The Wratch's Den - Review

Deep underground, the last embers of a once-great empire still smolder with wrath. Orcs dig into the ancient walls of the caves, ensuring a steady supply of subterranean gold. Wolves patrol the carved corridors looking for intruders into the sunless dominion. Strange lights and sounds haunt the stone passages leading to the alchemist’s laboratory. The kingdom might have fallen. Yet The Wratch is still alive.

Soon the hour shall come to emerge once again, more mighty than ever before. Somewhere here, in these forgotten tunnels, the three Orbs of Infinite Power lie buried. Those who discover them and bring them together will become invincible. No foe will stand against them. No army will halt their conquest. Soon, the Orbs will be found and The Wratch will return from the dark depths below the world of humans – to rule once more.

Subterranean Halls

The Wratch's Den - Review

The Wratch’s Den is a traditional dungeon builder, following the sinister designs of Dungeon Keeper and KeeperRL. A defeated tyrant brooding on a dark throne, reigning over an underground kingdom of orcs and goblins. That’s the main character, The Wratch. The game starts with the titular overlord in the center of the screen, with but a few followers around. Only rough earthen walls stretch beyond the lone throne room where the three are gathered.

Walls, full of gold – and some of them containing the legendary magical orbs. Finding the latter is the ultimate goal of the game. The former, however, is still as valuable as you’d expect. Building a powerful kingdom requires more than a few coins. If you want the empire to rise to its full glory, better make sure you have full coffers. With enough investment, soon there’ll be an entire civilization where before there was nothing but cold stone.

Under the wise rule of The Wratch the once-silent caverns will be transformed into a bustling town. Dim candlelight will illuminate shelves full of books at the library. In the laboratory, goblin alchemists will tirelessly research mysterious substances; while a market set up near the dungeon’s entrance would let the cowardly invaders spend a few coins to fund The Wratch’s enlightened projects. As if a healing potion could save them from retribution!

Jealousy and Greed

The Wratch's Den - Review

It’s no surprise that such magnificence will soon bring all sorts of so-called heroes to your prosperous realm. Driven, no doubt, by greed and jealousy, the foolish adventurers will launch crusade after crusade, with complete disregard for their own losses. Mages, rogues and even peasants would form ragtag bands and appear, all of a sudden, on your kingdom’s borders. Honestly, I’m still puzzled as to how they are able to do it, considering we’re underground. Surely there’s some malevolent sorcery at work here.

In any case, however they are able to invade your subterranean empire, they must be dealt with. You cannot allow them to roam the halls and disrupt the daily workings of the kingdom. It’s bad enough that they prevent many of your servants from going about their business. Their ultimate aim, however, seems to be to defeat The Wratch themselves! By the way, the fearsome overlord dies with a really cool animation. Maybe the heroes just want to watch the fireworks?

Whatever their goal is – it certainly doesn’t fit into The Wratch’s grand schemes. Still, you can’t expect the mighty ruler to fight their own battles, right? Therefore, you must ensure that there are plenty of warriors ready to die for the throne. The unwarlike goblins would have to learn how to employ a deadly bow; the orc’s mining pick could be used for more than peaceful labor. If the defenders fall, they’ve got nothing to worry about. Using their magical abilities, The Wratch will ensure that the guards won’t abandon their post for too long.

Work and War

The Wratch's Den

For the most part, however, The Wratch is somewhat distanced from everyday affairs of the realm. The monarch seems perfectly content with sitting on the throne the entire day; every once in a while performing some incredibly useful – though rare – feats of magic. Those are mostly supportive in nature, such as mass healing or the above-mentioned resurrection. The player’s work, however, is a bit more involved.

If you’ve ever played KeeperRL you should be familiar with that gameplay style. The various inhabitants of The Wratch’s Den are mostly static, requiring the player to control them individually. It’s basically like a roguelike mixed with dungeon management. You can’t just give them some overarching goal, like mining or gathering, either. Instead, you must literally play as each worker and “personally” perform the tasks you need.

It might seem like a chore – and maybe it is for some – but I soon got into the rhythm. The only issue I have with this mechanic is that, unlike in KeeperRL, it seems impossible to form some sort of warband. This would be very useful, for example, when you need to quickly move some warriors from one part of the dungeon to another. Instead, you often end up in a situation when a single brave champion charges to save their lord, while the other defenders just stand around having no idea what to do.

Lights of the Underground

The Wratch's Den

The overall ambience and visual style are beyond any praise! The various animations are spot-on: goblins carrying golden nuggets in their arms; ghosts floating around the dark corridors; The Wratch laughing in triumph at the sight of one of the spheres. The characters’ design is incredible as well. The wolves, the orcs, the various adventurers. It’s astonishing how much work must’ve gone into all this.

The game looks professional, but also, in a way, unlike anything I’ve seen before. It reminds me the most of Karawan’s unique and striking art style. It captures your attention like some 80s light show, and it does seem to be at least partially inspired by that retro aesthetic. That’s especially noticeable during the introduction, that tells the sad story of The Wratch’s fall, accompanied by incredible synth music and kaleidoscopic lights.

And the music doesn’t stop with the introduction. The entire game proceeds with a fantastic soundtrack – an entire album’s worth of memorable tunes. I wish I could express with words how good some of these are, but you’ll just have to trust me on this one. I am convinced that there was a dedicated, professional musician on the team. They did a great job creating that enchanting ambience of underground kingdoms, full of mysterious lights dancing on the cold stones.


The Wratch's Den

With its awesome visuals, its memorable music and its engaging gameplay, The Wratch’s Den instantly captures your imagination. It’s able to take the classic dungeon builder formula and present it in an absolutely unique way. Everything here looks polished and thought-out. It seems like the developers spent a ton of time making sure they got each detail just right. The effort certainly shows – and with plenty of randomized elements, you can totally play this game for hours.

For that purpose, The Wratch’s Den features an infinite mode, in addition to the main map. It really is infinite, by the way – because for some technical reason I couldn’t leave it. Well, I guess “giving up”, as the game calls it, is not an option. Not that I would ever give up, in any case, right? Well, maybe I really should tell the developer about this. Whatever – this was the only bug I found in the game so far. Other than that, everything runs flawlessly.

Anyway, let’s get to the conclusion. Game development is art: I doubt there are many who’d disagree with that. This game, however, seems like it was made by an entire team of true artists. It’s one of those rare projects where visuals, music, design and development go hand in hand to produce an absolutely fantastic experience; and as you look upon your thriving underground empire you might start questioning whether you actually want to conquer the world above after all.