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Friday, December 8, 2023

Dungeon Munchies is an RPG platformer where you’re a zombie, and worse, an unpaid intern

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Sometimes, a whole game sprouts from a tiny seed of an idea. In the case of Dungeon Munchies, it’s a simple, jokey premise: you’re an unpaid zombie intern. A necromancer-chef named Simmer raises you as part of her plan to unleash a new generation of magical cuisine on the world. Why? How? You’re not being paid enough to ask those questions, because you’re not being paid at all. So off you go, searching the dungeon for ingredients. Don’t worry about dying: endless, inescapable revival is part of your employee benefits package.

This concept dovetails neatly into a mechanical foundation. You explore an (almost completely linear) side-scrolling world, marching along, avoiding traps and fighting monsters. Then you harvest ingredients from those monsters and cook magical dishes that visibly mutate your body, Binding of Isaac-style.

That would be a fine little game by itself—maybe some sort of roguelite. But that’s not what we’ve got here. During the three years Dungeon Munchies spent in Early Access before its full release, it grew into something far stranger. From what I’ve played and seen (about half completed myself, half watching a friend stream the tail-end) Taiwan-based three-man indie studio maJAJa let their ideas get away from them in the best possible way. 

I’m an idiot sandwich

Dungeon Munchies takes its silly scribbled-on-a-napkin concept and expands it into a character-led, story-driven adventure. Its cast of screwball weirdos, mostly undead or talking vegetables, somehow develop into a deep well of pathos as the story explores just how strange the world would be if guava fruits were carnivorous and corn was philosophical. (All this while somehow sneaking in a side-plot about a canceled manga series called Captain DUI, which is about a man who fights crime with the power of drunk-driving.)

The jokes come thick and fast. The fast-travel ‘teleport’ shrines you use to backtrack just slice you into chunks, which are then ferried to another station by skeletons to be reassembled. You discover some deeply questionable ‘alternative’ recipes involving poppy seeds and cocoa plants, and you get your air-dash ability via installing a jet-turbine sphincter.

While not every joke finds its mark, there’s enough deeply silly bits of dialogue, item descriptions and wacky monster designs to make exploring this weird dungeon world a joy—even when the story takes darker, more serious turns. Dungeon Munchies is carried by its narrative and its characters, as well as a genuine sense of adventure as the stakes (and steaks) keep rising. It’s a world built on jokes, but taken surprisingly seriously. Anyone who watched the entirety of Adventure Time will feel right at home. 

Not to say that the combat in Dungeon Munchies isn’t interesting—it is—but it’s also scrappy. There’s an excitedly amateur feel to it, like that other bizarre indie gem, Vampire Survivors. Movement is simple and a bit stiff, with not especially satisfying jumping physics, while combat is fundamentally just about holding down your attack buttons and positioning yourself so enemies run out of health before you do. But, like the premise, what looks one-note has surprising flavor and depth.

While movement and combat gradually get more complex as your zombie body is given more upgrades through surgery, most of the subtlety comes from character-building. You don’t level up in Dungeon Munchies, but you are what you eat. Your stomach can hold seven dishes at once, some giving simple stat boosts like increased HP and others giving complex powers like accelerating consecutive melee hits at the cost of slightly decreased damage.

Between these food-based powers and separate weapons equipped in your left and right hands, a savvy number-cruncher can turn their shambling sous-chef into a magical Magimix, albeit sometimes at the cost of visibility. When a half-dozen effects are going off with every hit, combat can feel like two angry balls of particle effects smacking into each other. This is probably why many boss fights have phases where you can’t do any damage and have to just focus on evasion.

Soul food

Thanks to the limited contents of your stomach and the linear nature of the game constantly introducing you to new recipes and equipment, you’ll be switching up your character build constantly. It’s messy, but oddly compelling and I can see myself getting into deep theorycrafting territory after the credits roll—there’s a New Game+ mode awaiting me there.

Dungeon Munchies is a game with a lot of heart, and that’s especially clear in how much bespoke art there is. Enemy sprites (bosses in particular) are large, distinct and playfully animated. There’s also a shocking amount of incidental art used in dialogue. Even if combat sometimes devolves into a hard-to-parse ball of pixels, it’s easy to see there’s real passion behind this game. It’s an infectious kind of energy.

Much like a crew of talented yet casually amateur chefs, maJAJa brings a lot of tasty ideas to the table with Dungeon Munchies. Even if the individual ingredients aren’t the freshest and the presentation won’t be winning any Michelin stars, there’s something special about it. Warming and home-made—it’s almost pointedly indie. It’d be a bit of a cliché to say the special ingredient is love, but this isn’t a game that’s shy about well-worn tropes. 

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