Popup Dungeon, the highly customizable tactical RPG roguelike from Triple.B.Games and Humble Games, is a story of two halves. The story and characters that ship with the game are, to put it nicely, overcooked. There are questionable references to internet humor that just don’t land, and the entire narrative feels like it’s trying too hard. There are moments of brilliance, but much of the dialogue felt like it was penned by Steve Buscemi with a skateboard. If Popup Dungeon shipped with just this content, it wouldn’t be worth a second glance, another in a long line of games cashing in on unearned cheap pops.

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Thankfully, Popup Dungeon‘s entire base game is merely the tutorial for a creativity suite that puts RPG Maker to shame. Clicking into the downloadable heroes section prelaunch revealed fully realized versions of Sonic the Hedgehog, He-Man, and Shrek. These aren’t merely re-skins of existing personalities,  butthey’re fully formed new characters that feel authentic in a way that only fans can provide. The guardian of Eternia has backing music from Masters of the Universe whenever he swings his sword, and Sega’s blue hedgehog has a fully functional spin dash. It’s instantly impressive, doubly so when one thinks of the ingenuity a wider audience can provide.

The graphical style requires a bit of imagination on the player’s part, but that’s not a bad thing. Each character is a boxy papercraft figure with full animations for attacks and moves. Enemies are often depicted as static cardboard cutouts, but they still hop around the battlefield and summon particle effects for their maneuvers. These simplistic models greatly benefit the custom content, because creators can effortlessly convert a JPEG into a Foot Clan ninja that fits right in alongside the ogres and goblins that come preinstalled.

Speaking of the Foot Clan, Popup Dungeon not only has pages of characters ready to go on launch day, but it also has a few rather meaty story campaigns. One of them is a fully-featured Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tale that lasted several hours on normal difficulty. Michelangelo is a healer granting pizza to his brothers, Donnie does machines via a drone strike, and there’s even a tribute to the licensed NES classic for good measure. Popup Dungeon does a great job of hiding the flaws that come with any fangame thanks to its handling of complex gameplay systems, leading to an experience that’s easily recommendable for anyone who owns a shirt depicting the Technodrome.

It’s worth noting that the artwork for attacks and story segments in this and other custom campaigns were ripped from various copyrighted sources, as Popup Dungeon‘s entire funnel of custom content relies on the LittleBigPlanet-esque hope that no one is paying attention. That could be a worry in the long run if various rights holders come knocking, but they might be doing their fans a great disservice in the process. Whereas the developer-authored content in Popup Dungeon is nothing worth writing home about, the TMNT fangame already available is one of the best gaming renditions of the Turtles since the days of the arcades.

That’s just one very early example of what’s possible with this game. Jumping into the creative side of things reveals tools that even someone not adept at mapmakers can get a grasp on. Because stats and other numbers are all handled by the game, creators can simply pick all the settings out of intuitive menus and go. Popup Dungeon even features a tool that attempts to cut out characters from a full image for use as an enemy. After uploading the backglass from Addams Family pinball, the game honed in on Morticia and Gomez. Ten minutes of tweaks later, there was a fully functional character with thematic attacks ready to drop into any campaign.

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The one negative to all this freedom is that Popup Dungeon is releasing on a little thing called the internet, which means that it will inevitably face a flood of less than desirable imagery. It seems pretty easy to hide offensive pictures in skills or items that pop-up in-game, and there’s no easy way to flag such content should a player discover it. There is a toggle if a creator wants to mark their content as adults-only, but more robust moderation may be required if the game picks up any level of steam on Steam.

It’s also worth noting that the gameplay is not the star of the show here. Popup Dungeon functions really well considering that it has to factor for an insane number of variables that could be introduced by a creator, but the battles themselves are pretty standard. There is a good range of difficulties available, and pumping that up definitely makes the enemies better utilize their skills. Still, much like any creation-first game, Popup Dungeon‘s best qualities lie in novelty and clever inventions rather than the joy of play.

Can a game succeed purely on the merits of player content? Is it worth forking over big bucks for a sandbox that others have to fill in? Judging merely by what’s available on day one, the answer is a resounding yes. Popup Dungeon has the type of creation tools that will fuel internet insanity for years to come. They’re in the same weight class as the WWE 2K series and Soul Calibur, often overshadowing the base game they’re bundled with simply due to how easy they are for everyone to use. If players avoid the occasional cringe that punctuates Triple.B.Games’ contributions, they’ll find a treasure trove of opportunity that can easily suck away the hours.

Popup Dungeon is available on PC. A pre-release code was provided to Screen Rant for the purposes of this review.

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Our Rating:

4 out of 5 (Excellent)
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