Dungeons (PC review)   1 comment

Developed by: Realmforge Studios
Published by: Kalypso Media Digital
Out now
Reviewed on: 7th March, 2011.

Presentation: The graphics certainly do look an improvement over Dungeon Keeper II, but not by a huge amount and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was only a few years after Bullfrog’s classic that this appeared. The sound effects and voice acting, however, feel a lot more crafted which creates an uneven presentation.

Atmosphere: The atmosphere takes much of the dark humour of its obvious spiritual predecessor and, along with the high quality voice acting that the game has, represents the main saving grace of this game. It doesn’t save the game from its flaws entirely, though.

Control and Mechanics: This is ultimately the hurdle where Realmforge’s horse fell. The game is controlled by a fairly simple keyboard and mouse combination, but the controls feel a bit quirky and awkward at times and that really cuts into enjoyment of a game. The process of taking heroes on a tour around your dungeon before you harvest them gets repetitive and dull quickly, as you are left waiting for them to fill their soul energy meters before you strike a blow.

Who should buy this: Those who want a marriage of Dungeon Keeper and Theme Park and don’t mind gameplay that simply isn’t up to par. Those who don’t mind quirky controls that feel irritating at times. Those who need every Dungeon Keeper clone they can grasp, even if it means paying AAA game price for a low-budget game.

Who should avoid it: Those who expect a real Dungeon Keeper successor. Those who want fluid, easy to use controls. Those who want a game that doesn’t feel repetitive and monotonous quickly.

If I have to give a score: The humour and voice-acting is the one shining element to this otherwise for par experience. A good deal of potential drowning in poor execution. 2/4

Review

It was attributed to T.S. Eliot that “good artists borrow, great artists steal” and I think Dungeons is a clear example of how that holds true of video games as well. It doesn’t so much borrow, as plead after its spiritual ancestors and it really shows through. Viewing the intro sequence, the marks of Dungeon Keeper are all there. Just imagine that goblin at the start is an imp, even their personality and movements are so akin, and you’ll see what I mean. Remember the scene in the intro sequence of the first Dungeon Keeper where the hero is about to grab treasure only to be confronted by a bile demon? Picture that as you see the hero in this one gazing proudly at the treasure, only to turn and find a minotaur of somewhat similar appearance and stature as the demon bearing down on him.

When I first saw this, I was sceptical at the obvious borrowing, but I let a glimmer of hope that someone would take up the neglected genre and return it to one of its oldest roots. The result that I played was not an awful mess, but it cannot borrow so much and not beg comparison with the Dungeon Keeper games. It’s a very standard, flat experience that sparks and teases you with potential at points, but mostly drags you through monotony.

The player controls a dungeon lord, one of several and the most powerful of them all. At the very start, you are betrayed by your lover, the succubus Calypso, and cast to the bottom of the pecking order of dungeon lords. To top this all off, between you and climbing your way back to the top and extracting your revenge are your former underlings and new employers, who occasionally give you missions and make demands.

What immediately strikes the player is that, unlike Dungeon Keeper, your dungeon lord is a flesh and blood character within the dungeon who can fight, cast spells and interact with items you claim. There’s no gateways to allow your monsters to enter, you don’t pay them, they are just summoned through pentagrams on the ground and remain there until nearby heroes lure them into battle.

This is all because the emphasis is reversed here. You don’t care for your minions needs or desires, but those of the heroes. Each hero entering your dungeon has needs, whether it’s to raid your coffers, discover lost magic, or simply fight. By fulfilling these needs, the heroes get more soul energy that can be harvested by defeating them and having them sent to the prisons or torture chambers for the slow extraction of that energy.

What this means is that, unlike Dungeon Keeper where keeping the heroes out was the ideal and prisons and torture chambers existed to convert heroes into your minions or use them to train or entertain your minions in the fighting pits, you actually want to give your heroes time to explore your dungeon, grab some loot, raid a few occult libraries before you strike them down and claim that energy in your prisons.

This all seems like an interesting twist to the theme that changes the focus to resource management, but it fails in practice. The process of building an almost theme park dungeon for your heroes to wander through and then the methodical rate at which heroes enter through the gates leave you going through the same actions over and over again and you end up having to take quite direct action in harvesting these heroes. With as little as two gates open, you are left with heroes swamping your dungeon as you try to get busy with other quests and plots that don’t involve sucking them dry for soul energy.

Adding to this is that heroes seem to level up like clockwork in a way similar to the increase of the AI threat level in AI War, but in a much more simplistic way that lacks the grace of AI War. When you have a lot of other things to do, an average of four heroes pumped out every two minutes with an increasing level, you end up just rushing for the end of the level before they end up striking at your dungeon heart.

Another way in which it departs from its predecessor is that stat-building and talent-tree RPG elements have been added. It’s all an interesting idea and could be made a good combination with the elements the game absorbed from Dungeon Keeper and Bullfrog’s Theme games, but it ends up as more of an afterthought. On the one hand, the stat-building aspects uses a only few stats and derived attributes, and seems like it has so little real effect on the gameplay. I’ve seen games use very few stats and derived attributes to great effect (take Torchlight as a paragon here), but Dungeons simply fails in this regard. The talent tree is a bit more developed, but the skills are very bland and lack the sort of things you find in something like Borderlands, where make or break skills add interesting effects or bonuses; a few extra spells, a few stat, combat or minion bonuses, but that’s about it.

And I think that sums up a lot of my complaints about Dungeons’s mechanics. What we’re ultimately left with is a game that covers a lot of bases and mixes aspects of different genres into a single gameplay experience, but it does not show any real time or energy placed into any one of these aspects. It’s quite easy to play the game for a while and it will draw you in to an extent, but you’ll find it easy to switch it off at the end of the level.

The graphics themselves appear very dated and it gets very tiresome going from level to level with what is essentially the same dungeon in appearance. The fact that you have to claim certain chambers rather than build them into virgin rock means that dungeon design is often more restricted than in Dungeon Keeper and it makes building that ideal route for the heroes all the more irritating and repetitive.

What the game does have, however, is good voice acting and some genuine humour. Like Dungeon Keeper or Overlord, it revels in a lot of the same slapstick humour but unlike them it also directs a lot of its time at poking fun at RPG stereotypes by use of meta-game humour, breaking the fourth-wall regularly. I thought its humour certainly worked better than Magicka’s, but Magicka’s problems were all due to a lack of decent testing before release, not flawed design choices that leaves the experience lacking.

At the end of it all, if you play the demo and got an enjoyable experience past the design flaws, you’ll probably not be disappointed if you pick this game up in a deal or when the price has really dropped. It does carry, at the time of review, a hefty price tag for what is essential a low-budget game from a publisher known for churning out mediocre games. I’d invest my money elsewhere.

Dungeons is out now and available at retail outlets or on digital distribution. It costs £29.99 on Steam and has an RRP of £34.99 according to Amazon.

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  1. Pingback: What Magicka needs « The Expanding Frontier

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