Dungeons - The Dark Lord Review (PC)

There are those of you out there who might say it’s unfair to compare the Dungeons series to the Dungeon Keeper series. If you are such a person, I would refer you to Dungeons’ inclusion of dungeon hearts, impish goblins who do your bidding by mining out rooms and gold seams, and swathes of parody fantasy humour. Even the opening titles have a similar look to them. Dungeons so badly wants you to think it’s like Dungeon Keeper it’s painful.

Behind the copycat presentation, however, Dungeons isn’t like Dungeon Keeper at all. This in itself isn’t an issue. I’d gladly applaud the developers Realmforge for bringing fresh ideas to the table if their alternative method of play worked. The problem is that it doesn’t, and the end result is akin to working on an assembly line.

Does this Dungeon Keeper reference make you chuckle? It won’t when Calypso says it

The Dark Lord is of course, a sequel to the first Dungeons. I haven’t played the original so I can’t tell you how good it was. Having read about it and played the sequel, however, it would seem that the two are very similar, and this is not a good thing.

Story wise, the eponymous Dark Lord has gone power crazy since his last outing, and has forged himself a Lord of the Rings parody that will preserve his story writers’ imaginations and also conveniently make him immortal. However, his little goblin aide takes a dislike to his rampant megalomania, steals this Other Ring, and gives it to a fledgling Dungeon Lady named Calypso, who is also the player character of the sequel (and should not be confused with Kalypso, who are the game’s publishers).

This is where The Dark Lord makes its first mistake, because Calypso is one of the most infuriating gaming characters I have encountered in a long time. Calypso is supposed to be a sultry female demon, but the shrill Received Pronunciation voiceover makes her sound as if she’d happily murder a fox, but would dramatically faint at the slightest mention of anything vaguely sexual. The terrible voice-acting is even more damaging to the character than the clunky script, which attempts to combine tutorial tips with story-based narration.

The end result is an extremely confusing tutorial and a story which repeatedly breaks any immersion it manages to build up. Also, your Dungeon Lord’s physical presence in the game is restrictive both imaginatively and mechanically, the latter of which I’ll go into later.

The fundamental difference between Dungeons and Dungeon Keeper is that in the former your dungeon isn’t a place to house evil creatures and torture courageous knights. Instead it’s part amusement park and part hero farm. Heroes enter the dungeon on a regular basis, and your job is to provide an entertaining dungeon experience for them in order that they build up soul-energy. Once their soul-energy is maximised, you then knock them out and harvest their souls in your prisons and torture chambers.

I can see what Realmforge were thinking, and there is a certain macabre enjoyment at the prospect of leading heroes by the nose around your dungeon before clocking them on the head and harvesting them, but the entire system is riddled with problems.

The game looks lovely, in a twisted, horrible sense

Amusing your heroes is done in three basic ways, placing gold and treasures for them to fill their pockets with, giving them monsters to fight, and placing what are known as gimmicks around your dungeon. These gimmicks come in a variety of forms, all with the intention of increasing the amount of soul energy a hero can contain.

I don’t know whether the word “gimmicks” was chosen for the sake of irony or not, but either way it’s a horrendous name that does nothing to lessen the game’s shortcomings. What’s more, the emphasis on these “gimmicks” is far too strong, and makes the game feel like a Sims: Overly Serious Hallowe’en Party expansion pack. Decorating my Dungeon like some kind of sadomasochistic Laurence Llewelyn Bowen isn’t my idea of fun.

Worst of all, the moment monsters come into play the entire system falls apart. Monsters kill heroes rather than knocking them out, so it’s up to Calypso to run around the dungeon walloping heroes with her evil frying pan before the monsters start munching on their faces, which doesn’t make you feel very lordly and is completely at odds with the idea of creating a dungeon that all neatly works of its own accord.

Ultimately though, turning your dungeon into a hero-processing factory simply isn’t very fun. I play games to escape the monotonous systematisation of life, not to embrace it. My dungeon should be a place of hilarious horror, not a Modern Times -esque conveyor belt of boredom, the only distraction from which is when it breaks down and you have to brave its deadly workings to fix the damn thing.

Perhaps what’s most annoying is that everything needed to make a fun game is present. The visuals are decent, the animations lovingly detailed, the monsters are interesting, the humour is bearable, or would be if the game stood up on its own merits. There’s even a newly included multiplayer with Deathmatch, King of the Hill and Survival modes available.

Aside from these new multiplayer modes, however, little has apparently changed. There are new dungeon types including ice dungeons with unique monsters and such, but none of the changes or new inclusions affect the central concepts of the game, which is where all the problems lie. It’s far too bound up in systems and gimmickry, and insists you play it in the prescribed manner or not at all. There’s no freedom to it, no real opportunity to design your dungeon imaginatively. It’s almost like a puzzle game in that sense.

“If only I had a vat of plaster of Paris”

Dungeons: The Dark Lord baffles me. I honestly can’t understand why anyone would make a game that clearly wants you to think it is like Dungeon Keeper, when the developers have no intention of making it like Dungeon Keeper. I know I keep banging on about that, but the game has borrowed so much artistically from the Bullfrog classic that it makes you feel like you’ve been tricked into playing it. Like all those unwitting heroes hoodwinked into raiding your dungeon, dreaming of adventure and glory, only to be trudging ever closer to the grindstone of your huge human mill.

As I said though, the real issue is that the game’s own spin on the dungeon-building concept is just plain dull. In the first game the novelty might have been enough to keep it afloat, but there isn’t enough new or different to warrant this sequel even if the core mechanics were sturdy and entertaining to begin with.

Top Game Moment: The humour is worthy of the odd chuckle, when it isn’t Calypso delivering the jokes.