Subways, guinea pigs and simple complexity: the story of DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS

We speak to Director Hiroyuki Ito and Producer Hiroaki Kato about making a one-of-a-kind RPG.
Por Duncan Heaney

DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS is a true original.

This minimalist dungeon-crawler strips the RPG to its core essentials - and in doing so finds a magic all its own. From the intensely strategic combat to brain-bending exploration challenges, it’s a game that pushes players in ways few other games can across all if its 99 floors.

The result is a furiously entertaining RPG that’s exciting, tense and incredibly compelling - you’ll feel that pull to always do just one more floor.

Of course, the quality of the game will come as no surprise to long-time Square Enix fans. It’s directed by Hiroyuki Ito, who also directed FINAL FANTASY VI, FINAL FANTASY IX and FINAL FANTASY XII, and produced by Hiroaki Kato, who held a similar role on FINAL FANTASY XII THE ZODIAC AGE and FINAL FANTASY TACTICS A2 Grimoire of the Rift!

Because DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS is such a unique game, we were excited to talk to these talented developers about their vision for the game, and how it all came together.

DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS trailer

Underground ideas

Inspiration can come from all kinds of places, and the idea for DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS came from somewhere you might not expect - public transport.

“The concept for the game came when we were looking at a 3D map of the Tokyo subway system,” says Ito-san.

“The Tokyo Underground has many different lines that weave between each other in a complicated way. But each line also has its own unique character - some lines are actually quite short, and others loop all around the whole city, for example. You can cross between lines to try and ride them all too.

“The dungeon we created for DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS also looks complicated and like it randomly intertwines with itself at first glance, but each floor has its own defining characteristics. You have to think carefully about how to proceed onwards each time.

“We thought that this kind of environment would make for an interesting game to play.”

DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS screenshot

Gridlock

The team wanted to present these complex layouts in a way that players could easily understand and provide navigation challenges that would make people have to really think about their position. The grid-based traversal system was perfect for this.

Kato-san explains: “By keeping the play area as a simple 2D grid, it reduces the amount of information that the player has to process. This makes it easier to grasp your current situation and to use your imagination.”

This grid-based format also allowed the developers to present players with problems that haven’t really been seen in a game before. Individual grid co-ordinates are an important element of the game, and they always appear on the top-left of the screen.

Kato-san says: “You need to use your imagination to glean hints from the grid co-ordinates and the shape of the spaces, among other things, to work out the best route onwards. This offers a unique and enjoyable challenge.

“It seems like it must have been done before but it’s actually something completely new!”

ATB is back!

Not every idea was completely new though - combat takes inspiration from the FINAL FANTASY series’ Active Time Battle (ATB) system, created for FINAL FANTASY IV… by none other than Ito-san himself!

You may already know how it works - rather than each combatant patiently waiting their turn, each has a bar that fills up over time. Once filled, they can take an action, regardless of turn order.

“The ATB system in FINAL FANTASY IV came about because we thought that having factors that occur based on time elapsed would bring battles closer to realism,” says Ito-san. “For example, in a traditional RPG a group of creatures, such as cyclopes, could be waiting for us when we woke up from a nap. If that was real, we’d certainly be dead!”

Ito-san decided to revisit the system he pioneered for DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS, but not without adding some new refinements to make it even more strategically satisfying.

In the game, enemies and heroes have two types of defense - Physical and Magic. Attacks and abilities target the different defenses - only when their values are down to zero can you start whittling down a target’s HP.

This system came from a desire to do something different to the traditional RPG formula. Ito-san says: “I wanted to re-create the sort of gameplay that has you watching the enemy gauges.

“I looked for a feature, beyond the typical elemental affinities like fire, ice, earth and air, that would give characters different defining characteristics.”

Kato-san adds: “Only having two distinctive elements to keep track of reduces the amount of information you need to process and thus allows you to concentrate on thinking about how to tackle the dungeon itself.

“We carefully tweaked the combinations of enemies you fight and the defence parameters to make sure that battles don’t become stale. It was hard work on the development side - balancing everything to have sufficient variation, so the game was simple, but not dull.”

Ito-san succinctly sums it up: “I thought that it would be easy to create the game if there were fewer attributes in the game. I was wrong.”

The focus on simplicity makes the battle system in DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS is extremely easy to understand. It also means that the development team were able to imbue battles with tactical depth beyond many other RPGs.

Kato-san says: “When you encounter enemies in battle, you first need to check their defence values and their formation. This will let you work out which attacks are best to use and what order to defeat them in.

The ‘just keep bashing the same button to muscle your way through’ kind of play you often get in RPGs won’t work here. This gives combat a feeling of thrill and danger, as you have to work out how to avoid all your characters dying each time.”

Of course, keeping fights strategically challenging throughout the game wasn’t easy - it’s something Ito-san and the team had to work incredibly hard on.

When it comes to balancing, Ito-san Excels

So how do you balance all the different values for the combat system and make sure each individual battle is fun? As Ito-san succinctly explains: “we used a spreadsheet”.

If Ito-san makes it sound simple, he’s just being humble - according to Kato-san, it was anything but.

“Ito-san entered all the formulas relating to battle into an Excel file and then referred to that as he adjusted the overall balance throughout the game in his head. The data was then reflected in-game. We also did repeated test plays - all through development he was tweaking the balancing like this.

“The volume of data involved in Dungeon Encounters was comparable to the numbered FINAL FANTASY games that Mr. Ito had worked on before, and he controlled all of it by himself. He really is the consummate master-craftsman!”

Looking for guinea pigs

One particularly fun quirk of combat is the ability to turn characters into guinea pigs. It was something the team particularly wanted to be in the game.

Kato-san explains: “We wanted a transformation in the game - something to fill the same role as the ‘Toad’ spell in the FINAL FANTASY series.”

Ito-san adds: “We thought it would add a nice accent to have something cute like the pigs in FINAL FANTASY TACTICS. So I decided on the guinea pigs!”

An academy of characters

One of the unique aspects of DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS is the large cast of heroes you can add to your party. As with the rest of the game, these characters and their personalities were kept simple.

“One of the core development concepts for Dungeon Encounters was that it had to be straightforward and easy to understand,” says Kato-san. “Based on that philosophy, the character backgrounds were given a fairly orthodox ‘classic fantasy’ basis.

“However, what makes the selection stand out is there are a huge variety of different character types, including someone who has been transported to the dungeon from our world, a robot and even a giant cat!

“As you progress through the game, you’ll discover equipment that can only be used by specific characters, so you’re encouraged to try out all kinds of different party compositions and put together your own story with your own cast of heroes.”

Although the heroes come in many different shapes and forms, they all have one thing in common: the incredible illustrations by Ryoma Ito (FINAL FANTASY TACTICS ADVANCE, FINAL FANTASY XII REVENANT WINGS, Heroes of Mana).

The variety of characters on offer is a testament to the imagination of the artist. As Kato-san explains:

“Once the function of the character in the game design has been confirmed, Mr. Hiroyuki Ito writes up a few lines of character background. He then hands those to Mr. Ryoma Ito, who does an awesome job of working the character up from that.”

The result is a game where every character is equally important. As Kato-san puts it: “You can say that all the characters are the main character. I want players to discover all the abandoned travellers in the dungeon and try out lots of different parties to put together their very own stories.”

Music maestro

The last element that really brings DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS together is the amazing music. Overseen by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu, it reinterprets classic themes to amazing effect. But how did Uematsu-san get involved in the first place?

“Around 30 years ago, I was talking to Uematsu-san about a new way to create music for games,” says Ito-san. “We thought we could create something interesting and unique if we used arrangements of famous classical music pieces. However, nothing had come of that idea since then.

“Personally, I’d kept wanting to use famous classical pieces for a new IP ever since then, and when we started work on DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS, I went straight to Mr. Uematsu to discuss him making the music for it.

“Unfortunately, it seemed he had completely forgotten about that earlier conversation!

“Still, he did remember again once we got talking, and everything progressed rapidly after that, with him coming on board for the project.”


Now that DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS is out in the wild, the team are excited for players to start uncovering its many secrets.

Kato-san says: “I hope players who enjoy the mechanics and systems of RPGs give our game a try.

“Have fun thinking your way through battles and experiencing the tension and excitement of delving into a perilous dungeon!”

Ito-san has the final word:

“Thank you for choosing my game. I wish you the best of luck playing it!”

DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS is available now for Nintendo Switch, PS4 and Steam.

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