Ugh. I had all sorts of trouble writing this review. I always hope that my reviews are easy to read, entertaining, and accurate, but every time I began stringing together sentences about Dungeon Lords, the worst sort of venom and bile would start flowing out of my keyboard. For example, at one point I wrote at length about whether DreamCatcher Interactive, the game’s publisher, should feel embarrassed about releasing such a product. Then I pondered whether D.W. Bradley -- or, rather, “award winning computer game author D.W. Bradley” -- should bother trying to make any more computer games. Then I listed in great detail all of the places where I felt that the game’s official web site was either lying or being extremely misleading, such as when it lists there are arctic lands in the game, when there aren’t. But while those topics are all appropriate in a game review, I was spending so much time on them that I wasn’t writing about the game itself. So let me summarize: Dungeon Lords is a game that makes me mad.
Why is that, you ask? Because Dungeon Lords marks a new low for how incomplete a game can be and still get released. The game is missing features (like auto-mapping), it’s missing skills (like repair and identify), and it’s missing character creation options (like setting your appearance). There aren’t any optional quests or dungeons, the towns are largely empty (only one even has furniture), and all of the scenery looks alike. Worse, the stuff actually included in the game isn’t all that great, none of it got tested or balanced, and it’s clear from the interface that developer Heuristic Park doesn’t really care if anybody plays the game or not. I’m amazed that a publisher could look at the game and decide to release it. I actually held off on this review for a while, because DreamCatcher promised that the 1.2 patch was coming out soon, but then the scope of the patch got reduced, and now the patch is delayed, and in the meantime I’ve realized that Dungeon Lords doesn’t need a patch; it needs another year in development.
So can anything be salvaged in the game? If DreamCatcher were to release a pair of productive patches, could the game even be fun? It’s possible. I won’t deny that I had fun at times while playing Dungeon Lords. It’s an action role-playing game, and if you like the idea of killing goblins and giant spiders and bats and trolls, then it delivers well enough. Unlike most action role-playing games, where you just click on an enemy to attack it, or where you mostly just watch your character fight, in Dungeon Lords left clicking causes you to swing your weapon (or cast your readied spell), and right clicking causes you to block with your shield. That means you have to maneuver during combat, to put yourself into position to score hits and dodge blows, and with that extra amount of control also comes an extra amount of satisfaction. It’s not just your character winning battles; you’re participating, too.
The problem with Dungeon Lords, at least in its current form, is that every time something works, there are ten things that don’t work that spoil the fun. Consider combat. Maybe what I described in the previous paragraph sounds fun. Maybe you’re tired of games that hold your hand and do most of the work for you. But what does Dungeon Lords do? Instead of sprinkling enemies throughout the world, it relies on randomly spawned encounters, which means that every so often enemies just pop up nearby and attack. That could work -- but only if the game moderates the attacks intelligently, and Dungeon Lords doesn’t even try. Dungeon Lords just throws enemies at you left and right, sometimes creating new encounters while you’re still fighting previous ones, and it’s too much. Worse, there isn’t a huge variety of enemies in Dungeon Lords, and so not only do you fight all the time, you fight the same things all the time, and that’s not a lot of fun. If I never see a pack of wolves again in my life, I won’t mind.
About the only part of Dungeon Lords that I thought worked out pretty well was the dungeon sequences. The goal of the game, if you can believe this, is to find five Relics of Power and use them to defeat the Evil Wizard, but each relic can be found in a dungeon, and the five dungeons are large and complex and interesting. There are puzzles to solve, levers to pull, keys to find, jumping sequences to get through, and then, at the end, a satisfying boss fight to survive. If Dungeon Lords had only contained a series of linked dungeons, it would have been more fun to play. But of course, that’s not the case. Dungeon Lords also contains a surface world, complete with swamps and forests that all look alike, and three towns that are nearly empty. Somehow, all of the creativity of the world designers went into the dungeons, and nothing was left for the surface. There isn’t a dark cave to explore or a wandering hermit to meet or a haunted graveyard to tiptoe through. Outside of the towns, there isn’t anything on the surface worth inspecting, and that just makes those long boring trudges from town to town or dungeon to dungeon even more boring than they needed to be. But I’ll say this. Developer Heuristic Park certainly likes its hills. It seems like an odd choice to put hills all over the place, especially since characters don’t climb them very well, but Heuristic Park liked them so much they even put hills in the lakes. You sure don’t see that in every game you play.
Also interesting is how you can develop your character. Each character can gain up to five classes in the game, and so you might start as a fighter, and then become a knight and a lord. Or you might start as an adept, and then become a monk and a shaloei master. There are lots of possibilities. The problem is that the classes aren’t as meaningful as they sound. Really, classes sometimes give you a new skill (like the ability to wear heavy armor) but mostly they just make it cheaper to buy skills. Despite all the classes, Dungeon Lords uses a classless skill system, where most classes can learn most skills, and it’s just the cost of the skills that changes. Again, this is a system that could work, since it gives you a lot of freedom for how to build your character, but you can gain so much experience in the game that you can learn everything, and so you don’t have to make many choices during character development, which is bad. I played one full game and one partial game of Dungeon Lords, and my fighter/adept combination was disturbingly similar to my rogue/mage.
There are more parts of the game I could talk about, but I’ve exhausted all the parts I even faintly liked, and I don’t want to pile on. Certainly by this point you should have gotten the idea that I didn’t really like the game, and I shouldn’t have to detail all of the problems with the interface, or list all of the bugs that might prevent you from finishing the game, to get the idea across that Dungeon Lords isn’t a game you should run out and buy any time soon. In fact, I’d recommend that you wait for the 1.3 patch to come out. That patch should add most of the missing features to the game, and by the time it comes out, Dungeon Lords will probably have hit the bargain bin. At $15, Dungeon Lords is a decent risk. At its SRP of $39.99 USD, I’d pass.