Dungeons

Underground wail road.

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.

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So many choices! So little of interest! It's like a bead shop in here.

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.

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