that they can drop in the future. It’s not the biggest meta-game for a roguelike setup but it did just enough to keep me coming back for more.
Despot’s Game: Dystopian Army Builder is a really fun if slightly flawed strategy game that I’m glad I decided to check out. While it’s not something I might recommend to most for a purchase it is definitely worth trying out on Game Pass if you are subscribed.
|Reviewed on||Windows PC|
|Release Date||September 15th, 2022|
|Available on:||Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, PC, Linux|
|Publishers||Konfa Games, tinyBuild|
|Rated||T for Teen|