Though it’s always great to watch friends be successful, it also helps when they’re working on a really enjoyable game.

The first time I played was at my friend’s desk (he goes by the moniker Gloombones) at a co-working space here in Portland roughly a year ago. I remember the art leaving the biggest impression on me: the stark, black-and-white color palette with neon accents. It’s a part of his signature style. Aside from that, it felt like a fun sliding puzzle-style game, but it didn’t quite stand out. When I found out that Plunge was going to be featured at PAX West for PAX Rising though, I figured it’d grown up a bit. It did.

One of the neat things about seeing a friend’s game at a convention is watching how other people appreciate that work as well. PAX Rising is a section of the PAX West show floor dedicated to games created by smaller teams with “a chance to rise above their modest beginnings” according to the PAX Rising website. Like going to watch a band with people you know in it, you get a sort of pride from watching them be successful, even when you had nothing to do with it. Seeing people walk up to the tablets and play repeatedly, determined to get to the end, or asking or commissioned drawings in the art style…it was cool. I talked with some of the SpookyBuns team there: designer Christian Scandariato, programmer David Tyler Edwards, and artist/animator Gloombones.

Plunge is a sliding puzzle game that slots in roguelike elements for flavor. Playing as a grungy prisoner set for execution, you venture deeper into the dungeon’s depths to try and escape. Actions are turn-based: you slide your way somewhere, then enemies and traps make their moves. Levels get more complex as you descend: greater numbers of baddies, new trap types, etc. More often than not though, there’s a strategy for every scenario. Travel far enough down, and you’ll reach special boss fights that require different tactics for success. It offers approachable strategy: it’s not mindless swiping, but it won’t leave you fatigued after a session either. Still, what makes the game feel compelling are the additional touches that add depth (no pun intended) and flavor to the mechanics.

The number of new facets to the game surprised me, but didn’t overwhelm. There are multiple playable characters now; I played as Nox, a Plunger with less HP than the vanilla character, but with a poison dagger dealing bonus damage the turn after an attack. Mysterious potions lay on the ground that only revealed their effects after drinking them. Every few levels, a perk vendor delivered a choice of fun, varied buffs with some risk involved. And though the art style, a fleshy, grotesque-yet-optimistic portrayal, still roped folks in, the gameplay feels strong enough to match.

Part of what makes Plunge what it is comes from its intentionality and team. In addition to Gloombones’ style and art, the game mechanics highlight strong-suits from other team members. Levels are randomized with each playthrough,  but not procedurally-generated. Scandariato worked on 140 different stages for the game, 40 of which are drafted for each play. Edwards, who created indie arcade game Mimic Arena, researched AI and how to make enemies more nuanced in interactions with players. Each facet matters on its own, but they somehow stand out even more when next to each other.

It’s never just a game’s graphics or mechanics that make it strong: it’s blending all those pieces together in a unique way. Plunge impressed people at PAX that weren’t me for multiple reasons, but I’m still glad to have seen it come from more humble beginnings. It’ll be interesting to see what the game looks like when it releases. Though the release date is still TBD, I hope to see Plunge out there on more game stages soon.