Dome Keeper divides me. There’s a part of me that every time I play I’m genuinely happy to come back, feel the ground give under my drill, triumphantly hoist my mined resources to my command center and convert them into upgrades to my base to improve. This time, I tell myself, I’ll build better and survive longer, making my dome’s defenses impenetrable. It will be this run.
Then it is inevitably not. Just as I’m gaining momentum, a particularly ferocious wave of shadowy monsters, both from the air and from the ground, overwhelms me, and my precious dome breaks and breaks, and I’m done for. Game over, try again. And the other part of me is mad that it failed. But I know that’s the way it works, that these games are about trial and error and experimentation and groping your way to winning combinations of upgrades, so I clench my teeth and dig up the ground under my dome again .
But every time I repeat the cycle, some of the shine fades because the core activity in the game, digging, doesn’t really change. Each time I dig into it again it feels more like the tedious work it is and I know it will be a while before I unlock the upgrades that make it easy. And just as I do, just as I’m rebuilding that sense of momentum, the inevitable overwhelming wave of enemies comes and I’m dead again, and my willingness to start over wanes.
Let’s go back a little. Dome Keeper is a two-part game: a base defense game and an excavation game. Base defense takes place upstairs under the domed roof of your base. You are a space traveler who crashed into a hostile planet and this is the base you set up like a marquee. It’s a small base and you won’t expand it, but you will improve its skills.
Much of this upgrade involves your defenses, which center around either a dome-mounted cannon or a sword – yes, that’s right: a huge sword – cool, huh? Both can move left and right across the dome to attack enemies approaching from either side.
The cannon is the easier of the two defenses, as you hold down a button to emit a beam from it. The sword is more complex because it does two things: it pivots left and right to slash enemies and can be fired to hit airborne enemies from a distance – an attack you must control.
Pretty much every aspect of the above can be upgraded. The beam of the cannon can be made stronger and you can make it move faster over the dome. You can even split the cannon in two like a mirror image, but that halves the radiance – there are tradeoffs with whatever upgrade routes you choose.
The sword, on the other hand, has more options. It can be made chunkier to deal more damage, or made longer and slimmer to move faster. You can also make the launcher recharge much faster so you can keep getting it out, or you can turn it into a slower-charging death projectile, much like Yondu’s amazing arrow in Guardians of the Galaxy, weaving it around an entire sky of enemies. You can also add some sort of hilt to the sword’s base that will ricochet off enemy projectiles, provided you’re in the right place. As you can see, the real skill lies in mastering the Sword Defense Dome – it’s not easy.
In addition, you can improve your dome’s health and shields. add pulsating electric charges; add self-moving stun guns – all sorts of additional defense upgrades are offered.
Upgrades are funded by resources, and resources are hidden in the ground beneath your base – the ground you dig up. You do this simply by moving into a block of earth, which causes you to dig it up automatically, and some blocks will collapse quicker than others. Recognizing the easier ways through the ground is part of your acquired skills in the game.
Resource squares are colored differently, and you’ll get cues that they’re nearby. And if you find one and break it apart, smaller resource tokens will pop out for you to haul back to base.
This is trenching in a nutshell, and like base defense, almost every aspect of it can be upgraded. You can increase the power of your drill, your pull strength and your flight speed. You can even choose major upgrades that do much of the heavy lifting for you by scavenging special relics, such as: There’s also a scanner to locate resources, a bomb to blast away whole chunks of dirt – there are many choices, and each has its own upgrade tree.
In other words, there are many upgrades to choose from, but not many resources to spend on them. There’s an almost intentional rigor to the game that forces you to think carefully about what to specialize in. And the key factor in all of this is time.
Time determines everything you do. Every few minutes a new wave of enemies will attempt to breach your dome at the top, and unless you sit in your command seat beneath the dome to control your defenses, they will charge unchallenged. First off, this isn’t a huge problem since you didn’t dig far to be close. But as you start digging deeper, it will take you a while to get back home, and you’ll be looking for benefits to speed that up. The question is always how much time can you spare and how can you gain more of it?
But you’ll also want stronger defenses because enemy waves will increase in strength, and if you feel weak in that area, Dome Keeper won’t hesitate to punish you for it. So you will be torn; “What to do?” is the strategy of the game.
The problem with this design is that a lot of the fun lies in the upgrades. It’s great for pulverizing a path through blocks that used to slow you down. Cleaving through piles of enemies with an upgraded sword is delicious. and vaporizing enemies with a mega cannon is wonderful. And the game knows that – the game makes you want to do it. But spending too long without it slows down the whole formula and makes it boring, making it feel repetitive and giving room for frustration, especially when, just as you seem to be making progress, another wave of enemies arrives to destroy you.
By the way, there are a few different modes that you can play the game in. In the easier Relic Hunt mode, you search the ground for a large relic and once you haul it up, you win and unlock new options to start a new game, like the Sword Defense Base. This mode feels a lot more polite and won’t really tax you.
“Digging and lugging too often feels like chores and doesn’t inherently have the repeatable enjoyment of, say, combat in Hades or map strategy in Slay the Spire.”
But it’s the other game mode, Prestige mode, that feels like the main event where you get high scores and compete against other players. And as far as I know, this mode goes on indefinitely and gets harder and harder the longer you play. It also introduces even more things to spend your limited resources on, centered around your ability to rack up points for each wave of enemies you survive.
Dome Keeper feels like a game to me, as divided as my thoughts on it are. I don’t mind the difficulty. I’ve even come to see the rigor as part of the charm. The whimsical, brooding nature of the music and the ominous sense that you’re going to die at some point contrast beautifully with the cute pixel art look. And mastering something difficult is only half the excitement and literally earns you the prestige the game mode is named after.
But by splitting it into two types of games – digging and base defense – Dome Keeper has struggled to master one of the two, so neither feels like a complete success in its own right. Digging and hauling too often feels like chores and doesn’t inherently have the repeatable enjoyment of, say, combat in Hades or map strategy in Slay the Spire. And the base defenses never feel advanced enough to put you through tense battles, repelling hordes of attackers – too often ending with a confused feeling about why you suddenly died. Too often it ends in frustration. It’s not fun often enough.
https://www.eurogamer.net/dome-keeper-review-not-quite-digging-it Dome Keeper Review – not quite dug