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A year after Dark and Darker became one one of the biggest games on Steam, a newcomer is trying to steal its thunder

 Dungeonborne art - guy in a dungeon holding a lantern (detail).
Dungeonborne art - guy in a dungeon holding a lantern (detail).

One year after the Steam Next Fest demo for Dark and Darker become one of the biggest games on Steam, another extraction-dungeon-crawler called Dungeonborne—first teased in September 2023 as Project Crawl—is replicating the feat with gameplay that looks a whole lot like its predecessor.

Dungeonborne's premise is simple: Pick a fantasy character class, team up with a couple other aspiring heroes, and head into the neighborhood dungeon to battle monsters, pilfer treasure, and get out in one piece. A ring surrounding the labyrinth slowly closes in, corralling teams of players ever-closer together, and eventually forcing them to deal with each other along with the dungeon's native fauna—ie., kill them all. Survive, and you'll have money to spend on better equipment for your next journey; die, and you'll at least earn a little experience for your trouble.

It's rough in spots right now: Connectivity issues were a problem when the demo first went live, although that part of it seems better now, and complaints about balance are common in the Steam discussions: The fighter class in particular is overpowered at the moment, at least in part because movement is quite slow across all classes, which gives the big armored guy with a huge sword a natural advantage when it comes time to throw down.

There's also currently no option for effective solo spelunking. You can jump into Dungeonborne on your own easily enough, but the game will warn you that it's extremely dangerous to do so and trust me, it's not kidding. I tried a few runs my myself and was very quickly and brutally owned by monsters, which are plentiful and hit harder than you might think.

I had much better luck in a team, which enabled me to play in proper rogue fashion: Letting the fighter get jumped by whatever horror popped up nearby, then flanking around and doing the ol' stabby-stabby from behind. It worked well until the one person on our team who seemed to know what they were doing decided to take the money and split, leaving me and Sir Meathead holding the bag as the circle closed in. We died.

Despite its obviously pre-release state, Dungeonborne managed to crack the top 100 on Steam with a peak of more than 17,000 concurrent players, not bad at all for a largely unheralded debut game from a developer I hadn't heard of previously. What I find particularly interesting, though (and what may explain part of its success) is just how much like Dark and Darker it is.

To an extent, that's unavoidable: Traditional dungeon crawlers all bear a number of familiar elements, and the extraction game formula is pretty well carved in stone at this point. At a casual glance, though, I'd be hard-pressed to tell one from the other—there are differences, of course, and there's also plenty of discussion on just that topic on the Steam forums.

But the similarities run deep enough that developer Mithril Interactive clarified last year that "we have absolutely zero affiliation with Nexon," the publisher that sued Dark and Darker developer Ironmace—and forced the game off Steam—over allegations that the studio used stolen source code and assets to build the game.

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Dungeonborne screenshot
Dungeonborne screenshot

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Dungeonborne screenshot

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Dungeonborne screenshot

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Dungeonborne screenshot

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Dungeonborne screenshot
Dungeonborne screenshot

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Dungeonborne screenshot

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Dungeonborne screenshot
Dungeonborne screenshot

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Dungeonborne screenshot
Dungeonborne screenshot

And that's the one big difference between the two games: Dungeonborne is on Steam, and Dark and Darker is not. Nexon's preliminary injunction against Dark and Darker was reportedly dismissed at the end of January but the game remains absent from Steam, which puts it at a distinct disadvantage: Ironmace earned kudos from players for powering through with playtests by using torrents to distribute client updates, but the bottom line is that being on Steam is a lot better than not being on Steam, and that current imbalance represents a real opportunity for Dungeonborne to steal Dark and Darker's thunder.

Also potentially interesting is how Nexon and Ironmace will react to all this. Stylistic similarities are unavoidable in the world of videogames—as we said when Project Crawl was first teased, "the videogame zeitgeist can push a lot of similar ideas to the forefront simultaneously"—and Mithril's preemptive "no connection" statement indicates that it's well aware of just how much the two games are alike.

Nexon presumably has no standing to object against Dungeonborne, but will Ironmace perhaps take issue? I am not a lawyer, as they say, but I do wonder if some future courtroom declaration that Dark and Darker is in fact a fully original project might prompt Ironmace to try some legal action of its own against Mithril.

For now, if you've been waiting for Dark and Darker to return to Steam so you can return to dungeon-extracting with maximum convenience, well, this isn't it—but it's pretty damn close. The Dungeonborne demo will be available until the end of the Steam Next Fest, which wraps up on February 12.