There are a few names in the JRPG realm that stand alongside royalty: Yuji Horii, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu, and, if you’re of a certain vintage, Hiroyuki Ito. Okay, Ito may not be well known, but a look at his rÃ©sumÃ© should reassure you of his references; This is the man who invented the Active Time Battle mode that was a backbone of the Final Fantasy franchise, and furthermore, this is the director of Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 9, and Final Fantasy 12. No matter where you are whatever the best Final Fantasy game could be (it’s Final Fantasy 12, by the way) I’m sure you can agree that these three deserve a spot among the best we’ve seen so far.
And for nearly 15 years, Ito’s whereabouts have been something of a mystery, often chosen by the Final Fantasy fan base. His name appears only fleetingly in the credits of a handful of mobile projects or as a special thank you in larger games. There has been some speculation that he might show up as part of the Final Fantasy 16 team, as it borrows from the more classic era of the series that Ito is associated with.
But then something strange happened, apparently out of nowhere. On October 1, Square Enix released a trailer for a new project called Simply Dungeon Encounters (a name so nondescript that I had forgotten about it since I started writing this article and had to double-check it), shall we say minimalist JRPG looking like its budget wasn’t too much more than the Â£ 20 asked for it on the eShop and other digital stores you visit. It might have been completely unremarkable if it hadn’t been for the director of the project: a certain Hiroyoku Ito.
The game, you won’t be surprised if you have an affinity with its previous work, turns out to be quite remarkable: an RPG that is aggressively pared down to the bare minimum and a dungeon crawler that explicitly feels it’s feathered and parchment scribbled together. It reminds me in many ways of Yasumi Matsuno’s own quirky hymn to pen and paper role-playing games, Crimson Shroud from 2012 – a game similarly pared down and an antithesis to the exaggerated, grandiose adventures associated with the series who have favourited both developers to name.
They are also both games that, despite their pared-back nature, feel as opulent as anything else you find in this genre. The premise here is disarmingly simple – there are 99 floors of a dungeon to map, each narrated in rough blank squares etched onto paper that you then color in with each step, each full of enemy encounters. Some floors are patrolled by grossly overwhelmed enemies; some are simply contaminated with cannon fodder, which you can use to drag your party through the levels so that they are better prepared for what lies ahead on the next downstairs and deeper descent.
Wrinkles are found here, although they are all tastefully light; You can choose your group from a list of pre-rolled candidates at the start, and on the dungeon floors you will find other members ready to recruit, whose coordinates are helpful in the menu if you want to chase one of them down . The combat system itself is also of sheer beauty – Ito’s ATB counters return to space with every turn-based encounter as you juggle attacks to work through physical and magical defenses before you can carve out an enemy’s health points.
All of this is told by static character art that still feels plentiful for its economy full of character, certainly thanks to the fine pen and ink work of Ryoma Ito – another Final Fantasy star who previously worked on the art design of Final Fantasy 12 and other related Ivalice outings such as Revenant Wings and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. It’s one of several connections to this beloved age for the series, with another from Final Fantasy 12 producer Hiroaki Kato, one of the people who helped create this game’s brilliant gambit system.
Dungeon Encounters isn’t exactly a companion piece to Final Fantasy 12, but it’s an intriguing counterpoint to it. While this particular game, as is well known, could play itself, exposing the mechanics behind so many RPGs, and allowing you to tinker and work on it until you’ve conjured and refined a beautiful machine of your own, Dungeon Encounters removes all of that until you get the chance got what amounts to a playable spreadsheet – a description that some might walk a mile, but one that would run into someone like me stubbornly and insanely happy.
So this is a quirky version of RPG that will be an acquired taste due to its no-frills approach. For over a dozen hours, however, I was fascinated and entertained by its simplicity, and I can imagine dozens more to come. Few other RPGs are as quick in the action or as quick in the basic number of numbers that should always take you up, and as unexpected as the return of a grande of the genre it’s kind of part of Ito’s sizable legacy. And that’s surely all you need to know about this remarkable little game, if you are aware of its importance.