What is Deep Down? Capcom’s bold experiment in next-gen dungeoneering

What exactly is Deep Down? After a few hands-on sessions and a gameplay demonstration led by executive producer Yoshinori Ono at September’s Tokyo Game Show, we’re still not entirely sure. At first, Capcom’s PS4-exclusive dungeon crawler appeared to be its take on Dark Souls. Then a 2094 New York meta-setting was introduced in a setup similar to Assassin’s Creed’s Animus. The demo we played, meanwhile, was a procedurally generated loot hunter. And Ono announced it will be a free-to-play online title with fourplayer monster hunting. Clearly it is first and foremost an experiment, an outing for the new Panta Rhei engine, and its arresting use of lighting and physics effects are being slowly shaped into a full game.

One thing’s for sure: Deep Down looks great. Sources of light are everywhere in the game, spanning from the deadly, such as the engulfing flames hurled at you by dragons, ogres and pivoting stone traps, to the beneficial, like the glowing Memento relics that enable your Raven knight to read memories from the past, triggering eerily plaintive voiceovers that will supposedly form a mystery in need of solving. Light peeks through cracks in the dungeon walls, dances in the billows of dust thrown up when the ground occasionally crumbles beneath you, and spirals out of the teleportation gates that transport you from dungeon to dungeon. It illuminates the large character models and hard stone surroundings, which look crisp and solid on Deep Down’s host platform.

We can’t deny that Deep Down looks great.

Each stage is generated at not-quite random, using algorithms designed to ensure that the dungeon is not totally unplayable. The dank pathways and open halls are created as you warp in, and a map is available to summon at any time with a click of DualShock 4’s touchpad.

Each dungeon we played at TGS took about five minutes to explore, with treasure chests hidden down pit traps and behind moving walls. But it was battle that gummed our progress. Taking on one of the demo’s lumbering ogres at a time isn’t too taxing: L2 puts you into a slightly zoomed aiming mode, while R2 and R1 unleash strong and weak lunges with your pike. Movement feels slow and heavy, even when holding L1 to dash, but soon we were hobbling beasts with a poke to the knee before going in for damaging blows to the head. A life bar and hitpoint readout count down the enemy’s health to zero.

Movement is ponderous, making battles more tactical than most.

But once foes start ganging up on you – we regularly encountered four ogres at once, along with a flame-spitting pedestal trap – the tight tunnels become claustrophobic. To ease the pressure, it’s time to use your skills and magic items, which can be customised from a large selection and cycled through using the D-pad. Unleash deadly pocket tornadoes and spin-dash attacks with either Square or Triangle and watch those particle effects go haywire, but take it easy, because uses are limited and top-ups are scarce.

We died a number of times during our first session, overwhelmed at close quarters by pure numbers, but the game offers a quick restart that respawns you where you fell. There is also a Casual Mode in which you cannot die. Ono said during his TGS stage presentation that he hopes players of all skill levels will be able to play through to the end.

In Ono’s demo of the game’s fourplayer co-op, we saw a team of knights bring down the flame-bellowing dragon we first saw in the reveal trailer at PS4’s unveiling. One captivating moment came when a player deployed a series of ice shields to block the fire attacks, then used a spell to freeze time, stopping the dragon and all the other players in their tracks as he continued to move around. Held in freeze frame as the player circled the camera around them, the chunks of debris scattered by the dragon’s broiling breath and the plume of fire itself looked almost tangible. The player then lined up a few fireballs, which also hung in the air until time came crashing back in, sending the projectiles hurtling at the befuddled dragon and ending the battle.

There’s something very Elder Scrolls about these mysterious stone figures.

Ono has said that Panta Rhei was built in tandem with the game, and after extensive conversations with Sony to nail down its target hardware specs. MT Framework was already a versatile engine, but Panta Rhei is a new advancement that’s tailor-made for the coming generation. Capcom is also new to the free-to-play market, though at TGS it announced another F2P title called Blade Fantasia, a smartphone RPG. Clearly this is an area on which Capcom is keeping a close eye.

So the hardware is new, the engine is new, the IP is new and, for its publisher, the distribution model is new. From what we’ve seen so far, Deep Down’s gameplay is basic but still feels fresh. It’s a strange balance of dynamics and mechanics, echoing games you’ve seen before but not really rehashing them. As the game continues to evolve in ways perhaps unforeseen even to Capcom (the team is working towards an open beta soon after PS4’s Japanese launch in February), it may change again entirely, its structure as unpredictable as one of its own dungeons.