Dicing Knight Period is a very intelligent game. Now I don’t mean that in the sense that the game has some profound, overlooked narrative to dig into, or an intricate set of mechanics to play around with. In fact, it’s nothing more than a humble action game released toward the end of the WonderSwan’s life cycle.
But it’s how Dicing Knight packages that action that makes it so intelligent. The WonderSwan was a portable system with only slightly more power than the Game Boy Color, and every decision that went into this game’s design reflects that. From the small rooms to the quick action, it’s amazing how well Dicing Knight demonstrates unity between platform and game design. It’s a much stronger experience than it initially lets on.
But what exactly is Dicing Knight? Calling it an “action game” doesn’t say a lot about how it plays. Instead, it’s better to look at it as a mix of Final Fantasy Adventure’s action gameplay, and the kind of deep deep dungeon exploration you’d expect from just about any roguelike. You swing your sword at generic fantasy monsters and explore dungeons screen by screen, room by room, floor by floor. Obviously, there’s not a lot to a game like that. It doesn’t require a lot of skill to play, and with only two buttons to work with, it definitely ends up as a simple game. But that’s where Dicing Knight’s greatest strengths lie. That simplicity allows the game to hit a good balance between relaxing and engaging. It’s like the game has distilled fun down to a pure, unfettered form. No wonder, then, how easily I found myself poking through the game’s dungeons, wandering around in search of some little activity to occupy my time.
A lot of that fun comes down to how focused the design is; how every element serves to deliver the fun to you, the player, faster. Slashing at an enemy, for instance, carries a tangible strength to it. Feedback is immediate and obvious. And look at the levels. The rooms are never more than a single screen large (think the original Zelda), and enemies usually die in a few hits. Each of these design choices create a game built around very small chunks of play time, leaving little between you and enjoying the game.
Normally, that would be a cause for concern; the mark of a condescending, “addictive” game that appeals to your human weaknesses to make a quick buck. While I admit that I was tempted to describe the game using that kind of language in this review, I ultimately don’t see Dicing Knight as appealing to those demons. If anything, its reluctance to do so could very well be the cause of its greater failings. Put more specifically, the game has obvious pacing issues. Because for as simple as the game is, it still feels unnecessarily padded. Floors stretch on for far too long, often minutes at a time. (Keep in mind that the game iterates on the scale of seconds.) So just imagine what entire dungeons are like.
To be fair, though, I think I can understand why the game does this. It uses time to structure the experience; to give the player something to work toward so the game isn’t entirely pointless. A commendable intent, I’ll admit, but not the best strategy the developers could have employed. They could have learned from other roguelikes and give the player some way to stop playing whenever they feel like it. Because right now, the game doesn’t allow the player any sort of control over how long they play the game. As a result, actions that would feel voluntary in any other context now feel compulsory as the player tries to get the most out of the time the game has allotted them. The game is stretched beyond its limits, slowly losing what made it so fun in the first place.
And as long as I’m pointing out the game’s flaws, I might as well talk a little bit about the boss battles. I know this seems like an overly simple way to structure a review, and I hate to so thoroughly criticize a game that I legitimately enjoyed, but the bosses are just too strong a contrast for me to ignore. They appeal more overtly to an action aesthetic than the rest of the game does. They populate the screen with a swath of deadly projectiles, forcing you to act and to act now. If you’ve ever played a bullet hell shooter, then you have a rough idea of what to expect here. In any other game, the bosses would connote a kind of hectic fun. In Dicing Knight Period, however, that fun doesn’t come across. Only the hectic. How can this be? Well, keep in mind that all this action has to be crowded on a tiny screen that can only display so much at any given time. So in this context, it’s understandably difficult to tell what’s happening during these fights, much less enjoy them. Yet even if you could tell what was going on, I doubt these fights would mesh well with the rest of the game, what with its focus on controlled action. As well designed as the bosses are, they have no place in a game like this.
Amid all this negativity, I feel I should reiterate my joy for this game. Dicing Knight isn’t like Advance Guardian Heroes, where the game put you in situations that didn’t let the systems shine through. Even in the face of awkward boss battles and suboptimal pacing issues, the game’s core still shines bright. Dicing Knight is perfectly aware of what kind of game it wants to be: a quick, action-oriented dungeon explorer. It’s hard to think of a better game to end the WonderSwan on.