Back when the Gauntlet reboot was coming out, I didn’t understand why everyone was getting riled up calling it a Diablo clone, as if a game that was actually like Gauntlet could work even a little bit nowadays. My thought back then was that the next pure Gauntlet experience wasn’t going to come from the franchise itself, but from somewhere smaller than fucking Warner Bros.
Excave is really only interesting for one reason: it shows us what a “true Gauntlet game” is like in 2015, warts and all.
The premise is simple and yet impossible to retain. Basically, there’s a big labyrinth under a city that has evil inside it. Neat. You control two characters, a male encouraged to use swords and axes and a female encouraged to use bows and small blades. Each has a personal inventory and can be chosen between before each dive into the labyrinth. At any time in the dungeons you can hold X to return to the main menu, at which point you can buy and sell materials, identify weapons and repair items to prepare for the next run.
Progress through the labyrinth is gated by locked doors in the hub area, which are unlocked by defeating area bosses. Each locked door contains several more locked doors, and only by completing each door-inside-a-door can you unlock the key to the next outer door.
This core loop is as distilled as dungeon crawling can be. There is only the one dungeon, full of sectioned-off themes, and one “town” whose inhabitants exist solely in menu form. Few, if any, things about Excave can be described as anything other than “pure”.
Its combat is predictably basic but actually engaging to perform, seeing as the Gauntlet influence really comes through in the numbers of enemies you’ll be fighting. There’s always plenty of opportunity to get hit in the middle of your animations, and it’s not difficult to get yourself into a sticky situation. I actually really found myself engaging with the enemy types I’d be seeing in the next run and the different properties of each weapon to decide on a perfect build in a way I didn’t expect to at first.
Switching between the boy and the girl characters is something that’s really done only for convenience’s sake, because having to unequip a bunch of tanky items from your character and replace them with a lot of dexterity-driven items would become extremely annoying. If you play along, it’s a nice addition to the game that keeps a very sour taste out of your mouth. It’s a bummer that the two characters have literally the exact same base stats, but still, I’m eternally grateful that they’re there.
All inventory management in the dungeon is done with the touch screen, which is one of the game’s main irritations. Your inventory is displayed on the lower screen where you can equip items and heal yourself by dragging food into your character’s mouth. It’s extremely challenging to manage the touch screen when dealing with the number of enemies the game throws at you and though you technically can use the d-pad, that’s frankly even worse.
Inventory space is incredibly limited at 16 spaces. It’s easy for your bag to completely fill very early into a run, as items do not stack and you’ll probably want to bring a few spare keys, potions and weapons with you from the beginning. There are no stat displays on
weapons, you just have to equip them and see if stats went up or down, which is also difficult to do inside the dungeon. This also means that there’s no way to know if the item is going to be an upgrade for the other character or not, which means you’re carrying around potions, keys, untested weapons for you, and untested weapons for an entire other character. Sixteen spaces with no stacking is not nearly enough. Excave also lacks weapon health bars, so you’ll have no idea when you’re about to get screwed by a broken weapon.
The little things in Excave taint what would otherwise be a charming dungeon crawler perfect for the 3DS. Overall, the game feels loosely put together. It’s in the small things like the main town being called “Castle town” without a capital T, lighting in the dungeons being flat as a pancake and the lacking enemy variety where the game starts to seem like it was made on a budget of $5.
Where the game really breaks down is just the way it feels, which is sort of a shame to say. All the core components are there to make a really tight portable dungeon crawler, but none of the finesse is. Weird stuff like pressing Start from the town screen bringing you to the initial Press Start screen, no floor maps, and there being no portraits for merchants – really no sign of life beyond the monsters in the dungeon – bring the game crashing down.
Excave isn’t a very good looking game. Enemy and character models and portraits all look fine, but the dungeons themselves are very flatly lit and boring to look at. In fact, I believe they literally are flatly lit, as the only shadows in the game appear statically under your character much akin to the little shadow circles under characters in Castle Crashers. It simply makes the game look like shit.
On the music front, the game fares better. There are some fairly memorable tunes scattered throughout the various areas of the labyrinth, and I can’t say any of them ever really got old. They’re cheap-sounding but they’re charming and well-composed enough to slide by. The sound of picking up gold though, is an ear-piercing hiss that makes me dread the act.
Excave has its good side and it has its charm, but ultimately it’s a remarkably unpolished game. So many easy, obvious things are missing that I have trouble recommending Excave to anyone but those who desperately need something to play on their 3DS, preferably to fill time because it certainly is a great time-sink. Practically the only times I played it were for the express purpose of filling time. If I had to devote any kind of mind to it, I’d find myself done with it within fifteen minutes.
Ethics disclosure: The reviewer was provided a review code from the developer.
Excave is available for purchase on the 3DS eShop.