There once was a time when geeks like us got all giggly and hot-and-bothered by the idea of being the villain instead of the hero. Dungeon Keeper accomplished that effect. Then we got Overlord, and most recently Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! offered some fun with a unique sense of humor. All of which carry the same basic innovation: the cliché story is reversed, and now you're placed in the shoes of the bad guys you've been fighting in videogames all these years.
However, nowadays this concept is about as fresh and innovative as the “Not Another Teen Movie” series. In the case of Dungeons, some of the gameplay mechanics are fresh, but the jokes are all stale and it's impossible to escape that been-there-done-that feeling.
Dungeons isn't just a paint-by-numbers dungeon building game though. In fact, the priorities are almost a complete 180 degree flip from other entries in the genre. Rather than fighting to kill your do-gooder enemies as quickly as possible, Dungeons tasks you with keeping them alive. By keeping them alive, the pencil-necked heroes will get all giddy about their achievements and accrue “soul energy.”
The idea is that the heroes that enter your dungeon get super excited about the renown they'll receive from coming back alive. So anything you can do to enhance that will make the heroes more valuable. You want to get them as excited as possible, then kill them and milk their souls for the precious energy within. Soul energy is the main currency you'll use to manage your dungeon and creatures.
To that end, you'll be able to build treasure rooms and spooky hallways, among hundreds of other things. Decorating your dungeon is actually quite a bit like decorating a house in The Sims or building a theme park in a Tycoon game. You place spooky objects like cauldrons, skeletons, and other evil oddities around your underground lair to get the biggest rise out of your opponents.
This is the one legitimately awesome part of the game. Your goal is to keep the heroes from destroying your Dungeon Heart, but they'll only attack if they get bored in your dungeon. So as long as you're designing awesome thrills for them to fight through then you're good. They even meet up with other heroes in the depths of your dungeon. If it's boring, they'll share that information and decide to go attack your heart together.
However, it’s unfortunate that Dungeons is great on paper but lacking in execution. For starters, even on the highest possible settings the game looks drab. That's pretty much a given considering it takes place in a dungeon, but it gets to the point where it's hard to tell things apart. We routinely had trouble finding our main character in the maze of lookalike objects. You can say that it's a budget game at just $39.99, but games like Torchlight have proven that you don't need a huge budget to make an attractive game. You just need to be crafty when deciding on your art style.
To complicate things, the camera doesn't work very well. It never zooms out far enough to give you a decent view of your surroundings. Even if you do manage to get a decent view, the dark interiors will obscure just about everything you're not standing right next to.
The biggest problem though is that the game simply doesn't give you the tools you need to succeed. As previously mentioned, even the small maps are hard to navigate. The user interface doesn't do you any favors when it comes to keeping track of how many adventurers are in your dungeon (or what they need to stay happy).
The game means for you to establish an ecosystem of sorts. Adventurers come in, get fat off excitement, then are slain. This in turn fuels bigger, badder monsters and a more exciting dungeon. In theory. The truth is that it rarely works out as well as all that, and the game is much harder because of it.
For instance, adventurers can end up bunching together in annoying ways. Those bursting with soul energy (and about to leave) can mingle with other adventurers (that just arrived) with next to no soul energy. It doesn't seem like a huge problem, but in order to prevent the first adventurer from escaping you'll be forced to sprint across the dungeon - wasting valuable time - to go engage both of them. You're not getting much gold or soul energy out of this while more and more adventurers are streaming in. Plus, all of your attention (and your main character) is focused on the fighting when you should be developing the dungeon to prepare for the next wave. This is how the game tends to snowball. The small problems get bigger and bigger until they become unmanageable. There's very little margin for error.
If you judged Dungeons based on the concept alone it would be a really amazing idea. However, just about everything that came after the conceptual phase didn't work out. There are some good bits to Dungeons, but they're better to read about than they are to experience. As a pure idea the game is very interesting, but poor execution held this one back.
Feb 22, 2011
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