Author’s Note: Not big on reading writeups? Why not just watch me play the game here?
Dome Keeper is a score-attack mashup of Motherload and Space Invaders. I think it’s a good game. I don’t really recommend it, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment. I know it sounds weird to call a game good, and then not recommend it, but I promise it will make sense in a bit.
Anyway, back to Dome Keeper. You have a Dome, which functions as your little base. You venture out from it into the earth to mine minerals. And this dome needs to be Kept. Specifically it needs to be kept from being shattered into a million pieces by various spooky shadow monsters that show up in waves on timed intervals. This is the game’s core tension: mine resources, drag them back to your dome, and try not to get caught at the bottom of the mineshaft right as the next wave comes in to smash it.
You defend the dome with its weapon systems. There are two dome weapon base sets, the Laser Dome, and the Sword Dome. The Laser dome plays somewhat like a turret defense game. You have a big laser, you can rotate it alongside the outside of your dome, and you press another button to fire. The laser moves slower when fired, so it’s faster to move it into position, and then fire the beam. It has various upgrades, including moving the laser head faster, having the laser deal more damage, etc. Honestly, outside of a double laser upgrade, there’s nothing very exciting.
The Sword Dome is unlocked later. Instead of having a projectile weapon, it has a large sword that can be swung back and forth across the dome. It can also be launched like a harpoon to skewer long ranged projectile using enemies, or even to just tap melee enemies a bit before they reach the dome.
Personally, I very much think the game was designed with the sword dome in mind instead of the laser dome. Certain enemy behaviors and patterns interact in a much more interesting way with the sword than with the laser. As an example, one of the earlier enemies is a small bat-like creature. It flies onto the screen cloaked and unable to be hit, flies to an area on either the left or right of the screen, uncloaks, shoots a few projectiles, then recloaks and flies to the other side. Rinse repeat.
With the Sword Dome, there’s an element of skill to this. It takes the same amount of time to uncloak every time, and you can one shot it once you get a damage upgrade. There’s a sort of elegance to predicting where it’s going to be, pre-launching the sword, and steering it into the bat right as it uncloaks.
Another good example can be seen in the later game enemy, the launcher. It’s a large blobby snake that swarms out of the ground, waits for a moment, and then launches a large shadow projectile through the air. With the laser, there’s no real option other than to just blast it down. But hitting it with the sword before it launches the projectile will stagger it and force it back down into the ground.
However, both of these have the same problem. Despite having multiple options for upgrades and changes, there’s no real reason to experiment during a run. Enemies just show up randomly over time, so instead of building for a certain encounter or fight, it felt better to just do the same build each game, and play through. The end result? The fights kind of just feel all the same. Ramping intensity and difficulty, sure, but not changing how things feel mechanically between runs, unless you choose to take a risk and force it.
That’s only half the game, though. The other entire half is mining and digging for resources from under the dome. If you’ve ever played Motherload, this will feel familiar. If you haven’t, it works like this. The keeper is controlled with cardinal directions and will automatically mine walls and blocks if you walk the keeper into them. Different dirt has different strengths, but as you get deeper, the strength just increases overall. This means that it can be easier to mine deeper into weak dirt than to try to dig out stone at your current level. But generally you’ll need to get upgrades to go much further.
The goal of all of this digging is to get resources, of which there are three. Sulphur, Water, and Iron. Sulphur is the rarest, and is used to repair your dome’s health, and buy a single set of special resistance upgrades. Water is used in small amounts for most non-primary upgrades, i.e., anything that isn’t your shield, weapon, or keeper suit. Iron is used for pretty much everything else.
One thing I haven’t talked about yet is the win condition of Dome Keeper. There are two modes: the primary mode is Relic Hunt, and the secondary is Prestige. Relic Hunt is just a standard “Dig deep, find a special relic, and bring it to the surface to win.” Prestige is the primary mode, and is a score attack mode.
I’m personally of the opinion that Relic Hunt is an extended tutorial. Relic Hunt is relaxed, where Prestige is intended to be the primary game. Which is a bit unfortunate, because I’m personally not interested in Prestige very much. High scores are not particularly motivating to me as a factor, unless the entire game is designed around that as a core component, ala Hazelnut Hex.
In Prestige mode, you get points based on spending resources to increase a score multiplier. Then you get points after each survived wave. So it’s beneficial to spend resources early on increasing the score, at the risk of not spending those resources on upgrades. It is a interesting tension, but it’s not one that I’m very compelled by.
There are a few systems I’ve not covered here, like the semi-random relics and the upgrades they offer, but I think I’ve covered enough of Dome Keeper’s system to explain my problem with it.
Dome Keeper is a good game, but any single run can feel indistinguishable from each other run. There’s only a single unique relic that modifies combat, with every other relic modifying resource acquisition. The end result is a game that felt the same each time I played it. It was interesting, but it wasn’t fascinating, or ever really felt like it scratched the itch of something like Inscryption or Spelunky. It never really forced me into a situation where I had to really rely on an understanding of game mechanics or systems to pilot my way out. Instead, it was just more about “Oh, I should have just done X instead of Y.” There was no adapting, just learning, and some small improvements.
This is why I don’t really feel like recommending it. It’s good! It’s well made, it’s polished, and it has some clever mechanics. But I don’t get that vibe of it being a unique or super rich experience that stuck with me.
Anyway, if you think my opinion is stupid, or you really like games like Motherload, you can find Dome Keeper on Steam for $20.
Author Note 2: I played most of my 20 hours of Dome Keeper before the update that added a second playable character, with a different mining style. It’s a neat update, but I didn’t really like playing the Accessor. It’s also entirely possible that Dome Keeper becomes a much richer games with updates, but that’s not what was available when I bought the game on release day.