Monsters' Den: Book of Dread
In a sense, every video game is a Role Playing Game. You're playing the role of Mario, you're playing the role of Niko Bellic, you're playing the role of Pac-Man. Many modern games labeled "RPG" are actually less about stepping into the shoes of another person and more about going through the motions which allow that person to tell his own story. They should be called Story Assist Games, or "SAGs". But I can hardly complain about it, since the point of the original Dungeons and Dragons was never actually about Playing a Role. It was about finding a +5 Dragon-Tooth Chaos Blade of Enchanted Slaying and then splitting a troll in half with it. In fact, the troll part was optional. Many players were perfectly happy just wandering around being handed sacks full of armament like they were Hallowe'en candy corn.
Monsters' Den: The Book of Dread, from Monstrum Games, gets that. It understands your insatiable clawing lust for magical super-trinkets, and it does what it can to free the acquisition process from bureaucracy. The story is a perfunctory mash-up of cozy familiarities. The interface is like silk on leather. You don't even get experience points. Monster's Den clears the busywork out of your way so you can collect and wear your new Anti-Venom Magesteel Cloak of Resilience with no more than a few mouse clicks. Oh, and there are indeed monsters to battle, but in a stunning twist for the RPG genre, combat is fun.
This is essentially a turn-based, tactical dungeon crawl. The first time you enter battle, make sure you drag your team members to appropriate positions. Warriors and other short-range fighters should go in the row closest to the enemy, rangers and spell-casters in the rear. When a character's turn comes around, his portrait will be highlighted, and you can simply click on a creature within range to attack it. You can use special abilities (healing spells, special attacks, and the like) from the grid on the left by clicking on the ability and then on its target. Those who played the recently-reviewed Brute Wars will recognize the basic concept, which was probably inspired by the first Monster's Den.
There are three unique quests: the original Den of Corruption quest from the first edition of the game, now playable with the updated interface; the new Den of Terror quest, which features an extra boss fight on every level and a selection of rare but intriguing random events; and a survival mode where you get to massively power up your party and fend off endless waves of attackers. You have a choice between three difficulty levels and a number of other options to fine-tune your playing experience. "Hardcore" mode, where your game just plain ends when your party dies, is where it's at.
The pop-up instructions do a fantastic job of explaining the ins and outs of the interface, so I don't need to explain every little thing here, but rest assured this is one of the most considerate, user-friendly games you can play for free in a browser window. Almost everything in the game offers additional information if you mouse over it. If you have any interest at all in collecting some +4 Elf-Hewn Parrying Daggers of Staggering Wisdom (or whatever), just take a deep breath and dive in.
Analysis: Somewhere between the silvery-smooth interaction and the classically engaging creature portraits, Monster's Den becomes the epitome of casual browser-based dungeon crawls. You have extensive options for customizing your party, with a decent variety of skills for each of 7 different character classes. The enemies have a smart selection of special abilities that keep you on your toes, even during easy encounters. The boss battles especially brim with personality and strategy, and there are plenty of different ones. You might want to skip some of them when your party is weak, but remember that they yield the rarest and coolest equipment. The battles with legendary monsters such as the Gorgon or Hydra are not to be missed.
The graphics and sound are as good as you can reasonably expect. No, there isn't any combat animation, and you're basically telling little cards what they should do to other little cards, but the visual and sound effects still manage to excite the imagination. Since each level is randomly generated, replay value is ridiculously good. The Den of Terror quest does have a final boss, but you can continue to delve deeper indefinitely, growing more powerful and facing harder challenges.
If you played the first Monsters' Den, you should know that Book of Dread has gone over the top in fixing its problems. You can now click anywhere on the map, and a quick path-finding algorithm will take your party there immediately. There are more ways to order your possessions, including an incredibly useful "Recommend" tab that displays a short list of equipment you should be strongly considering for any given character. The recommendations are not completely reliable, but it still makes your life easier 99% of the time. Finally, a certain scroll lets you access a shop where the gruff owner will begrudgingly purchase your useless overflow and occasionally sell you unique items.
There are still a few quirks to be ironed out in the next sequel, to be sure. It's strange that Clerics can't heal outside of combat (potions only on the map screen), and there is probably still too much fiddling with the inventory. But the nit-picks pale in the face of such overall quality. If you are staunchly anti-materialistic or the classic D&D setting does nothing for you, then you can safely skip this one. But if the promise of powerful enchanted do-dads gets your blood pumping even a little bit, then Monsters' Den will have its generous claws in you for quite a while.