Version tested: PC
Had you heard? Us games reviewers, we get high off innovation. When it's your job to play games, all the games, every game, you end up craving anything that you haven't seen before: games that put your expectations in a paper bag and set fire to them.
This makes Dungeons a weird beast. It's the first game I've played in years that I wish had given up on all the clever crap and tried to be nothing more than a derivative, stinking clone.
Dungeons, from German developer Realmforge Studios is in many respects an homage to Bullfrog's classic Dungeon Keeper. Starting with nothing more than a handful of adorably loyal imps, Dungeon Keeper had you slicing corridors, monster lairs and neat little killzones out of the Earth, gradually creating a functional subterranean ecosystem that would, with any luck, automatically butcher any and all heroes that came wandering in.
Lots of games have done the sim dungeon thing since then (most recently the PSP series Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman!), but nobody's done it with as much charm, ingenuity and breadth. Dungeon Keeper brought about an excellent sense of "us" (your much-loved zoo of warlocks, trolls, imps and S&M freaks) and "them" (the achingly resilient heroes who routinely arrived with the intention to destroy you) – a clash made all the more intriguing because your dungeon was not a happy place. With a mouse click you could deliver a brutal slap to any of your dungeon's residents, providing your imps with a heightened work ethic, stopping any infighting or dissuading your fat bastard Bile Demons from eating all the chickens in your hatchery.
Dungeons' references to Dungeon Keeper flow as thick and fast as the blood of visiting adventurers. For starters, the game ends if the heroes deliver enough damage to your red crystal "Dungeon Heart"; all the digging and grunt work is done by a special, cowardly race (with Dungeons swapping imps for goblins); and Dungeons even copies the meaningless, comedy messages DK would spam at you from time to time. Where DK would occasionally inform you that "your Dungeon is full of yoghurt", Dungeons says it's full of Jell-O.
The first previews of Dungeons arrived like a slap, sending ripples of excitement through the pot belly of the PC gaming community. For a spell, we thought we were getting Dungeon Keeper 3. Having given you all this background material you should now hopefully experience some of the same disappointment as the world's Dungeon Keeper fans, because Dungeons isn't DK3 at all. It's very much its own construct.
The single biggest change to Dungeon Keeper's formula is that adventurers are no longer an intriguing nuisance to be destroyed without mercy. It's now your job to keep them happy. Yes, happy. Because it's only when you've gotten the bastards properly giddy (with each adventurer having his own needs, such as raiding your library, pocketing great fistfuls of your gold or engaging in combat) that they'll release an adequate amount of 'Soul Energy' when you defeat them, and Soul Energy is the key resource that allows you to build or level up your creatures.
This situation gets even weirder when the game informs you that only bored heroes will attack your dungeon heart, and that these heroes can spread their discontent to other heroes when they bump into one another and start talking. So there's this strange symbiotic relationship whereby the heroes never want to destroy your dungeon, unless it's crap, at which point you also stop playing around and try to murder those highfaluting troublemakers ASAP.
The way you kill heroes is through Dungeons' second big change. Rather than being an omniscient mouse cursor, you now have an omniscient avatar who you can level up through three different skill trees. You're by far the most powerful being in the dungeon (resembling Dungeon Keeper's Horned Reaper). Since you've got no way to order creatures around, you end up having to personally go sprinting up to any heroes that need to die (either because they're maxed out with soul energy or because they're starting to talk about how they first came to your dungeon before it was cool, or something) and fight them using a choice of cooldown-based skills and spells in a slightly tedious recreation of MMORPG combat.
Initially, this proves entertaining and engaging enough, but as the campaign's difficulty ramps up you'll notice the game weaving awkwardly and slurring its words like somebody who's going to be "drunk" in precisely one drink's time. One problem – and I found this out on the first proper level, when several adventurers managed to go wandering merrily out of the dungeon with packs heavy with my damn gold – is that it's hugely taxing to be both building your dungeon and keeping tabs on who your visitors are, where they are, what they need and how happy they are, not least because they're as unpredictable and easily distracted as, well, adventurers.
At worst, it's like playing a tower defense game in which you can't kill anybody and all the enemies are on strike. The sweet spot of letting your dungeon grind the heroes down, then swooping in to deliver a killing blow when they're on their way out is almost impossible to attain.
More often than not, you'll be looking for a new gold vein only to spot a satisfied hero mixed in with a grumpy one and a fresh-faced one. You've got no choice but to send your avatar running all the way from one side of the dungeon to this hot spot and engage in a lengthy fight with all three of them, kill the first two and leave the third by teleporting away.
And this is time that you should really be spending building, because Dungeons' pace is relentless. All the time, the heroes' levels are ticking up, and if you're not levelling up your own monsters, yourself and the quality of your dungeon, you're quickly up to your nostrils in hot water, and you know it.
The end result is a hard game that doesn't provide any of the transparency or precision that hard games need. The only way you're going to find out how to play Dungeons well is by entering the silent mosh pit of trial and error until you hit on what your priorities should be – at which point the game's lack of content starts to reveal itself. What you can build more closely resembles a set of tools than a deliciously evil chocolate box.
I do feel obliged to keep comparing this game to Dungeon Keeper because it borrows so much that it looks like an appealing purchase for DK fans – when that purchase could well be a mistake. Monsters are simply static defences rather than residents, and different creatures (five to each map) aren't attracted by what you build but simply become available when you capture one of their homes on the map. The range of rooms and clever tactics available to you doesn't feel particularly spacious, and while the game is funny at times, none of its creatures or characters will be finding a place in your heart. They're all simply numbers, obstacles or pains in your spiky, evil arse.
All of this makes Dungeons disappointing, but not necessarily boring. Dungeon Keeper's compelling core of carving a great, ominous complex out of rock and dirt is still partially intact, and Dungeons' vicious difficulty does at least add a perpetual tension to the game (as do a selection of game-ending bugs). It's simply hard to imagine anybody getting excited about Dungeons. I suspect this game missed its chance to be an underground hit in more ways than one.
6 / 10