On paper, dungeon-making games sound fantastic. Hand the player a blank slate upon which to plan and construct the dungeon of his dreams, filled with beasts, ghosts, and goblins, and then let him go hog-wild. The question developers face, though, is how to implement this concept. Should it be SimCity with demons? A real-time strategy game like Dungeon Keeper? A combination of the two like Viva Piñata? Unsurprisingly, Global A Entertainment, a Japanese developer, decided to do something closer to a traditional JRPG with Master of the Monster Lair. Owen, who lives in a village where education ends after grade school, takes a shovel into a cave outside of town every day in order to carve a labyrinth out of its walls. When he comes in contact with any of the feral residents who moved in overnight, it initiates a turn-based, "Fight, Magic, Item, Escape" battle. The result is a unique experience that is part god-game, part dungeon-crawler, and part Dragon Quest. The combination of the different aspects is more integrated than patchwork, and they feed each other in a natural, flowing manner.
"The result is a unique experience that is part god-game, part dungeon-crawler, and part Dragon Quest."
Fighting, digging, placing rooms, and traversing the dungeon all take place at once. There isn't a build mode or a battle mode. Walk up to a wall, press a button, and it vanishes. Walk up to a space, press a button, and the room of your choice appears. Walk into a space with any adjacent monsters and they will charge you to initiate a battle. This last part is where the strategy behind designing the dungeon comes into play. There are many different types of rooms Owen can place, and each one will have a creature living there in the morning. These enemies will attack if you stand in a bordering tile and there is an opening between you and the monster. Battles, then, can have anywhere from one to three enemies, depending on how many monsters can see you at once. Naturally, as planner and constructor of the maze, you get to decide how many enemies face you in each battle as well as the rooms from which they attack.
Why would you want three enemies attacking at a time instead of just one? The more monsters there are in a single battle, the higher the chance that an item will drop. Making things even more interesting is that only the last enemy killed can drop an item. If you need some tasty ghost meat for dinner, the best way to get more is to go somewhere in your dungeon that you can fight a ghost and two other enemies in a single battle. Then kill the other two enemies while taking damage from the ghost. Then finish off the ghost. In an interesting twist from the norm, there are no experience points in Master of the Monster Lair. Before going to bed at night, the human party members can each eat a meal to increase their abilities. Different meals raise different stats, and their ingredients come from body parts harvested from the fresh corpses of creatures slain in the cave. A Mimic Slime named Gloop joins Owen early in the game, but rather than growing by consuming your dead foes (I suppose a line is drawn at what would technically be cannibalism), it improves merely by watching them. After battle, you sometimes get the option to have Gloop copy part of an enemy's body. The arms, legs, head, and torso of a foe can be imitated. Copy a mage's head, and the Mimic Slime will be able to cast spells and wear a helmet. Copy a goblin's arms, and it will be able to wield a club and a shield. These takes on party improvement are implemented well, and the emphasis on fighting specific enemies to control growth rather than fighting for generic experience points is refreshing. Plus, it adds to the need to pay attention to which rooms you build in the dungeon.
The gameplay quickly becomes methodical. Every day The Magic Shovel tells you which rooms are required to lure the next boss into the dungeon. Your largest handicap to achieving this is the Magic Shovel's MP. Manipulating the floor-plan in any way takes one MP, and the amount of MP you have to work with is very small. So, you will slowly construct your dungeon one tiny piece at a time, cleaning out the day's residents as you go, picking up new items and equipment from their drops, taking home their flesh to eat at night, until finally the conditions are met for the boss to show up. Bosses are tough enough that you may need to grind through the dungeon a few more days to boost your stats. Since stat increases are tied directly to the number of days that pass rather than monster encounters, it's most logical to just pick off useful enemies and call it a night instead of tackling the entire dungeon when grinding. Defeating a boss opens up a new floor, and the process repeats, albeit with some new rooms to use and beasts to lure.
About ten hours into the game, I have seen it oscillate between being quite fun and quite boring. When a new floor opens up, more rooms are available, different monsters may populate old rooms, and stronger enemies drop better items and ingredients. There is a sense of wonder and discovery, and it is hard to put the DS down. Gameplay drags toward the end of each level as it becomes less of a god-game and more of a grind-game. I found myself getting increasingly tired of fighting the same foes over and over. Monster variety within each floor is saddeningly small, especially considering how long it takes to unlock the next one. The overly simple battle system blatantly emulates Dragon Quest, although it is slightly too easy and the flow is a touch too slow, to the point that working your way through several encounters in succession doubles as a great sleep-aid. Right now I am worried that as the game continues, the floors could get bigger and these issues could get worse, but if future levels have a larger assortment of enemies, the problems could go away or become irrelevant. So far, Master of the Monster Lair is very enjoyable at the start of a new floor, when there are new meals, monsters, and rooms to explore and battles are tougher and less frequent. In short play-sessions, even grinding can be fun when the dungeon-crawling does not have time to get tedious. Check back for the review in mid-October to see which direction the later levels take and if the gameplay can stay fresh.