Dungeons: the Dark Lord, a Great Idea That Doesn’t Quite Work

October 11th, 2011 by Ed Grabianowski

Dungeons: the Dark Lord is the sequel to last year’s Dungeons, from publisher Kalypso. In many ways it’s the spiritual successor to the beloved Dungeon Keeper franchise — a game that turned the RPG trope of heroes invading dungeons upside down, putting the player in control of the dungeon and making the heroes the antagonists. Despite this strong premise, Dungeons: the Dark Lord just wasn’t that much fun to play.

The Dark Lord picks up the story of Dungeons, making it a standalone sequel. In the first game, you played a dungeon lord who’d been shunted to the inauspicious first level by a rival. The campaign carried you through the levels until you regained your proper position in the dungeon hierarchy. Now, you play the original usurper working to carve out her niche in the dungeon world. Your maliciously humorous helper from the first game switches sides and returns to aid you once again, and the game mixes a fair amount of dark humor in with the dungeon strategy.

If only the strategy was compelling. The idea is a blend of realtime strategy and “tycoon” building games, with a little RPG thrown in. Your goal in each level is to build your dungeon in a way that both pleases the various heroes that enter and also sets them up to be killed so you can harvest their soul energy. The more satisfied they are with your dungeon, the more soul energy you’ll reap, unlocking even more items and devices to fill your dungeon with. That sounds like a great game, but for very specific reasons, none of it works properly.

The problem is, heroes enter your dungeon and leave via the same entrance. If you put things near the entrance that make them happy, like treasure, libraries or the right kind of monster to fight, they’ll get happy, turn around, and leave. If you put traps and nasty monsters there to kill them, they’ll die with no soul energy. Worse, to get maximum soul energy, you have to personally kill them in combat (which is essentially automated and boring). But as you walk to the energy-stuffed heroes for the kill, all the other heroes you run into on the way will attack you as well. You end up in a huge battle with four or five heroes, only one of which has any soul energy worth collecting.

Other problems include the frequently changing needs from heroes coming through the same entrance. One minute they want tons of treasure, the next they want monsters with lots of HP because they like to deal damage in huge quantities. It’s too difficult to rearrange your dungeon to keep up with the rapid pace of changing hero needs. For instance, you can’t place or control monsters, just place monster spawn points around which monsters will gradually appear and congregate. The game simultaneously demands irritating micromanagement, yet doesn’t give you enough control over your dungeon to do it effectively.

It’s a shame, because there are some good elements, like the graphics (although some levels were murky and hard to see, and I had a terrible time spotting gold deposits for my goblins to mine). In the end, this is a mishmash of elements that don’t work together.

I do have an idea for a game that could use this same engine, yet be a much better game. Simply blend Dungeon Keeper with the tower defense genre. You are an evil dungeon lord sitting in your dungeon protecting a horde of gold and magical items. Heroes keep coming in, which is fine because that’s how you get more treasure and magic items. But they head straight for your stash, grab as much as they can, then high-tail it for the exit. Each level, you’ll face a certain grouping of hero types, and you’ll use resources to build a series of death traps, monster hangouts and other evil surprises for them.

Then the heroes arrive, and you get to see your plan play out. You can step in from time to time, perhaps to upgrade a spell, mutate some monsters or use the occasional magic spell to personally fireball a few pesky paladins. You have to kill an allotted number of heroes before they make off with all your treasure. New levels would introduce new hero types, but you’d also gradually gain access to more dungeon building options. You could even work in the “hero needs” angle to slow them down or lure them into traps. Put a library on the other side of an anti-magic field — those wizards can’t resist a room full of books. Place a damsel on the other side of a well-hidden trap — paladins are no good at finding traps.

That’s the game I was hoping for.

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One Response to “Dungeons: the Dark Lord, a Great Idea That Doesn’t Quite Work”

  1. Comment by Gavin O'Brien

    Hm. In Dungeon Keeper, you had limited control over your monsters unless you controlled them directly, right? But couldn’t you place alarm flags down that drew monsters to a certain location? Weird that they didn’t include such a simple item in this.