Stick to your Sunday paper.
The best thing about Crossword Dungeon is the idea behind it. Combining a basic roguelike dungeon crawler with crossword-style phrase guessing is a pretty wonderful concept. But alas, the conceptual apple falls pretty far the reality tree on this one. One across: word for a game that is not good.
Crossword Dungeon is played as one of three stereotypical fantasy RPG classes: a Barbarian, a Ranger or a Scoundrel; players roam through a simple dungeon constructed entirely of corridors laid out on a virtual grid and packed with all sorts of monsters. Like lines in a crossword puzzle, each corridor is actually a word in disguise, with each portion representing a letter. The first level is a single word, but successive levels add more content. That means more corridors and more monsters spread out across dungeons that look increasingly like an actual crossword puzzle.
To control your character, you simply tap in the direction you wish to move. Uncovered letters can be traveled across at will, but stepping on a blank square will bring up eight random characters at the bottom of the screen, one of which is the correct letter in the word. If you know the word, it’s a simple matter of choosing the appropriate letter, moving to the next square, choosing the next letter, and continuing the cycle until the word is complete. Some letters (particularly as you advance into the later levels) even have bonuses attached to them, like health potions that restore hit points or experience point bonuses that push you further toward the next level.
Many (and eventually, most) blank squares are also occupied by monsters. Through the early stages of Crossword Dungeon, they tend to be simple, relatively harmless blob creatures, but as you progress you’ll run into far more challenging enemies. They can all be killed with a single strike, but beware: some of them have special powers, like the ability to attack you and then run away to an adjacent empty square, or to attack you with a bow and arrow from a square outside the one you’re entering. Killing monsters also earns experience, which slowly but surely increases your character’s level, giving him better stats, abilities, special skills and a greater likelihood of survival.
The trouble is that none of it feels like it means anything. The different classes are entirely irrelevant; the Barbarian, as you might expect, seems better able to absorb punishment and thus survive deeper into the game, but when it comes to killing monsters and filling in words — which defines the experience — there is absolutely nothing to distinguish the characters.
Solving the words is only half the battle, because it doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t survive to enter each letter. And sooner or later, survival becomes nigh impossible. Healing potions are found at random and cannot be saved for later use, so you may chug through three or four of them in a row while your health is nearly full and then find yourself empty-handed and helpless as you face off against a long row of enemies with only three hit points remaining. Since there is no other way to heal yourself and the only way to get past monsters is to go straight through them, many play sessions result in frustratingly unavoidable doom.
Innovative though it may be, there are also glaring issues with the crossword portion of the game. I don’t think “hydro” is actually “a prefix for water,” but it’s close enough that I’m wiling to let it slide. However, “jovial” does not mean “young or youthful” and Ridley Scott most definitely did not direct 2001: A Space Odyssey. While we’re on that topic, odyssey is spelled incorrectly as “oddysey,” and at least one hint is incomplete, reading, “First Roman Emperor to be converted to.” To what? (To Christianity, as it turns out, and the answer is Constantine.) You may as well write that down, because I can assure you that the question will come up. Several times, more than likely, because words repeat with surprising frequency, even over the course of a single session. It’s indicative of a sad lack of attention to detail for a mechanic that could have been clever and refreshing.
Crossword Dungeon is – regrettably – not the game it pitches itself to be. It’s dull and repetitive, the need to move a step between entering each letter in a word seems unnecessarily clunky, and the mistakes in the hints suggest a serious lack of polish. The idea really is a good one, but that’s where it stops. If you’ve got an itch for crosswords, do yourself a favor and buy a couple of those throwaway jumbo puzzle books instead. You can even draw brave adventurers on them.