Dungeons: The Dark Lord Hands-on Preview

Release Date: September 30th, 2011

There’s a phenomenon common to certain franchises. It occurs when a beloved sequel never materializes, and the shifting sands of the video game business swallow it up forever. The resulting feeling of frustration can really smart. For some people, it never truly goes away.

Dungeon Keeper, the Peter Molyneux-designed dungeon-management sim, is one of those franchises. Dungeon Keeper 2 came out in 1999, and wowed audiences with its graphics and clever design (GameFront still hosts a number of Dungeon Keeper 2 files). After decades of plumbing dungeons as heroes, people were obviously eager for a little role reversal. But though it was announced to much fanfare, Dungeon Keeper 3 was eventually confined to the dust-bin of history.

Enter German developer RealmForge and their game Dungeons. Tired of waiting for Dungeon Keeper 3 to not come out, the studio clearly decided to just make it themselves. As with Sid Meier’s Pirates! clone Pirates of Black Cove, which I just recently reviewed, European designers clearly feel little compunction about creating thinly veiled homages to classic titles. GameFront’s Ron Whitaker reviewed RealmForge’s initial offering, Dungeons, concluding that it was a largely satisfying retread of its obvious inspiration, though far from perfect.

Dungeons: The Dark Lord is the game’s new stand-alone expansion, and I had a chance to get my grubby hands on it at a recent Kalypso P.R. event. The tutorial made an uneven beginning, but its humor and enthusiasm were affecting, and it’s clear the game revels in the “be evil” mandate it gives to the players.

You start out as Calypso, the antagonist from the previous game, in a nice piece of morality-inversion-inside-a-morality-inversion that I’m sure elicited plenty of chuckles from the design team. Initial minutes are spent learning to steer Calypso and her demonic lingerie around, from a third-person RPG perspective that represents only part of the eventual gameplay. You can unlock various stat upgrades and abilities for your avatar; the latter are activated via an MMO-style hotbar.

The other part of the game, of course, is the RTS-style dungeon management. Dungeons: The Dark Lord certainly makes this look great, especially when it deploys its new, iced-out winter tileset, but the gameplay is difficult to get used to, at least for a new user. It’s not just that it throws a ton of mechanics in your face at the outset, though it does. It’s more that it falls victim to a problem I will now dub “commodity bloat.” Commodity bloat occurs when a strategy game tries to introduce too many interrelated commodities to harvest, and it gets confusing fast. Sure, the big ones are Soul Energy (which comes from luring, and then torturing, visiting heroes) and Prestige (a measure of your hero’s power), but these are underpinned by a wide variety of other things to collect. Looking at the UI, all you see is numbers with little icons next to them.

This is the kind of criticism that is sure to lure one or two angry Dungeons fans into the comments, but such is life. Those two fans might be interested in the hard facts of Dungeons: The Dark Lord’s new features, though I wasn’t able to try any of them. There’s four-player multiplayer (a feature whose absence was much-bemoaned in the first game), including King of the Hill and Deathmatch. When playing multiplayer, you’ll be able to play as one of Dungeons’ many boss monsters (somehow, the RealmForge team managed to work boss fights into their dungeon-management sim). There’s also a brand-new single-player campaign and “25 new prestige gimmicks.” Have I mentioned the totally off-the-wall localization?

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