From the moment you start playing Fidel Dungeon Rescue, you are experimenting with the bits and pieces this compact, ingenious game is made from. The title is screen is also the game's first level, which means that it's also a wordless tutorial on movement, combat, health management and levelling. You control a wonderfully cheery little dog who can move from tile to tile of this semi-procedural dungeon crawler as he heads from the entrance point of each room to the exit. Move over a baddie - a spider, a sleeping gnome of some kind, a puddle of alien jelly - and you'll kill it, earning XP and taking damage. But wait! Maybe you don't have to take that damage. Maybe, if you approach things from the right angle, you can get away without paying any price. Let's see. Let's see...
Explicitly, Fidel tells you nothing of its intricacies. Implicitly, though, it is always teaching you. It's clear that on the second level, for example, you need to get to a certain XP threshold before you can proceed to the third level. And with that bit of information, the game is actually telling you an awful lot more, too. It is telling you that levelling up is supremely important here - as important as making it from A to B. You can get through a level quickly, but you will be wasting the opportunities for gathering XP that it represents. Your job, then, is to rinse as many enemies from a level as possible, and this means plotting a careful path between foes that will cause you damage as you kill them and health packs that will give you a bit of breathing room. It also means working out how to take down foes harmlessly - working out which direction to attack multi-headed turtles from, how to knock the red spiders on their backs so you can stomp them without being stung.
And what's this? A final restriction: as Fidel moves, he leaves a trail behind him, a wobbly line that charts his path through a stage. This line is not just to show you where you have been, but also to hem you in by your choices: once the line has been laid down, you cannot cross it, which means that you have to appreciate that you are carving up the game's real-estate even as you traverse it.
Oh man, but you can also go in reverse: make a mistake, and you can move backwards along the line - which is also a timeline! - and you can undo your previous actions. This is why Fidel is such a wonderful game for experimentation. If you have enough health, you can take a gamble on anything: you can dip your toe in dangerous waters, safe in the knowledge that if there are sharks in there - I bet this game has sharks in there somewhere - you can pretend the whole thing never happened.
What a game. All games encourage certain virtues or vices, I think, whether they acknowledge it or not. Fidel Dungeon Rescue is about two virtuous Es: experimentation and elegance. Get through the game as slickly, as smartly, as cleanly, as thoroughly as you can, but, while you're at it, never miss an opportunity to learn as much as you can along the way. This is a treat, and if there's a better game out this month, I haven't seen it.
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