Here at Mana Pool we have been eagerly anticipating the release of Dungeons ever since Kalypso announced it back in August. After what feels like forever waiting, we finally got our hands on a couple of copies last week and have been busily torturing heroes ever since. But does it live up to our admittedly high expectations?
Let’s clear something up right away…
Prior to release, Dungeons has been referred to quite frequently as being the “spiritual successor” to Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper. Whilst Realmforge have repeatedly said that Dungeons is not intended to be a Dungeon Keeper clone it is quite clearly influenced by the classic series and when the comparisons are so striking – people are always going to draw comparisons. If you’re expecting similar gameplay, we can tell you right away you will be very disappointed. Dungeons is really in no way like Dungeon Keeper, other than being set in a dungeon which has a dungeon heart (yes they even kept the name). I don’t want to dwell too much on a comparison of the two games but I think it is something many people want to know about, so I’ll cover some of the main differences briefly.
- Whereas in Dungeon Keeper your imps would run around claiming the surrounding territory for you tile by tile, in Dungeons your goblin workers can’t do this for you. Instead, your control relies on your area of influence, which is determined by the location of your monster pentagrams. These are essentially spawn points for your monsters, and your area of influence expands around them.
- Many of the rooms or areas in Dungeons are pre-built and you can only take control of them by expanding your area of influence to include these areas.
- You cannot control your monsters directly, nor do they mill about the dungeon finding heroes to attack. In fact they’re so dense that they won’t even walk a few tiles round the corner to join an ongoing battle. You can control your Dungeon Lord directly however, which really means he’s the only one who’s going to be doing any work.
- In Dungeons you don’t just want to kill heroes outright – first you want to satisfy them to build up their soul energy levels which you can then harvest and spend on various things around your dungeon. It’s more of a Theme Park meets Tower Defense type vibe.
Bloody hell, this game is hard!
Dungeons is not an easy game. In fact it starts out plain confusing and just goes downhill from there. The tutorial level is designed as an “escape”, but is quite poorly implemented, in that we didn’t feel like we’d grasped the basic premise of the game after playing through it. Everything happens too quickly and without giving you adequate time to read. The first time you play, you will want to read what the various prestige gimmicks are and what effect they give – though actually there seem to only be a few levels of item and other than soul energy cost vs prestige granted, the differences seem to be merely cosmetic – but you won’t have time to read it properly.
Likewise when you gain skill points to spend in the three-branched skill tree, or receive a new scroll you’ll obviously want to open your spell book or skill tree to read about the different options. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t pause while you go to read these sections(nor can you manually force it to do so) so you’ll probably get your ass kicked while you’re still trying to decide what skills to choose. In fact this led me to pick a totally different set of skills with my first few points than what I would really have wanted to unlock if I’d felt I had more time to read it. This caused me problems later in the game as I wasn’t able to unlock skills I really wanted, because I’d not yet spent enough points in that tree. More skilled players than I will unlock more achievements and thus more scrolls and skill points to spend, but still…
The game is just plain hard. In fact I had to knock it down to easy just to avoid repeated death, and to be completely honest and upfront with you, if I wait until fully completing it to write a review it’ll likely never get written because I’m not entirely convinced I’m ever going to be able to complete it without getting so frustrated that I end up throwing my computer out of the window. Playing a level for 2 hours just to wind up getting overwhelmed yet again, for the 10th… 15th… 20th time, is not exactly my idea of fun.
Possibly the most annoying thing about Dungeons is the bizarre way Realmforge have gone about implementing your area of influence; i.e. the area you can build in. As I mentioned before, your area of influence is determined by the location of your monster pentagrams which grant you an additional range. Now bear in mind that you need to expand your area with these things, so you’re going to want to place them on the edge of your existing territory. Also consider that the heroes coming through your dungeon are strong, and there’s no way your Dungeon Lord can cope with them all solo any more after the heroes gain a few levels. And increasing your prestige to make your Dungeon Lord stronger isn’t going to be enough to fend these little bastards off before long – even a normal hero can still cut you down quite easily, never mind the stronger champions who come your way from time to time. So, you need the heroes to stream through a nice set of monsters so they’ll either die or arrive at you near death to finish them off. Now realise that the number of monster pentagrams you can place is limited by your population cap (a figure that can only be increased by expanding your area of influence to cover monster lairs, which again are generally towards the edges of the maps) and by this point the inherent flaw is probably dawning on you. You spend all your monster population points placing pentagrams to increase your territory, and end up with no spawners in the areas you really want monsters to be. And before long you’re going to be completely overwhelmed by heroes because the whole point of the game is to not kill them off quite yet.
Dungeons comes with a staggering choice of three whole rooms to build; an armory where heroes can get their fill of phat lewt, a library where the mages can get down with their scholarly selves, and a prison which isn’t really so much a “room” as a big fat Hero Juicer. Really, this is pretty lame for a game of this type where the only real gameplay is to build up your dungeon. And as I alluded to earlier, the number of different prestige items (a.k.a. gimmicks) available is decent but the fact that their differences are only really cosmetic is a bit boring. It would have been nice to see some kind of effects from these items such as allowing your monsters to have a greater range, or buffs/debuffs to heroes and monsters, or basically anything else that would have made the choice of which gimmick to place a bit less arbitrary.
On the topic of rooms, it’s pretty irritating that the game decides what it considers a room area to be based on what you’ve tunnelled out – sometimes you can end up with a giant room just because you wanted to dig out an area with a lot of gold in it. It would have been better to allow the player to manually dictate what region the room covered and make it smaller than the default if desired.
The heroes visiting your dungeon also come well equipped with a few potions, which they’ll merrily leg it out of combat to quaff. Unfortunately your monsters aren’t anywhere near as hot on their heels as you’ll want them to be, so the heroes manage to run to safety and pot pretty much every single time unless you’re in combat with them. It gets really tiresome to see a hero who has fought an onslaught of monsters and is near death just run a few tiles away, pop back up to full health and then smack down the remaining three or four monsters without breaking a sweat. It was a nice idea but the implementation is just plain annoying.
There is also a strange and in my opinion somewhat annoying little wooden-legged goblin running around telling you what to do, and basically treating you like a moron. It didn’t really help to give me the feeling that I was a powerful dungeon overlord when this mangy, annoying little twerp was dissing me at every turn. To be fair, although the game put me in such a bad mood during the tutorial that I didn’t give “Mr Sidekick” much of a chance, taking an instant dislike to him and his annoying voice, some of his comments are quite amusing if you’re not completely frustrated at the time of hearing them. The heroes themselves are pretty amusing too, coming out with some affectionate mockery of the generic RP genre.
So what’s the verdict?
In case you couldn’t tell by now – and it truly pains me to say it, because I had such high hopes for Dungeons – but in its current state it really does fall short of the mark. The lack of building options, lack of multiplayer, lack of instruction on what to do… overall it’s, well, lacking. There is absolutely great potential here though, and I hope Realmforge take the opportunity to make a few changes that would really change Dungeons for the better. With a less steep learning curve and a few more options for expanding your dungeon, as well as smarter monster AI and the ability to expand your area of influence in a way other than putting your monsters out of heroes way and this could be a fantastic game. As it stands… not so much. If you do decide to play, my advice – even if it goes against every one of your keen gamer instincts – do yourself a favour and kick the difficulty down to easy.
Editor’s Note: Apologies for the use of stock screenshots in this review rather than posting some of our own – for some reason neither of our review machines would allow us to make a screenshot of Dungeons either with Fraps or the normal print screen function.