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Review: Dungeons

There can be little doubt that Dungeons drew more than a healthy amount of inspiration from the Dungeon Keeper series. There's major theme of being an overlord of an underground network of creatures, out to corrupt a happy fairytale land while disposing of the competition. Furthermore, there's the theme of defeating heroes foolish enough to venture into your domain before they have a chance to destroy your dungeon heart. There's even a throwaway joke where the adviser tells you all the chickens have been eaten, then remembers that chickens are used in a completely different game... which actually admits to a lot. Although the game may look a lot like a Dungeon Keeper game, it certainly isn't, and anyone playing with that preconception is likely to be very disappointed. Dungeons uses a fundamental gameplay twist that puts the focus on keeping incoming heroes happy instead of luring in creatures and training them. While this change gives the game a unique identity, it comes with a boatload of problems attached and ultimately isn't much fun.

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In Dungeons, the player takes the role of a Dungeon Lord that was recently overthrown by his demonic girlfriend, Calypso. Starting from nothing, players have to work their way back down into the deepest parts of the underworld to reclaim the throne. Along the way, there are towns to ruin, heroes to defeat, and rival Dungeon Lords to crush. Players have direct control over the Dungeon Lord avatar, which can be upgraded with skill points and spells. This is actually the only thing the player has any direct control over.

The goal is to create an attractive lair for heroes to explore. So, instead of setting up deterrents to repel trespassers, you fashion a maze that will keep heroes interested as they wander through the corridors. Decorative items called Prestige Gimmicks need to be placed where heroes are sure to see them, thereby upping your dungeons reputation as the scary place to be. Then players must allow the heroes to loot gold chests, kill off a few creatures, and steal knowledge from your library to boost their egos. Each hero type has specific needs, and the more satisfied they are, the stronger their souls are. Once the heroes have reached a maximum level of contentment, players must cut them down before they can escape, thereby stealing back money (plus whatever was in their pockets) and their souls. Prisons can be constructed to steadily torture every last bit of soul energy out of these do-gooders.

This approach takes some getting used to, and often makes the game frustrating, especially since the tutorial isn't very good at explaining how to run a successful dungeon. There's a lot to keep track of and things can quickly become overwhelming. Decorative dungeon gimmicks cost souls, so you need to impress some heroes before striking them down, but heroes can take a long time to fill up. Gold is also a big problem because you're inviting heroes to steal from you, causing your funds to constantly fluctuate. Apart from the tiny trickle of gold your goblins uncover when digging out wall, there's no steady form of income. To top it all off, there's a big soul penalty when a creature kills a hero instead of using the Dungeon Lord to do it personally.

Heroes walk into the dungeon from multiple entry points from across the entire sprawling underworld. If they're not satisfied soon enough, they'll suddenly enrage and head straight for the dungeon heart. While gimmicks can be used to encourage heroes to follow a specific path, there are no doors to place. So sensitive areas like the dungeon heart and prison are always vulnerable. The player's sphere of influence is determined by creature spawning pentagrams, so it's not uncommon to place them on far corners of the map in order to gain territory instead of to strategically delay heroes.

The game's biggest problem is that it demands the player to be practically everywhere and keep track of everything at once. Furthermore, it's quick with punishments and stingy with rewards. We suppose that's the game's way of sticking to the theme of being evil, but it quickly wears away whatever charm the game manages to gain with its humor. Heroes shout witty quips like, "Here's my level up!" and the game pokes fun at the general mechanics of role-playing games, like disarming deadly traps for fun.

However, the developers should have taken a closer look at their own game. There's no way to exert any direct control over creatures. They simply sit around their pentagrams until a hero wanders in close enough for a fight. Heroes increase in power at a rapid pace and it's tough to keep up, since it costs a ton of souls to upgrade creatures. At the same time, players have to strike a balance to ensure that their creatures offer some resistance but don't kill the heroes too soon. If your creatures fall too far behind, you'll have to use the Dungeon Lord and his array of magical powers more frequently to battle heroes directly, which furthers the need to constantly run around.

Dungeon Lords don't necessarily level up by beating up heroes, either. They might receive a point or two to put into attributes or skills for completing a side quest, but players must rely on fulfilling a list of arbitrary challenges to gain skill points, like killing fifty heroes or keeping no more than four prisoners at a time throughout the level. Rewards for completing these challenges are provided at the start of the following mission, but they don't help if you're in stuck on the one you're playing. Things are especially painful during the early levels when the Dungeon Lord is barely powerful enough to take on two heroes at once. To make matters worse, abilities that make dungeon management easier, like cheaper gimmicks, also require skill points. What we consider to be a basic power like Healing is a fourth tier spell that has hefty pre-requisites.

At the same time, a higher ranking Dungeon Lord will frequently make demands of you. These side quests are always timed and will either require you to sacrifice a lot of resources or tunnel through to a far off corner of the map to perform a menial task. These include killing powerful guards so you can water some plants, or finding a way into a hidden cellar to break stuff. Almost all these quests are designed to be frivolous and to undermine the player, but they must be done. Failing these side quests exacts an overly harsh punishment such as powerful heroes being let into your dungeon to destroy its heart. Then there are the annoying main mission quests, like escorting several slime monsters safely through a maze or intercepting groups of fast moving thieves to steal their gold. Not the mention the champions that intermittently invade your dungeon with the single-minded goal of destroying your dungeon heart. Champions are not distracted by treasure or wall decorations. They're difficult to take down, but there's no reward for defeating them apart from surviving a while longer.

It's not long before nuisances pile up to make practically every aspect of the game seem annoying, including the adviser's high-pitched voice telling you how awful your dungeon layout is. The game suddenly becomes unresponsive whenever the autosave goes off, and the Dungeon Lord won't move if you click on an unexplored area, even if it's close by and there's a clear path. There's no obvious way to move gimmicks around. So expanding a room involves selling objects for half price (which also loses prestige) and buying them back again. Without any means of delegating some of the work to minions, the game becomes incredibly tedious - to the point where we wanted to throw our mouse at the monitor and scream, "Calypso can keep the stupid underworld."

Despite being a game that's centered on wowing heroes with statues, loot and creepy decor, there's not a lot for players to look at. There are only two types of rooms (a library and armory) to build out and even the selection of gimmicks quickly gets old. The fighting animations are boring, and there's no way to customize the Dungeon Lord's look or weapons. Creatures don't change or pick up new powers when you purchase higher levels, they just become tougher.

A big part of what made the Dungeon Keeper series fun was the fact that you were building an underground lair worth protecting. You amassed wealth and trained powerful creatures do your bidding, and in the end felt like you accomplished something great. In Dungeons, you're a glorified errand boy forced to decorate an underground amusement park for crazy masochists. The game completely misses the point of what makes being evil fun. No powerful overlord should have to get his hands dirty doing every menial task, or constantly run from one corner of the map to the other. It often feels like major parts of the game are designed to be a sadistic joke meant to irritate players. Eventually, there comes a point where we have to say stop and leave the dungeon to rot.

Final Verdict

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