Good budget games prove that a gaming penny saved is a gaming penny earned, but it can be tough to keep up with sales and there’s no guarantee you’ll want what’s up on offer. Wish lists live up to their name more and more each day, as their contents remain out of reach and beyond the realm of reality.
But there’s another class of budget games out there, lurking in the shadows. Sometimes they’re simply lesser known, coming from indie studios or released to less fanfare than better-advertised competitors. Other times they’re games you already know and might be shocked when checking their price tag. But they all share one important trait: they don’t need to be on sale to go for a great price.
Delving into the storefront dungeons of Steam, GOG, indie publishers, and countless other net-alleys, I’ve pulled a collection of bizarre and wondrous budget games from trapped pedestals and the eyes of statues. Join me in giving wallets a well-deserved break and celebrating the best of the $15 and under crowd.
Dungeons of Dredmor
What is it? A weird and funny blend of classic tile-based roguelike and interactive comedy, Dungeons of Dredmor sees you trying to get to the bottom of its many dungeon floors and murder its namesake: the evil Lord Dredmor. Expect tick-based combat where everything moves when you do, ruthless difficulty, and more quirk than even your average Tim Schafer game.
Why should I buy it? From the words Lutefisk and Diggle, Dungeons of Dredmor had me in its clutches. The style of Dredmor is a combination of irreverent humor with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek genre references and nerd culture crossover. In most games, the punch bowl I’ve just described would be served using a firehose, leaving you drenched in a college freshman’s idea of good taste. But instead, the lovely people who once ran Gaslamp Games stuck the landing with Dredmor. Its peculiar mix of silliness and dire consequences evokes long-dead adventure games like King's Quest and Quest for Glory in every cup you down.
Dredmor doesn’t skip leg day to rely exclusively on humor. While you’re not going to find the level of depth you’ll see in the elders of the roguelike field – who I might add generally benefit from decades of development – Dredmor still supports dozens of different play styles with a skills-as-classes approach to characters. You can mix up each playthrough and take on the big guy at the bottom of the dungeon stairs as a communist archaeologist, pirate emomancer, or berserking battle geologist.
But unlike most major traditional roguelikes – where branches of their code are usually the closest thing to user-generated content – Dredmor has a huge mod community. So if you want to add some spice, or just knock the liquor cabinet over into the punch bowl for the pure chaos that ensues, you’ve got a massive library of options to pick through. For just $7, with three full expansions included (Conquest of the Wizardlands, Realm of the Diggle Gods, and the free You Have To Name The Expansion Pack), it may be the best every-day-of-the-week bargain on all of Steam.
As a close friend’s Steam review says: “I've spent more money on sandwiches and gotten less enjoyment out of them.”
Legend of Grimrock
What is it? A throwback dungeon-crawling RPG that brings clever ideas and a streamlined approach to the classic genre. Expect to navigate in the first person and conquer monsters and puzzles alike while an atmospheric story slowly unfolds. You’ll swing swords, sling spells, and spring traps with a cast of four pitiable fantasy crash test dummies under your command.
Why should I buy it? Seeing Legend of Grimrock for the first time feels like walking into an Einstein-Rosen bridge directly to the early 90s, when games like Eye of the Beholder, Wizardry, and Dungeon Master ruled with an iron fist. But while Grimrock may take leaves out of its predecessor's books, it uses them to make a delightfully refreshing mug of Earl Grey, hot.
Grimrock narrows its approach to the dungeon crawl, reducing the number of classes and races to three and four, respectively. It compresses the genre’s typically sprawling systems down into diamonds: an unadorned skill setup, active – often frantic – combat, and effective puzzles. A slim but meaningful story winds through Grimrock, with your cast of misfit criminals visited by a mysterious voice in their heads when they rest and notes littering the dungeon. But there’s no hand-holding or exposition to speak of, outside of the bookend cutscenes that open and close the game. By forgoing the glut of additional options that are woven into so many other dungeon crawlers, Grimrock lets you savor simple flavors.
Combats will see you learning to exploit the different foibles of each enemy – tunnel ogres will charge you, and you can sidestep them to get free attacks in; other enemies can’t attack to the sides, leaving openings for you to strafe around them and get your licks in. Spellcasting finds you keying in rune combinations to create your spells, like some kind of data entry wizard trying to slay the latest TPS report, and you’ll swing other combatants’ weapons by clicking on cooldown, like a juggler trying to keep your colored balls spinning.
By boiling off the excess complication of the dungeon-crawling genre, Grimrock has achieved something special. This is a slick and pretty game that feels like a well-crafted puzzle for its entire length, then adds options like "old school mode" (where the auto-mapping functions are disabled, and you have to sketch out the map by hand yourself), and the ability to create your own custom dungeons for others to play with. Together, it’s a feature set that shows the team at Almost Human Games really gets a venerable genre in a rare way. Grimrock is "respect your elders" printed in 72-point bold font but in video game form.
Dungeon of the Endless
What is it? Dungeon of the Endless is a blend of roguelike and tower defense, pitting the survivors of a crashed starship against hordes of enemies. You’ll unlock new technologies, level up your survivors, build modules in rooms, and try to keep the power generator that lights the darkness alive to make it to the next floor of the massive dungeon on the planet Auriga.
Why should I buy it? Trying to explain my love for Dungeon of the Endless gives me some of the same feeling I get playing it – as if I’m putting down tracks under a moving train. During its most frantic moments, Endless feels like it’s given me too many limes to hold. I look at it sternly, asking, “See here now, what am I to do with all these limes!?”. But it just smiles serenely and hands me another confusingly delightful citrus to try to cram into my arms. I’m not sure if I’ve lost the thread of the analogy here, but basically: limes are sour, and so am I when my plans go wrong.
Thankfully, with Endless, I never feel cheated, simply defeated. And before the number of things I’m clumsily juggling comes crashing down on my head, I’m given regular respites. Since the DNA running through Endless’ veins is that of tower defense, its moments of sheer panic come in waves. Each pocket of calm before the storm is a break to consider how to prepare for the next wave – or even avoid it, if you’ve managed to set yourself up correctly.
In Endless, only dark rooms will spawn enemies, so careful resource management can give you longer periods with little to no interruption. But since the map – and the route to the elevator out – is randomized on each floor, at best you’re making educated guesses on where to explore. In the Endless, the bill always comes due eventually, and when it does you’ll have to ride the whirlwind of enemies.
For me, two big things separate Endless from being just an excellent tower defense game. The first is the fact that it not only supports up to four players in co-op (best with two, I think personally) but is an absolute blast to play that way. Coordinating your resources and supporting each other during the chaotic tension of waves of attackers – from murderous crystals to classic zombies – is a new standard for testing friendships in the best way.
The second is the roguelike and character progression bonafides that Dungeon of the Endless has on display. With each of the 18 characters in the base game (and 10 more in the $4 worth of DLC) bringing a bevy of unique skills, plus a huge variety of items to equip them with, Endless stakes out ground beyond tower defense. Your characters give you a more personal stake in each encounter. They can give powerful buffs, improve your economy, or become the most dangerous mobile turret you can imagine – right up until an angry piece of shiny geometry murders you to death.
But when life gives you limes, tell life: "I really feel like I have enough limes already, but I guess whatever”. And then buy Dungeon of the Endless for $12.