Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dungeons Review

Dungeons, developed by Realmforge Game Development Studio and published by Kalypso Media.
The Good: Design dungeon layouts to satisfy hero needs before causing their violent death, dungeon lord earns additional skills and spells with experience, automated workers reduce micromanagement, optional campaign challenges reward one-use spells
The Not So Good: Mission strategy becomes very repetitive, arduous pace, no difficulty settings, linear objectives, no multiplayer
What say you? This dungeon design strategy game has some pleasing, but tiresome, planning elements and role-playing features: 5/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Why is Dungeons a highly anticipated release? It probably has a lot to do with the popularity of its inspiration, Dungeon Keeper, a 1997 strategy title that let you build your own dungeon, leading those goody-goody heroes towards an appropriate demise. So many games promote prosperity and good feelings, so it’s nice to take the evil side for once. The setting and general premise are where the similarities end, however, as in Dungeons you want the heroes to survive and prosper until they are extremely joyful, and then kill them off and steal their happiness. Makes sense to me! Let’s see if the developer behind M.U.D. TV has improved their management design skills.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Dungeons features very underwhelming graphics and sound design. It starts with the (unsurprisingly) dark graphics (you are in a dungeon, after all) that offer little light and a static color palette. The dungeon layouts all look very much the same: dank corridors carved out of solid, uniform rock. Also, you are usually zoomed out too much to see the decorations you can adorn your abode with. Heroes and other units have poorly detailed, blocky models and animations for movement and combat are sporadic at best. Combat is visually unimpressive, and spell effects are very basic. Dungeons is on the same graphical level as some indie RPGs (maybe even worse), but without a distinctive look. The sound effects are similar in quality: they are basic, though I did like some of the hero dialogue they spout while exploring your dungeon. The game also features appropriate music for the setting. In all, Dungeons does not bring notable graphics or sound.

ET AL.
In Dungeons, you lure unsuspecting heroes into your lair with promises of gold and other trinkets and then kill them, harvesting their souls to expand your evil empire. The campaign contains two tutorials and sixteen missions that gradually introduce new components to the player. The missions are presented as annoyingly good towns that need to be taught a lesson from an underground dungeon. The towns come in a linear order with specific, simple objectives that are occasionally vague. Competing AI lords are sometimes present, fighting over the same crop of juicy heroes ripe for the picking. The most interesting aspect of the campaign mode is the numerous optional challenges you can complete: presented like achievements, success earns you a one-use spell that is particularly handy when battling the bosses common at the end of each scenario. Unfortunately, missions become extremely repetitive after a while since the basic mechanics remain the same throughout your journey. Additionally, Dungeons does not offer difficulty settings, and the challenge level steadily increases until it may become insurmountable for most users. At least the game features frequent autosaves to preserve your progress. After you are finished with the campaign, you can try out around ten sandbox scenarios, though Dungeons lacks multiplayer, an add omission considering some scenarios feature AI opponents.

Your primary objective in Dungeons is to make heroes happy, at least temporarily. Each hero that enters your dungeon has one to three needs: gathering treasure, getting new weapons, increasing their knowledge, bypassing traps, healing others, or engaging in combat. Each time a need is met, their soul power increases. Then, once it is full (or close enough), you move in for the kill. Heroes spawn at predictable intervals from gates, and will leave once their needs are completely met. Champion units are only interested in destroying your “dungeon heart,” a large heart in the heart of your dungeon (heart). Once it’s gone, you lose, so don’t let that happen.

The first of three resources in the game is gold. It is carried by heroes when they enter the dungeon (I guess they can’t leave their wallet at home) and also mined as you expand the boundaries of your lair. Gold is used to buy most things: monsters, prisons, books, weapons, and stock treasure. Soul power, earned once you kill a hero, is used to buy prestige items. These decorations unlock higher-level items, although disappointingly their placement does not matter at all (you prestige increases by a set amount no matter where an item is placed). Pentagrams can be placed around the map to claim territory and spawn a variety of monsters: bats, rats, skeletons, slime, and other assorted gross and/or scary things. Since you can only build in areas under your control, placing pentagrams only in high-traffic areas isn’t always the best strategy: you will also need to claim additional monster shelters to increase the monster population cap and access new scary guys. Finally, you can place prison cells to extract extra soul power, traps to trap things, and armories (for weapons) and libraries (for knowledge) to satisfy odd hero needs.

You are actually always controlling the dungeon lord, and this is where some role-playing elements enter the equation. The features here greatly expand the appeal of the game, almost making up for the linear nature of the design strategy (almost). Your dungeon lord is mainly used to dispose of heroes when they are ready (their soul power is close to being full). Most of the time, you’ll want to keep him hidden: if a hero spots your lord, he’ll automatically attack, and if the hero is low on soul power, it’s simply a waste of energy. Combat experience will unlock attribute and skill points. The typical attributes are present: strength, agility, intelligence, and constitution, and they grant incremental increases in the appropriate areas. The skill tree in Dungeons is quite extensive, offering a mix of new spells, cheaper items, and improved abilities like speed, attack, critical hits, and workers. The spells are typical fare: weapons like fireballs, impediments like freeze, and protection like shields and healing. Each spell uses a significant amount of mana (especially before you level up a lot), so much so that most of the time, you’ll only be able to use one or two per battle. Dungeons offers a quick spell bar where you can click (or use the number keys) to access your spells; you can actually bind buildings to the quick bar, too, if you’d like. Luckily, the ever-important dungeon lord does not need to keep the dungeon running at a basic level as summoned goblins will perform tasks automatically, like transporting defeated heroes to prison, filling up treasure chests, and mining. This significantly cuts down on micromanagement, though it does result in a lot of waiting around for heroes to maximize or resources to accumulate. Still, the RPG aspect of Dungeon adds some interest to the campaign.

Unfortunately, it only takes about two missions to see everything Dungeons has to offer. The game is plagued by repetitive strategy: line the hallways with artifacts, add some monsters and treasure and libraries and armories, and kill the heroes on their way out. The intermediate objectives add some variety to the gameplay, but once you’ve figured out the same basic flow to each level, Dungeons becomes quite dull. Coupled with this is a very, very slow pace: heroes take quite a long time to fill their needs, and you’re just waiting (and waiting (and waiting)) in the shadows to reap the maximum amount of soul power. The game could benefit from some accelerated options. Constant combat is not preferred, especially since your health and mana will automatically regenerate while resting. Death is also temporary: as long as your dungeon heart remains intact, you’ll always respawn back there instantaneously with full health. Dungeons features some inconsistent difficulty: while most heroes can be easily disposed of, when massed they can be difficult to kill successfully, especially when champions are involved. It’s better to try to take on one or two at a time with the help of some of your monsters. I almost feel bad for the heroes. “I’m going to use the gold to buy new equipment!” they enthusiastically say right before you kill them. Oh well, all in a day’s work. In the end, Dungeons has some nice ideas, interesting gameplay, and robust role-playing features, but fails to provide the variety required for long-term enjoyment.

IN CLOSING
Dungeons takes an noteworthy premise and cooks up repetitive tactics and tedious gameplay. The strategy for each level is the same: let heroes walk around a bit, kill them off, and then invest their soul into prestige, unlocking more efficient items. Dungeons does offer a variety heroes that will want different things: treasure, weapons, knowledge, monsters, traps, or saving others. Simply placing one room with each of those items somewhere near their spawn points is good enough; then, it is a waiting game as their satisfaction slowly (and I mean slowly) grows. Finally, swoop in for the kill, have your minions take their unconscious body to the prison, and let the soul power roll in. Soul power lets you place decorations around your dungeon: their placement does not matter and putting them anywhere will increase your prestige by a set amount, unlocking better items to more efficiently increase your prestige. Once is frankly enough to see how it works, so the campaign (and, by extension, the sandbox games) quickly become quite repetitive. Dungeons fails for a lot of the same reasons M.U.D. TV did: too much repetition. The linear campaign does offer some optional side missions that will give some spell rewards, so that’s a bit interesting. Breaking the mission monotony a bit is the role-playing aspect of Dungeons: experience will give your dungeon lord better attributes, more skills, and new spells. You are really controlling him in the game, and in this aspect Dungeons controls like a classic action RPG, although with the added ability of placing buildings. Still, with the lack of multiplayer (odd since you’ll routinely take on AI dungeon lords), static difficulty, and limited strategic variety, Dungeons only remains interesting for a short period of time.