Despot’s Game is hard to define. It’s part action, part roguelike, and part strategy. It’s also creepy, humorous, and quite tricky. But do these factors add up to a good time overall?

The plot involves a despotic artificial intelligence unit who pits your crew of humans against his slew of monsters in a sick kind of dystopian “game”. Reach the end, and you earn your freedom. Of course, death lurks around every corner, making this a difficult achievement.

Despot's Game - Nintendo Switch - screen 1

You control a team of four humans. Despot – that’s the name of the AI creature – explains the rules before sending you on your merry way. Your goal is to traverse a series of rooms in some kind of sewer system, meeting and defeating enemies along the way. 

As you enter each room, you’re given the opportunity to move your characters into position and make any other adjustments before battle commences. Although this adds some strategy to proceedings, there’s not much point in moving your people around; once the battle begins, the humans make a beeline for the enemy anyway. Any humans wielding long-range weapons remain slightly further away, but melee attackers barge in like the little heroes they are.

And they are little, taking up only a small portion of the screen. They’re actually quite odd-looking, resembling worm-like creatures rather than humans. You also can’t control your team once the battle commences. Essentially, you sit back and watch your humans as they automatically fight. It’s over pretty quickly, and you move on. This creates a fairly simple and easy game to pick up and play. Not easy to win, mind you. 

Despot's Game - Nintendo Switch - screen 2

Enemies are typically in the form of large robotic creatures. Some perish quickly, particularly at the beginning of your run, however it doesn’t take long for your small group to be overpowered. This is where upgrades come in handy.

Along the way, you’ll randomly encounter ways to help your team survive each run. For example, you can purchase weapons to increase attack power, and food to keep your crew’s energy levels up. Then there are mutations. These act like bonuses that affect one or all humans in your group, from additional healing benefits to slowing enemy attacks. They essentially improve your stats and increase your chance of survival. 

Despot's Game - Nintendo Switch - screen 3

Another important survival factor is your food meter. It turns out that humans need food to survive, and moving from room to room consumes a portion of your supplies. If you have too many humans, you’ll soon run out of food, and this creates less adept fighters who attack haphazardly and are more prone to defeat. In other words, don’t do what I did and purchase 20 humans as soon as the opportunity arises. They won’t last long.

Graphically, Despot’s Game features decent pixel-based graphics that work well. The dark colors can be a little dreary at times, but the larger enemy sprites and fast-paced battles keep things moving along quickly. The interface could use a little work, with some odd and unintuitive button choices. A handy tutorial spells things out for you, but it also has a habit of popping up randomly during each run, which is helpful if you forget things, but annoying if you haven’t. It also implies that the controls are tricky to master, since you need these constant reminders.  

Overall, Despot’s Game is an unusual combination of genres that adds something fresh to the scene. It’s fast-paced and enjoyable in short bursts, with upgrades that help keep things interesting. The randomized runs won’t be for everyone, but they’re fun while they last, despite a lackluster control scheme.