Blocky Dungeon, from SquareDev, takes the perfectly satisfying formula of Tetris and inserts an adorable miniature dungeon crawler between all the blocks you stack. It’s an easy concept to grasp. I could instantly understand it from the video a friend sent me (thanks to my burning love for all things Tetris and anything that dares to meddle with its pure and perfect design). I couldn’t quite take my eyes off it. Now, having played it for a bit myself, I think it’s actually quite brilliant — and 100 percent worth tinkering with.
The first thing players will smack into like a wall are the oddly confusing controls. There are two ways to play Blocky Dungeon. Though I recommend newcomers to jump into the controls menu and switch to the “Separated” setting first. This friendlier control scheme may feel a bit too simple after a certain point. But it allowed me to understand the basic challenge of navigating both puzzle and dungeon at the same time. This means by pressing the back button on my controller or the Space key on my keyboard, I essentially flip a switch that lets me focus on either building the dungeons — by placing blocks onto the grid — or controlling my knight to explore and fight their way through each custom made level.
For folks nervous about the Tetris portion, rest assured; this is low-stakes stuff. The game mercifully removes the automatic drop rate for blocks, so you can take your time making sure each piece goes where you think it should. In this case, you’re still aiming to fill in lines, just as in Tetris, but if you leave a tiny gap anywhere on the board, your little knight can fix it when you switch back to controlling them.
Once control switched to the knight navigating the dungeon, I had to find the best routes to complete simple objectives. That might be opening a certain number of treasure chests, or collecting X amount of gold. The twist here is that the knight only has a set number of actions each turn. In order to replenish those, you have to drop blocks onto the grid. Each action consists of moving, breaking down walls, building floor tiles, and attacking enemies, and every one of those takes up action points. Breaking down walls or building floors to fill gaps left by bad block placement also requires a separate currency, the hammer, which you can pick up inside dungeons. But once you finally satisfy a given round’s given win conditions, you can drop a block containing the dungeon exit to make your way out in one piece.
Along the way you need to clear lines from the grid. Once you select which lines you want gone (along with any enemies or missed items) and step out of the highlighted area, they vanish from the board and your stack sinks down to the bottom. Then the whole process starts all over again with a different combination of blocks — just like Tetris. Only this also brings a whole new area of the dungeon to navigate.
The magic really hit me when I hopped into the controls menu and enabled the game’s “United” scheme. This puts block placement on the D-pad or analog stick, while character movement swaps to the face buttons or right analog stick. The result is playing Tetris and controlling the little onscreen character at the same time. This speeds up Blocky Dungeon considerably and allows for instantly gratifying ways to bail yourself out of tough situations. The best moments, however, is when you turn the tables trap enemies in their own obstacles. You are both architect and playtester, and the seemingly infinite combinations always give you more reasons to fling blocks at the grid to see what works and what doesn’t.
When things get a tiny bit frustrating, however, some cracks start to show. It would be nice to have an undo button, for example. Even after grasping the game’s controls, the occasional incorrect hard drop, or a step in the wrong direction can lead to the beginning of the end. It was a bummer that I couldn’t just “oops” my way out on the rare occasion that it did happen — even just once a round. Another unfortunate piece of the puzzle is that, once a block is dropped, enemies move two times. Oftentimes a key will drop with them. Certain enemies will make a beeline to those items and gobble them up before you even have a chance to register what you’re looking at. Thankfully, the game will always dole out more keys, but it’s a wild guess as to when they’ll return.
Despite some kinks, however, Blocky Dungeon just coalesces into this really fascinating experiment. At first it might feel like a coordination test, but eventually I found a unique challenge where I could simultaneously become both dungeon designer and player. The fun comes in taking these building blocks and seeing them transform into neat little spaces to navigate. I can almost imagine what the creators’ eureka moment must have felt like, and that fingerprint of the game’s designer helps guide your own custom-made runs through these adorable dungeons.