The Good: Recreates classic Dungeon Keeper
The Bad: And yet somehow gets it all wrong
The Ugly: With a quirky, uneven AI that sometimes violates its own rules
It will probably come as a disappointment to many of you that I have decided to sell out. That’s right – I’ve become jealous of other videogame reviewers that I see driving around in Lambourginis with EA emblazoned on the side while all I’ve got to show for nearly a decade of game reviewing is a spotless conscience and a second-hand Trilobyte Member’s Only jacket. Screw my conscience! I hereby let it be known that I can be bribed in exchange for catchy quotes to put on the outside of the game box. Don’t believe me? Allow me to demonstrate my sincerity by offering the following for Dungeons:
Dungeons teases you maliciously with warm memories of Dungeon Keeper, which ultimately go unfulfilled.
The horned reaper inside all of us is no doubt rolling over in his grave at the repetitious and dull Dungeons.
Good, right? I’ve already hired Sherpas to help me move the bags of money that should come rolling in here at any moment.
With all that in mind, let me begin by saying that I freaking loved Dungeon Keeper. I would likely put it on my top ten all time list. Oh, the hours of glee torturing heroes, slapping my imps, hoarding gold – unforgettable. And yet Dungeons, clearly made by people who similarly have fond memories of Dungeon Keeper, somehow squishes all the fun out of the original formula and adds some RPG elements, leaving a game that often feels more like a slog and a chore than a game.
Dungeons begins with you being the baddest badass in the dungeoning world, but you’re thrown out of your dungeon by your conniving girlfriend (who among us hasn’t had that happen?). You flee to some little dungeon in the middle of nowhere with the plan to regain your position by capturing heroes, improving your dungeon, and building up your prestige. There’s something else about terrorizing the people of the overworld, but except as a plot device I was never quite sure how that fit in.
So how do you actually go about all of that? In Dungeon Keeper your goal was to make a dungeon that was desirable by the monsters, who would then move in and defend it from the heroes. Dungeons is about making a dungeon that the heroes will enjoy. They have different things they want in your dungeon – some want gold, some want to fight creatures, some want books, etc – and you can see that from icons that hover over their heads or you can click on them and read about their needs in a popup window. When they enjoy your dungeon their soul energy increases, your goal being to capture them when their soul is at, um, its souliest, and harvest it. Soul energy (together with gold, which can be mined or is dropped by captured heroes) is used to improve your dungeon with “gimmicks” (awful name) or traps or room improvements. This increases your prestige, which is the ultimate goal of the game, each level requiring you to reach some prestige level (among other objectives). Simple, see? And on the whole it is a pretty simple concept, though the brief tutorial does absolutely nothing to help you work your way through the various windows and menus that you need to make it all happen. After an hour of fruitless clicking around I finally resorted to youtube videos to figure it out. With those hints I was dungeoning in no time.
You can have your imps dig out rooms and hallways, which you can fill with gimmicks. Gimmicks are decorations – piles of skulls, wall sconces, coffins, Hello Kitty posters – whatever horror motif you want to go with. Heroes that come into the dungeon will (more or less) follow the paths of gimmicks into rooms you want to lead them to. Fill those rooms with gold, books, pentagrams (which serve as sort of monster summoning points and their home as well) and the heroes will find a way to make themselves happy. Except when they don’t. Here’s where the problems crop up. Actually, the problems first cropped up when the tutorial taught me almost nothing useful and it dumped me into a level with no idea what I was supposed to be doing or how I was supposed to be doing it, but after that problem, there were two major others.
The first major problem is that, beyond the sort of Sims-like activity of gimmicking out your dungeon just so (if that even appeals to you and you don’t just fill your dungeon with two hundred creepy candelabras like I did), once you find an architecture of a dungeon that works and you stick with it, making the dungeon construction activity very redundant. Secondly, the heroes don’t always, or even usually, seem to follow their own desires. A guy standing in a roomful of gold, with a desire for gold, will kind of wander off. And this wandering off wouldn’t be a big problem if heroes who were unhappy didn’t take it out on your dungeon’s heart, which, as in Dungeon Keeper, is the key to your survival. Oh, oh, and here’s another problem – everything seems to take a very long time, from getting your imps to dig out the rooms to waiting for heroes to come through the gate – the whole game is stuck on slow, though when things go to hell you suddenly find that you can’t click fast enough.
I know I mentioned RPG elements, and so I did. Unlike Dungeon Keeper, in this game you have a physical presence. You actually run around your own dungeon (in FPS mode even if you wish, which I found completely useless). You can cast spells, attack heroes, pick up gold – that kind of thing. Actually, your monsters are for the most part pretty weak and don’t leave a very small radius around the pentagram that summoned them, so if a hero needs capturing you for the most part are the one who has to do it. You also level up, gaining skills (split into offensive, defensive, and spell trees) and improving stats. The balance between the dungeon building, the micromanagement, and the RPG activities is weird, and is almost guaranteed to give everyone something to dislike about this game.
With all this sort of repetitious and essentially boring gameplay going on, the game still looks great. The decorations in your dungeon are intricate, and you can zoom way in. Your monsters do fun things while they stand around, like your skeletons play hacky sack with their own heads, stuff like that. Spells are bright and colorful and there are a lot of them. Voice work is good, far above average, and the heroes say some funny things, but there are only so many funny things that they say and there are a lot of heroes saying them over and over.
So, if I had to pick a single word from the roughly 1000 that I have written above, it would have to be disappointed. I was completely primed for Dungeon Keeper, and what I got instead was kind of Diablo meets Rollercoaster Tycoon. Not good. Worse than not good. Now I have to see if it is possible to make Dungeon Keeper run in Windows XP.