I’ve always been very cynical about the phone as a gaming platform, and in particular the free-to-play model with which it has become almost synonymous. Most free games from the Google Play store or the Apple AppStore adopt some form of ‘premium currency’; in-game riches for which the player pays real money. They do it in different ways, but for some reason premium currency seems most often represented by blue gemstones.
The extent to which this premium currency is ‘required’ to enjoy or do well in a game vary wildly. Moe Ninja Girls, while combining the F2P model with a Japanese-style ecchi visual novel in a very unique way, requires enormous financial investment for those who want the full experience. Goddess Kiss, on the other hand, is very generous with its premium currency, giving out small but regular amounts out to non-paying players, and offers very cheap deals on monthly subscriptions. Blossom Blast Saga entices players with a free-to-play puzzle game which can be enjoyed without paying for a long time before levels become difficult or even impossible without purchasing premium power-ups. Whilst microtransactions are common in F2P PC games, these usually involve cosmetic items and mini DLC rather than currency that helps you win or progress faster, or even get thrown down the drain in Moe Ninja Girls’ pernicious gacha system. Of course, these are just examples from my own experience, and there are many more.
In this sea of transparent greed, Gumballs and Dungeons shines like a beacon of hope. It may not seem like much at first, but a player who sticks with it will find a game that is amazingly deep and broad. Essentially it is a turn-based dungeon crawler. It’s not quite a roguelike, but it feels like one. You start with one ‘gumball’ (a lowly creature presumably based on the ubiquitous ‘slimes’ found in JRPGS and the like). This is the Adventurer, and together you delve, floor by floor, into a dungeon, the only goal being to reach the last floor and escape. As you progress, though, you’ll gain potions and treasures to take with you; your gumball will level up and become more powerful from the start, and you’ll meet new gumballs whose abilities you can borrow, forming an adventuring party of sorts. Each new dungeon you unlock has different mechanics; this is probably what impressed me most as I played the game more and more. In some dungeons you’ll spend your experience points levelling up your Gumball through it’s particular title tree/s. In others, you’ll have to split them between that and levelling up some kind of partner, like a robot or carnivourous plant. Others have you collecting loot items that can be used to upgrade special equipment. I can’t go into all of them, but suffice to say each new dungeon (or ‘maze’ as the game calls them) feels fresh, and it’s always a great feeling to unlock a new one. If you’re feeling brave, you can also take on each dungeon in ‘endless’ mode, where getting deep enough or completing certain quests will unlock secret gumballs!
After completing a few mazes, you’ll unlock the airship, which adds a whole new experience to the game. You’ll explore sky islands, defeating monsters and levelling up your airship as well as unlocking new ones. There are even mini dungeons in the sky where you can find new gumballs and treasures. Later, as your gumballs reach the highest levels, there is another expansion that unlocks too.
Collecting gumballs is great fun, and there are various ways of doing so. Some are unlocked by completing mazes as mentioned above. Some are rewards for signing into the game or attaining certain achievements. Many are unlocked by collecting fragments from loot pots, which can be acquired in various ways.
Events are frequent and varied, keeping the game worth coming back to every day.
So far in this review, we’ve spent no money at all. There is a premium currency, blue gems as you’d expect. They aren’t cheap, but there’s a sale offer every day with large discounts, and there are also many ways to acquire them for free in-game. You can buy pots with premium currency, which makes collecting gumballs a lot faster, and there are a few gumballs and extra mazes that can only be purchased with gems, but there is nothing in the game that can’t be obtained for free if you’re willing to wait and collect the gems. The game’s claim that it can be enjoyed without spending a penny is entirely true, and it’s truly a marvel how much work has gone into it in that case.
This is a game that respects its players, offers a substantial and fun ever-growing experience for free (completely ad-free as well, I might add) and never pesters you to spend money. Because of this, I am far more willing to part with my money. I’m happy to spend a little to support the game, particularly since it is built and run by a very small and dedicated team.
In terms of negatives, anything you don’t like about the free-to-play model is probably present here in some form; you do have limited energy (though since mazes take quite a long time, you’re unlikely to run out if you’re exploring). Secret gumballs are hidden a little too well, often requiring methods so convoluted you’d never find them without checking the wiki. The translation is usually passable, but there are moments when it becomes difficult to understand.
This is what mobile gaming should be like. I don’t doubt that more cynical games might make more money through stinginess and psychological trickery, but all the more reason to support it. I wish there were more games on the platform that cared as much as this one about the quality of the experience.