Thirty odd years of development have made Nethack is the best RPG ever. Those who delve into the cumbersome controls and look past the archaic display will agree that the game is the standard-bearer for the genre, a challenging and complex experience no RPG since has yet to match. Although many people remain unfamiliar with Nethack despite its long history from Rogue: Exploring the Dungeons of Doom onward, it has garnered enough fans and praise to have seen a fair number of remakes and other titles inspired by the game. Some releases are essentially tweaks to the Nethack game such as Slash'EM while others such as Ancient Domains of Mystery are entirely new experiences crafted in the Nethack mold. Graphical tile based add-ons and deviants of the game exist as well, but then there are those games which take the basic premise of Nethack's dungeon descent and spin it into an entirely new game with its own graphics, presentation, rules, and plot. Fatal Labyrinth, Toejam & Earl, and others all played around with the concept with varying results, and Epic Dungeon looks to do the same on the Xbox 360. As with the other console variants, Epic Dungeon offers a stripped down Nethack experience with more action and arcade elements, resulting in a fun if simple game and a good starting point into the world of Roguelikes.
Nethack is amazingly complex, and Epic Dungeon ditches most of such complexity for the sake of the action. Players begin the game choosing one of four virtually indistinguishable classes and are dropped into level one of 50 floors of an unnamed dungeon with the simple goal to reach the bottom. The player does not have to worry about food nor being burdened by equipment, the sole negative status effect being poisoning, a temporary ailment in the game. All that is required is to survive to the bottom, hacking and slashing monsters while gaining experience and gold. Experience points can be used to level up one of four attributes (strength, defense, dexterity, and luck) while gold is used to make purchases in shops. Every fifth level earned grants one point to be applied one of five skills, four of which are enhanced depending upon the chosen class. Thus, the Berserker has all the same options as the Tinkerer, the only change being that the chosen special attack of the class is powered-up by two points instead of just one. It's a rather weak distinction, and it makes replays through the game with each class rather pointless since each trip is basically the same from one to another.
In Nethack or even Toejam & Earl for the matter, there is great risk in using unknown items, and the key to success lay in identifying them which is a lengthy and trying process, a big contributor to those games' challenge and enjoyment. Epic Dungeon's inventory is too simplified to have its attempt at doling out cursed weapons and harmful potions have any impact on the game. Health potions are too plentiful, and items are too easily revealed thanks to many identification scrolls and the ability to pay shopkeepers to do the same. With a regenerating health bonus, access to infinite Nethack-style "pets" with the Tinkerer's robot, and the ease of finding good weapons and armor, Epic Dungeon is a rather easy journey which players can complete in about two hours. The challenge of Epic Dungeon comes from its main deviation from the Roguelike formula -- respawning enemies -- can be viewed as a curse or blessing, annoying to have enemies constantly pop out of thin air but also exploitable as players can farm them for experience to buff their character. To that end, Epic Dungeon appears to have been designed to be act as a simplified Roguelike race, as completions are listed on a high score table according to the time taken to reach the exit. In that view, the game is nicely done and rather fun while it lasts, but anyone expecting a proper challenge would likely be better served by existing Nethack clones available on the Xbox Indies channel such as Dungeon Adventure.
While the bulk of the game is spent simply slaughtering creatures from one level to the next, Epic Dungeon attempts to add some diversity via story breaks which are triggered by activating panels on the dungeon floor. These bits of text are influenced by the luck rating and will branch out into good or bad outcomes depending upon how the user advances the scene. It can feel cheap at times to have little real say-so in the outcome -- my first and last death playing the game was caused early on when a creature tossed a reward at me which my character dropped, alerting giant trolls which appeared out of nowhere and slaughtered my underpowered character -- but thankfully these scenes are entirely optional, and a player prepared with a teleport scroll, potions, and whatnot should be able to reap the benefits of engaging in these quick anecdotes without fatal incident. Unfortunately, it does appear that the consequences of the selections appear to be the same, and some more variety and randomness in both these asides and the dungeon itself would have made succeeding trips through the game more welcome.
Epic Dungeon is too short to warrant that name nor as developed or varied as some other console Roguelikes, but it manages to be a playable and fairly engaging experience. While there's not much to see across the 50 levels beyond a new creature to whack here and there, the game controls well and has a nicely implemented inventory system which make playing as painless as can be. The "8-bit" graphics are poorly animated but look clean with every creature and trap clearly seen once the fog of war has lifted, and the music is decent albeit repetitive, easily tuned out as the player probes through the dungeon. "Epic" may not be the best word to describe the game in terms of challenge, length, and presentation, but Epic Dungeon is an enjoyable dungeon crawl while it lasts, entertaining while the player remains curious of the unknown but feeling ever more shallow as the game comes to its uninspired end.