Need to know
what is that A pixel art roguelike that combines mining for resources with defending your glass home from aliens.
Expect to pay: £14/$17
Release date: September 27th
Publisher: Raw Rage
Reviewed on: RTX 2070, i7-10750H, 16GB RAM
Link: Official website (opens in a new tab)
People who live in glass houses should not throw stones. No, they need a lot more firepower than that. At least that’s the case in Dome Keeper, where tides of vengeful monsters attack your all-too-breakable transparent sanctuary, and ramping up your laser defenses is the only way to stay intact. Mercifully, the ground beneath your feet contains pockets of raw materials that you can use to strengthen your hardware.
Dome Keeper’s rogue routine is as beautifully simple as that: carve out bits of soil during quiet moments that last about a minute, then go up home with whatever you find and fend off the next attack. The reasons for your predicament are similarly simple, outlined in a little intro that sees your glass spaceship crash into an alien landscape, squashing one of the locals. Now its relatives are inferential to smash the deadly snow globe that sinks you into a suffocating loop.
It’s suffocating because Dome Keeper is so tight and relentless, like the day-night cycle of Terraria or Minecraft vacuum-packed into a single inescapable space. Your dome dweller, a blob of pixel art, darts around with the urgency of a worker bee, banging against blocks with a tiny drill until they crumble. You just have to point them at a block for the drill to do its job. Some of the soft rock surrenders immediately, some requires a few pokes. Luckily the tunnels you cut out lead to deposits of iron, which you attach to wires with a button tap and drag back to base.
Inside your delicate haven, a machine processes your catch so you can convert it into something useful. Your heavy laser cannon that rotates around the perimeter of the dome can be boosted with extra speed or power. Or you may want to improve your drill strength, speed and carrying capacity. Or install a scanner that counts down to the next attack and a remote monitor that lets you keep track of the dome’s integrity. If you want to strengthen your shields or make repairs, you will need to locate rarer materials – water and cobalt – first.
Whatever you decide, the monsters are coming. Your dome sits exposed in the bottom middle of a single screen as they fall and pile up across the ground on either side, or spit projectiles from the sky. At first they come alone, but after a few waves they start to swarm. The laser soon feels inadequate, moving slowly across the dome as the shadowy creatures hammer at the glass from all angles. It is impossible to prevent everything from going through. Time for more updates.
Just in time
Dome Keeper never deviates from this cycle, yet its modest format is utterly absorbing. On the level of resource management, it works because there are always pressing reasons to upgrade everything, and the benefits of each improvement are transparent, so every cluster of ore secured becomes important because of what it helps you achieve. And when you fight or mine, the demand for compromises and cost-benefit decisions remains powerfully present.
Defense is all about prioritizing targets, a process driven by the length of time it takes to sweep from one side of the screen to the other. The most immediate threat might be on the right, but sometimes it’s convenient to ignore that until you first ban the left. In mining, you are constantly weighing how deep you should go, or how much iron to carry in one trip, because each unit slows you down a little. Fortunately, if you’re overloaded, you can discard part of your load, because nothing is more deadly than letting the monsters start without you.
Most calculations in Dome Keeper thus exercise the time-keeping section of your brain—the part that decides how late you can leave to leave for a date, and convinces you against all logic that there’s still time to check your emails. There will be moments when you return to find your base in chaos because you just couldn’t leave that last piece of iron behind, like the idiot in the movie who runs back into the burning building to grab money. You shouldn’t be early either—every second of downtime is wasted productivity.
Even your mining patterns require consideration. Dig down rather than across and you will find harder rock but larger deposits of minerals. And if you tend to cut veins through the stone by digging in lines, you may want to take a cycle to remove the bits in between, to create larger paths for future trips. But once you excavate a large area, it might be difficult to find your way back in a hurry, so maybe leave some formations as landmarks or as way stations to place resources while you dive for more.
Close to home
There are so many practical concerns here that you will forget the horror of your situation, which in itself is disconcerting. Dome Keeper isn’t a scary game, despite the shadowy, unknowable monsters that constantly harass you, but that’s partly because it keeps you too busy to contemplate your existential crisis. Once you do, though, it’s weird. The dome is the goldfish bowl of modern life, where there is no static, only expansion or failure. You work all day to survive at night, always in isolation, and tomorrow you will have to put more together than today – otherwise you will not be able to continue to improve your home and yourself. Once you peel away the rock around this metaphor, it’s hard to ignore, but it only adds poignancy to your efforts.
Fortunately, as with any decent consumerist economy, shiny new toys occasionally arrive to lighten the gloom. In the ground among the raw materials is some mysterious technology, locked away in caskets until you prize it free. Pull one such case and you get a choice of two devices to play with, drawn from a selection of about eight in total, such as an elevator that can transport materials, a probe that can highlight resources in your vicinity, and a machine that can distill water from the atmosphere.
You’ll have instant favorites—everyone should fall in love with the jolly Drillbert, an encapsulated mini-dinosaur with a drill beak that you can detach to tunnel for you—but all are potential game-changers, especially once you upgrade them. The teleporter, for example, is initially like the time travel device in The Terminator in that it transports you but rejects any baggage you’re dragging. That is until you rebuild it to warp minerals, and then increase its efficiency so it saves you a lot of trouble carrying things.
However, even these labor-saving devices are something of a burden. The more equipment you have to run, ultimately, the more thinly your resources are spread, reducing how much you can pour into upgrades. Having a mod like an elevator is one thing, but you really need the souped-up model that moves things faster and more often, right? It’s all part of the work-life cycle. Better get back to the mine.
Dig for victory
At least in Dome Keeper there is a way to escape the cycle. In the default mode, Relic Hunt, you have to dig deep enough to find an ancient device and stick it into your dome to wipe out your enemies en masse. Playing on one of the game’s smaller maps, which you choose before you start, a winning run here tends to take 30-45 minutes, while on a large map, you can chip away at over an hour. Each completion then unlocks new backgrounds, alternate loadout options or modifiers that you can choose to apply in future runs.
The biggest prize, however, is Dome Keeper’s second weapon system, which trades the laser for a sword that swings across the dome and fires like a harpoon. It takes a touch more skill to swing and aim shots, but it becomes devastating when ramped up, and it’s always nice to switch styles once in a while. The other major addition is Prestige mode, where you build a score by surviving waves of monsters and compete in online leaderboards. The clever twist here is that you can send resources home to increase your score multiplier, which of course is a trade-off for upgrades. This should provide Dome Keeper with longevity even after you’ve explored every loadout and difficulty in Relic Hunt.
However, because Dome Keeper is such a focused experience, it may need more meat to keep it fresh in the long run. While it never fails to hold the attention, around the 10-hour mark you don’t see much that’s really new. This is especially true for the monsters that transform into mere pests after you’ve survived long enough. Developer Bippinbits has at least already promised a second character class, and hopefully more will follow.
Until then, a few minor corrections are in order. I lost a nearly finished run when the game refused to reload my save on one occasion, while on another run it stopped simply because I couldn’t find water sources, which felt tough. These incidents in no way detract from an extremely compelling overall experience, however, which packs so many small but consequential decisions into such a small space. For a strictly crafted roguelike, there’s no place like a dome.