While looking at Dungeons, the new game from Realmforge Studios, a zoological term comes to mind: Batesian mimicry. In nature, some species spend many thousands of generations of time and effort to develop a natural defense so effective that avoiding it becomes instinctual to predators because those that don’t catch on typically don’t live long enough to breed. Batesian mimicry is when another species comes along and rather than evolving their own defenses, they just settle for looking exactly like their more successful counterparts.
A great example of this is the very deadly coral snake and the harmless king snake. Both have red yellow and black stripes, but only one can actually kill you. Essentially, the king snake gets to live the easy life while riding on the coral snake’s coattails. Dungeons, which hit the shelves earlier this month, at first looks just like the classic Dungeon Keeper series (by Peter Molyneux before he made Black & White and Fable) or a remake thereof. However, once you actually get your hands on Dungeons, you’ll probably be disappointed to find that unlike the Dungeon Keeper games, this king snake of a game has no bite.
Dungeons is a base building sim like Dungeon Keeper or Evil Genius with a few differences. Rather than playing as an incorporeal overseer, players control a towering evil overlord who looks almost exactly like the Sauronesque protagonist from the Overlord games. You even have an elderly goblin advisor telling you what to do. Whereas Dungeon Keeper and Evil Genius provided players with an empty area in which to build their lairs, Dungeons gives players an already complete series of tunnels and rooms to build off from. Players can then tunnel and design their own rooms in the remaining empty space. Where Dungeons differs, is that instead of designing your dungeon with defense in mind, you have to design it so that it will make adventurers happy.
The primary resource in Dungeons is Soul Energy, which can be harvested from adventurers. As they swarm into your dungeon, each adventurer has a set of desires which need to be met in order to make them happy. A thief might desire gold, and as he finds and steals gold from piles of it you leave around as bait, his desire for gold goes down and his pool of soul energy goes up. When his soul energy reaches its limit, the thief is now happy, and he’ll stroll right out of the dungeon taking all of his soul energy and your gold with him. So, as the evil overlord, your job is to run up and finish the adventurer off, and then dump his butt in a cell where his precious soul energy is slowly siphoned off. You then spend soul energy to build new additions to your lair such as prestige boosting decorative items called “gimmicks” or monster spawning portals. It’s an interesting concept to tell the truth, but what we get is a glorified tower defense game that forgets that it’s supposed to be fun.
Dungeons could have been a good game; however it just feels as though the developers weren’t willing to put the extra effort into it or were aiming too high. On the one hand, Dungeons wants to be a dungeon building sim. On the other hand, it wants to be Sim Theme Park. You build portals to summon monsters, but you can’t do anything else with them. Monsters just stand around their portals waiting for someone to come along to attack them. Really, they’re little more than dungeon furniture used to delay and distract adventurers. The same goes for the majority of the game’s “gimmick” items. You spend soul energy on decorations to line the walls with in order to distract adventurers and raise your dungeon’s “prestige” level. While the inability to control or even really command your monsters is annoying enough, the real slap in the face is when you realize that the game penalizes you when a monster kills an adventurer instead of letting the demonic overlord do it. Those minor issues aside, there are two significant flaws to the game’s design that essentially killed any further interest I had in Dungeons.
In Dungeons, there are no doors. It’s a simple omission and yet a significant one. Once you dig a tunnel, you cannot reseal it, nor can you really do anything to direct the flow of adventurers. Well, almost nothing. The other big problem about Dungeons is that every adventurer is either omnipotent or bought a map off of god damned time traveler from the future. Heroes won’t go wandering around your dungeon in search of treasure, libraries, or other assorted loot. No, instead they will immediately make a beeline to the nearest pile of gold or other desired item.
These two issues combined mean that really, there is no strategy to building your lair in Dungeons, a game about designing and decorating an evil lair. Now to be fair, there is strategy as far as entertaining and killing adventurers is concerned, but dungeon design-wise, a long maze of tunnels is about as effective as bulldozing the entire level into one room and covering it with monsters and treasure. Combine that with a lack of any real tutorial and an overall experience that flip-flops between catering to the casual and to the hardcore and the result is a waste of time. It’s also a buggy waste of time with terrible audio and graphics that would have been average 10 years ago, but at this point there’s no need to go into that any further.
Dungeons is not Dungeon Keeper 3, nor is it a strategy version of Overlord. It’s a sad game that fooled many gamers into wasting their money. But what cannot be forgiven here, is the how they sold this game. The pre-launch advertising billed it as a spiritual successor to Dungeon Keeper (and I keep forgetting that spiritual successor is gamer-speak for pile of unimaginative S@#t). After launch though, the developers over at Realmforge started advertising that Dungeons was not a Dungeon Keeper clone and was instead an entirely different game. Of course in order to do that they apparently still need to explain how similar it is to Dungeon Keeper while being completely different.
I’m going to end this review by answering a few questions that no doubt a few of you are asking yourselves right now. Could Dungeons have ever have succeeded on its own merits alone, rather than mimicking the design of Dungeon Keeper or Overlord? No, I’ve played better games for free on Facebook. Hell, I’ve played better Dungeon Keeper clones on Facebook (look for Dungeon Overlord). Is it worth the $39.99 that Steam is charging for it? Sweet Gods no! I wouldn’t pay $10 for it. $5 maybe, but then only if it came bundled with a better game. If you’re really desperate to give it a shot, then just download the demo. Should I give it to a friend as a gift? Only if you hate them and want to permanently cut off all contact with them. Is this game a good enough excuse to storm the Realmforge office and burn it to the ground Frankenstein-style?
Eh, not yet. It’ll depend on how their next game fares. Until then, as far as the game Dungeons is concerned, Burn It.