One of my favourite genres is the First Person Dungeon Crawler*. This, of course, is a sub-category of the RPG genre; a sub-sub-category even, considering that I’m splitting hairs by prefacing the Dungeon Crawler genre with First Person. But I do want to be pedantic here, because I believe there’s something unique about a really good First Person DRPG which no other genre, to my mind, achieves.
For a start, and before we even get to the notion of ‘good’, being in the first person puts you right into the environment. It emphasises the claustrophobic quality every good dungeon should aspire to have! Say as many good things as you want about classic third person Dungeon Crawlers but they never quite make you feel like the ceiling is going to cave in on you. The first person perspective also limits your field of view, stopping you from seeing what’s over the next wall or even what’s immediately behind or to the side of you. Limiting the player’s view is integral to this sub-sub genre’s uniqueness and cannot be overstated. And already we’ve touched on two aspects which all good First Person Dungeon Crawlers, in my opinion, capitalise on: atmosphere and exploration.
A good DRPG should be tense. One might be tempted to argue that DRPGs are like the survival horror of the RPG world, if not for the fact that one of the best series in the genre feels like a Ghibli-inspired anime adventure (see: Etrian Odyssey). The tension of a good DRPG, in my opinion, should come from the fact that you only have so much resource (whether it be HP, items or MP) to get you so far through the dungeon (so the survival part would be justified).
You should feel like each step forwards, each unknown corner rounded, is a risk. In Dungeon Crawlers which feature them, such as Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale, the Town should tug on the adventurers to return, rest and refuel. Ipso facto, DRPGs have to be challenging enough to halt the uncautious or unprepared player’s progress. It might seem antithetical to good game design, but I also believe that a good Dungeon Crawler is allowed to be ‘unfair’ or ‘mean’ to the player. Knowing that the game can screw you over adds to this tension and further cements the fact that the environment - the Dungeon - is a hostile, dangerous place.
In a good DRPG, curiosity can be rewarded or punished. This means that exploration should be a choice which is weighed up and prepared for. A good Dungeon should never feel like a linear place to explore (once you get into the meat of the game) and instead, I think, should require some thought and attention to navigate. This might mean the player needs to physically map the dungeon, but most modern games with auto-mapping still require you to be conscious of traps, pit-falls, teleporters, shortcuts and so on. Strange Journey has an auto-mapping feature, but any player whose navigated Sector Eridanus knows it requires more than simply following the map.
Combat is key. Other than exploring, most of the First Person DRPG player’s time will be taken up with preparing for, anticipating, worrying about, or engaging with combat. As with exploration, combat should be a dangerous proposition; each encounter offering a challenge which rewards the careful player and punishes the cavelier. This might mean quick-saving before each encounter, or having a rising dread build as you move further and further away from your last saved game. While I initially discarded the word ‘horror’ from the genre, I think ‘dread’ is a keyword here.
Personally, I love party-based combat, and I think the best dungeon crawlers allow the player to create a varied party which feels unique to them; whether that be a team of 4 insect mages or a cheerful squad of farmers!
So, that’s my personal take on what makes a good First Person Dungeon Crawler. It’s perhaps a sadly overlooked genre in the West, which has shown a great deal of promise in the past - being almost synonymous with the Western CRPG to start with. Japanese developers have however continued to use it since very early on and it remains surprisingly vibrant (if not a little dodgy - as all niche genres should) up to the present day.
I’ve certainly not played them all and I’m far from an expert on them, but I hope that my thoughts might guide you towards the genre (if you haven’t played any games from it yet) or perhaps cement your mistrust of it - or possibly both ;)
*From here on out I may refer to the genre as First Person Dungeon Crawlers, Dungeon Crawlers, DRPGs, blobber, gridder, FPDCRPGer, or any other number of weird and embarrassing pseudonyms.