Review: Dungeons

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In my preview, I said that Dungeons was an interesting blend of genres that had several issues but could be loads of fun if the developers got it all wrapped up before release.

Well, now it is after release, and let me get right to it – some stuff got cleaned up, some stuff didn’t, but it is now clear that Dungeons is just never going to be more than an average experience. Worse still, enough is still left unfinished that as of right now it is a mediocre game.

Yet, I am still keeping this as a ‘Try It’ recommendation, as I feel there is enough to offer that for certain gamers it will be worth wading through the issues. Of course, some other issues might erase the appeal for others.

Let me explain …

A couple of weeks ago I installed Dungeons. The game used Steam, which is itself a DRM wall. I had to enter a serial number to activate the game on Steam. That is all normal. But when I tried to start the game I had to enter the same number again in order to go through a separate online activation. This activation process REQUIRED me to create an account on the developer’s website. That activation process then REQUIRED me to enter personal information for security purposes and get through a ‘captcha’ code system. Then it sent an activation message to my email account that I had to click on and get redirected to their website again to see that my account was successfully created. Now I could go back and try to start the game again through Steam, and only after confirming my successful account creation by having me login through the game again did it let me actually PLAY THE GAME!

Once you actually get started playing the game things go reasonably well. So long as you know what to expect! As I mentioned in the preview, this is NOT a Dungeon Keeper game! It is unfortunate that too many previews implied that, as I’ve heard from a number of folks who got a different game than what they expected.

Dungeons is actually closer to a different Bullfrog game, Theme Park. Similar to that game, you have limited resources and need to build up your world using a number of possible attractions and use planning and strategy to extract as much as you can from those who visit your dungeon.

In Dungeons, your ‘visitors’ are heroes, and you really need to make them happy ‘customers’ in order to build up the soul energy you need to extract. To do this you build out your dungeon. You start in a small area with prescribed missions and more or less do what you are told. This involves taking control of existing areas and building out the dungeon with various rooms and challenges and other opportunities for your visitors to get happy!

Technically the game is fairly solid: the graphics are detailed, there is adequate variety in character and monster models given you are working in a dungeon, and the soundtrack is appropriate for the style of game – dungeon crawling!

The first issue I have is with the variety: there are only THREE types of rooms: an armory, a library and a prison. The armory is pretty much a place for melee-type heroes to grab loads of loot, the library is a place to attract mage heroes to gain arcane knowledge, and the prison is where you work over the heroes to gain the maximum possible soul energy.

Not only that, as you tunnel out new areas and put down new rooms, the game decides the size and seems compelled to maximize room size rather than efficiency – or better yet giving you control! If that seems limited, it feels even worse when playing. I really hope that in a patch Kalypso gives players more control and variety in room creation.

But there is more to the game than just new rooms. First off you need to realize that there is little that you can do yourself. You might be the great evil dungeon lord, but you need monsters to build things and battle heroes, because trying to fight the battles yourself is the quickest path to failure.

The dungeon has large areas for you to explore and develop, but when you start your area of influence is relatively small. In order to get minions to help you need to place pentagrams at the edges of your control area. These are essentially spawn points for your monsters, but also have their own sphere of influence. So in order to build a massive dungeon you’ll need to keep growing your network of these control zones.

Of course, growing your dungeon attracts stronger heroes and also allows them to get stronger as they explore and kill off your minions – and occasionally take out control points as well! This brings up another fairly major issue – your minions are idiots. The heroes have fairly adaptable AI, and will retreat from combat to heal-up and quaff potions. Your monsters will never pursue or do anything intelligent in terms of group tactics or dynamic strategy – so you can easily watch a hero wade into a sea of monsters, take out half before being near-death, retreat to heal, and then return to the exact spot to finish the job. Pathetic.

But you have no choice. Even after a few hours of playing, most heroes will be simply too strong to face toe-to-toe! You might be a dungeon lord but you are not the strongest demon – you need your minions to kill or at least weaken the heroes before you face them. And you definitely will need to do battle, since the stronger a hero gets, the greater their desire to take out your stronghold!

One great thing about the classic Dungeon Keeper was the humor. Kalypso attempts to bring that lightness to Dungeons, but ultimately falls into the same trap as 2004’s Bard’s Tale reimagining. Your goblin assistant makes a variety of witty quips, and heroes constantly crack about experience and loot and power-leveling and so on. But very quickly the game falls back to relying on those same conventions for the advancement of your dungeon lord … and it feels very much like they were reluctant to do it that way, because the implementation is timid and hackneyed.

The final issue is with the difficulty – not that the game is simply too hard, but that the difficulty is uneven. Well, it IS a hard game, but the problem is that the game seems to be set on making life (rather than the game) hard for you! The tutorial is murky at best, something not improved from the beta build (and something I regrettably gave a pass back then) – and once done with the tutorial you aren’t clear how to proceed.

This continues throughout the early game stages, and the result is that you learn by failing! Want to spend skills, but linger too long on skill pages? You will learn that the game doesn’t pause here – by dying. Expect your minions to help you? You will learn that they cannot see what you see and have no initiative.

Get excited by the Prestige Items and hope to carefully design your areas to guide heroes around just how you want them? You will quickly discover that due to the pacing of the game you generally just have to toss whatever stuff is handy into rooms to keep things progressing, thereby undermining one of the best parts of the game.

The problem with Dungeons is that while creating a game that lampoons some game standards and bridges many others, they forgot to create a unifying gameplay element. This would be something that ties it all together. RTS games alter the strategy system from a turn-based game and allow ways to utilize strategies without losing the fast-paced action. Dungeons feels like an RTS at times, a Theme Park-clone at others, a Diablo clone still other times, but it doesn’t do a very good job at any of those.

So why do I leave with a ‘Try It’ recommendation when the text of the review practically screams ‘Skip It’? Because it is SUCH a great idea – the concept and overall idea set guiding the game is delicious, and while as I said the infrastructure as built will keep it from ever reaching greatness, with a few balancing and gameplay enhancing patches this will be an enjoyable game that I could easily recommend to genre fans. And since the game has already seen a couple of patches as I played, I am hopeful they will get the game to that point before it is completely forgotten.

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Pros:
+ Great idea to turn traditions upside-down
+ Interesting genre blend offers intriguing possibilities
+ Most issues CAN be patched away
+ Nice attempts at humor

Cons:
– Gameplay is too fast-paced but simultaneously repetitive
– Game works against itself at all turns
– Humor fails as game retreats to genre-standards all too often

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Kalypso
Developer: Realmforge Studios
Release Date: 2/10/2011
Genre: Strategy
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!