Review: Dungeons

I honestly can’t decide if the PR department behind the marketing of Realmforge’s game Dungeons were intentionally attempting to mislead the public, or if their campaign was simply misinterpreted by everyone. If you take a look at the trailer you might get an idea of what I mean.

If you’re a gamer, and over the age of ten, then I’m sure two words popped into your head the instant you watched that: Dungeon and Keeper. The trailer seems to go out of its way to conjure up the ghost of Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper and really that should have set the alarm bells ringing. Dungeon Keeper is a classic; a game that has never been bettered, not even by it’s own designers, and anything that attempts to imitate  it is going to have to work hard to live up to expectations.

In Dungeons you take the role of a Dungeon Keeper Lord who is unceremoniously ousted from his crystal throne by Calypso his demonic girlfriend. The rest of the single player game revolves around, building your power and plotting revenge all while gradually struggling your way back to the top of the Dungeon Lord premier league by defeating rival Dungeon Lords.

Like Dungeon Keeper Dungeons revolves around, well, your dungeon, but there the similarities end. In Dungeon Keeper the purpose of your dungeon was to keep heroes out long enough for you to complete your goals. In Dungeons the purpose of the dungeon entertain the heroes by fulfilling their various needs until their “soul energy” meter is full.

To help you accomplish this goal you have several tools at your disposal. Firstly there are the pentagrams. These serve the dual purpose of spawning monsters for the heroes to battle, and also increasing your area of influence. Unfortunately the monsters are not under your control, and they don’t stray far from their pentagrams. I found that it’s better to think of them more like slightly mobile turrets than as monsters. Next you can place treasure chests of various sizes that fulfil the heroes need to find loot. There are two room types available as well: Libraries that fulfil their need for knowledge, and armouries that fulfil their need for equipment. The last room type is the prison. It doesn’t fulfil any needs, but it is used to slowly bleed soul energy from the heroes after you’ve killed them. If you want to speed up the process you can build various torture gimmicks, but I rarely resorted to using these as the soul energy from imprisoned heroes usually was more than enough to get through the level.

The heroes will wander merrily around the dungeon, fighting monsters, looting and investigating, until their soul energy meter is full at which point they head for the exits with whatever loot their acquired. At this point you have to move quickly to intercept them with your avatar and kill them to harvest their soul energy. The game actually rewards you for slaying each and every individual hero by hand.  Needless to say this requires endless amounts of micromanagement to make sure the heroes aren’t killed by your creatures, traps and also remain happy enough to gain plenty of soul energy.

Soul energy is used to buy prestige items, basically decorations for the dungeon, that increase prestige. Prestige which buffs your avatar’s stats and also attracts more heroes to your dungeon. Gold is obtained by slaughtering heroes, and also from mining out rock and gold seams. The gold can then be spent buying equipment for the three room types.

While you’re busy keeping an eye on the heroes the game tends to throw several other level specific objectives at you. Some require you to fend off enemy dungeon lords by taking over their monster pentagrams and eventually destroying their dungeon heart, but others are fiendish acts of evil that normally boil down to smashing some crates or slapping a specific group of heroes around. The flavour dialogue often makes big things of the reason you’re performing an arbitrary crate smashing exercise, but you never witness any effects from your evil acts, and I think the entire game could easily have left them out and been better for it. It seems odd that you’re supposed to be a might dungeon lord, but you spend most of the time killing heroes and smashing stuff like a common thug.

If I were sum Dungeons up in one word I would say it is confused. There’s too much action for it to be an RTS style game like Dungeon Keeper, and there’s far too much micro management for it to be a hack and slash Diablo clone. The mechanic of having to kill the heroes directly clashes constantly with the quests which send you running all over the map away from where the action is happening. Worse still are the boss battles where you’re sent to another map entirely and have to listen to your nagging sidekick warning you that heroes are escaping or that your dungeon heart is under attack. I think at some point during the creation of the game someone realised this as a lot of the later levels have pre-made dungeons when you being the level, and they function perfectly fine without the player having to make any modifications. This is a boon in allowing you to get on with carrying out whatever mission you have, but it completely eliminates what’s supposed to be the main part of game-play: building the dungeon.

Worse still there’s at least two very badly implemented escort missions where you have to protect a stream of fragile monsters as they follow a fixed path through your dungeon. These levels are completely at odds with the entire premise of the game, and on top of that they’re boring and badly designed.

The game is further hurt by the lack of customisation. The player avatar absolutely begs for some kind of customisation options, but you’re stuck with the same default appearance throughout the game. It seems an odd decision to have an evil overlord figure that isn’t constantly on the lookout for new and improved equipment, but despite at least two missions being dedicated to recovering a magical weapon you never actually get to use it outside of a scripted cut-scene.

On the purely technical side I found the game to be fairly unstable. It took seventeen reloads for me to avoid a crash while attempting to beat the final boss and in the end it was only sheer pride that forced me to keep trying.Several earlier missions caused freezes, or outright crashes, and most of these seemed to be tied to problems with scripted events. Surely such glaring problems should have been picked up during testing.

There is a kernal of a good idea in Dungeons, but it’s lost beneath a mountain of poor design decisions. There’s far too much micromanagement, and not enough actual management options. There’s humour, but not enough to give the game character. Ultimately I think Dungeons collapses under the weight of its own ambition. It’s a tower defence flash game on a blockbuster budget, and that’s not good enough to waste your money on.

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