Wot I Think: Dungeons 2

someone tell Cara

Dungeons 2 [official site] is a strategy-management game which borrows heavily from Dungeon Keeper – to whit, you’re an evil overlord building a vast underground lair then training up a bestial army within it. After a series of disappointments, might this be the much-needed heir to Bullfrog’s classic? It’s out tomorrow, and here’s what I think.

There’s a room type in Dungeons 2 called The Tinkerer’s Cave. I don’t know if this is a deliberate statement of intent, but a tinkerer’s cave is how I always saw Dungeon Keeper. It wasn’t a manic strategy game and it wasn’t about balancing the books, even though both those aspects were very much a part of it. It was a tinkerer’s cave, a big underground space to muck around in, to carve into shapes which pleased me and to fight minor fires in with a mixture of ingenuity and panic. That’s what I’ve missed in the long years since Dungeon Keeper 2. And that’s what, against many odds, Dungeons 2 has.

A few years back, I got excited. It doesn’t happen often. Dungeons, it seemed, was to be a spiritual sequel to Dungeon Keeper, one of the games I hold closest to the withered gourd I call a heart. These days, there’s a spiritual sequel to or unofficial remake of almost anything you care to mention, including Dungeon Keeper several times over, but back then Dungeons seemed like the first and only opportunity to revisit Bullfrog’s peerless strategy-management game of subterranean tinkering and warfare. I was excited. In vain. Early promise became irritating and confused practice, though Dungeons did at least head admirably off in its own direction rather than slavishly ape someone else’s work. Flash forwards to 2015 and we’ve just had War For The Overworld, which on paper replicates Dungeon Keeper 2 almost exactly (as well as throwing in additions of its own) but nonetheless came up short on capturing the series’ spirit. It didn’t scratch my itch, but surprisingly, Dungeons 2 does, despite in many ways being a whole lot less like Dungeon Keeper.

It does this because I can play it messily. While it keeps me on my toes, it’s never hard in a way which requires precision to beat – I can hurl a load of monsters at the problem then get back to building and researching, safe in the knowledge that despite all the sounds of screaming in the distance, it’s probably not a problem, probably. By contrast, War For The Overworld targeted a twitchier, more skilled, multiplayer-minded crowd who were more interested in precision battle than construction and tinkering. That’s fine, I’m not going to spend a write-up of another game haranguing WFTO for having different priorities, but personally speaking I’m mightily relieved to have something which shoots for the pacing of ‘my’ Dungeon Keeper.

Dungeons 2’s reasonably tall tech tree means there’s always something else to build or upgrade, and it’s consciously just not quite generous enough with the amount of gold available to let you simply steamroller through. Almost every room and every unit in it is also appreciably different to DK, rather than just a reskin, so while I already know the basic ropes I feel like I’m then learning new things rather than just going on muscle memory.

Dungeons 2 goes to very different places structurally from DK and WFTO alike. Very ambitiously, there are two different games running simultaneously here. One is the isometric construction and management of an evil lair and its monstrous denizens, who cannot be directly controlled and will rebel if their needs are not met, and the other is a simplified Warcraft III-esque real-time strategy game with direct unit control and a heavy focus on lampooning Blizzard’s fantasy world. You even get two different mini-maps at once, one for the underworld and one for the overworld.

I worried initially that this was Dungeons 2 biting off far more than it could chew, but other than much of the overworld/RTS aspect involving too much slow schlepping around a place filled with artificial barriers, it gets away with it. What Dungeon Keeper always lacked was this sense that you raised an army of darkness then razed the happy, pastoral land above with it – the latter essentially happened off-camera. The primarily subterranean War For The Overworld, meanwhile, didn’t quite live up to its title (which was itself borrowed from the DK3 that never was).

It’s quite a treat both to have your creatures go smash up a cutsey Warcraftian town and to get to take temporary control of them and their powers in a way that’s far more practical than DK’s atmospheric but gimmicky Possession spell. It can become bothersome to slowly ping creatures back and further between underground and overground, and high in-game costs and unit caps (upgradeable) prevented me from effectively having one home team and one away team, but it’s both a different sort of strategy and a better finale than simply trekking over to a rival dungeon and twatting a big gem until the voiceover says you’ve won. You also get to beat up a unicorn in a sort of boss fight at one point, which is hard to object to.

The monsters, which incline more towards comic takes on Warcraft and Warhammer greenskins than the demonic menagerie of Dungeon Keeper, are reasonably charismatic too. They have enough silly animations that I had a sense of who they were, silhouettes with at-a-glance familiarity and with this a certain sadness if they perished, which was lacking in WFTO’s homogeneously spiky and more statistic-focused denizens. They’ve got distinctive roles and upgrades too, which means they’re more imaginative than straight-up analogues for DK units, and that the option for more tactics and consideration in a fight is there if you do want it. Most of all, it’s colourful and silly, achieving its intended aim of playing as the bad guy through actions – unicorn-slaying, village-razing, Eddard Stark-executing – rather than having to look all grimdark.

There’s perhaps a little too much waiting around and a couple too many things which need researching, which needlessly delays getting out there and creating hell, but again, this is a game which is happy to let you fudge things to some degree. It’s more tinkering than tactics, which is fine by me.

There’s also a side-campaign starring some demons, which is more on the RTS side of things, and a few gentle takes on MOBAs in there too, but while the variety is admirable this stuff felt like a bit of a distraction from the dungeoneering I really wanted to be getting on with. As does the incessant chatter of the narrator, who you’ll realise after a couple of hours of wondering where you’ve heard him before is the guy from The Stanley Parable.

While he brings the same level of Radio 4-toned sardonic enthusiasm, and in the earlier stages of the game there’s a nice line in Stanley-style commentary-as-you-play, increasingly it all devolves into a mess of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones references. Simply saying something’s name in a sarcastic voice does not satire make, and while it never goes all the way into objectionable, the steady stream of look-this-is-a-bit-like-that-other-franchise prattle does become highly irritating.

There are also digs at other games, including EA’s notorious free to play Dungeon Keeper and Double Fine’s notoriously unfinished Spacebase DF-9, as well as references to the allegations which motivated a certain online harassment campaign. Dungeons 2 is never outright venomous, and clearly means to be playful more than anything, but there are times when it just seems pointlessly snide just for the sake of filling a quiet moment.

This stuff is also going to date the game horribly, which is a crying shame given it’s otherwise the Dungeon Keeper-like I’m most likely to return to in the years to come. Though I dearly wish it would calm down, and it’s too messy to be as classic as its forefather, Dungeons 2 is the tinkerer’s cave I’ve been waiting for.

Dungeons 2 is released tomorrow.

From this site

35 Comments

  1. AngoraFish says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head about what made DK2 great, and what makes WftO a middling disappointment.

    Colour me burnt twice over now, with Dungeons 1 and WftO at least. I’m therefore thinking that I might wait for a 50% off sale on this one and save myself another round of day-one bug testing duty.

  2. LTK says:

    Whoa. Dungeons got a sequel? And it’s out tomorrow? When did this happen? I knew it had gotten an expansion, but a whole new game is totally unexpected.

    If someone had told me a few years ago that the sequel to Dungeons was going to be more warmly received than War for the Overworld, I’d tell them to go back to their bizarro cyberfuture. Now that I’m in that bizarro cyberfuture, I don’t know what to think. Did any of the design of the first Dungeons return in the sequel? Can it even be called a sequel? Where can I buy it?

  3. Ragabash says:

    “I can hurl a load of monsters at the problem then get back to building and researching, safe in the knowledge that despite all the sounds of screaming in the distance, it’s probably not a problem, probably.”

    See, this is why Evil Overlords lose. :P

    On a more serious note, part of me feel like I can never get the original Dungeon Keeper back. I’ll say something odd, but it’s the only video game for which I preferred the French narrator over the original English one. He was absolutely magnificent. You could hear the disgust for all the cutesy, fluffy things of the surface dripping from his voice, and I wish localization in games was always that stunning. It was so good that I don’t even dare approach spiritual successors to Dungeon Keeper, because the delectable narrator from my memories won’t be there. :(

    • Gnoupi says:

      Grim Fandango.

      Grim Fandango also had a fantastic French localization.

  4. Lacero says:

    I’ve watched a stream of this and I’m not convinced by the bouncing of monsters back and forward to defend and attack. It looks really tedious, and as you can pick them up and teleport them with your hand there’s no decision or gameplay in it either.

  5. colw00t says:

    Is there a demo of some description? I’m very intrigued but I’ve been burnt by too many pale imitations of dungeon keeper.

  6. Mr Coot says:

    I will give this one a go, Kalypso are not region price-gouging on it so that is a good start. Looks quite nicely done. Do concur with Mr Meer’s analysis: I’m still playing WftO but lovely and evocative as it is, the competitive RTS emphasis is no country for this old man. So I’ll sail into Dungeons II and see if my heart can’t be consumed for a bit.

    • Mr Coot says:

      Soz no edit: price same for US and AU, EU and UK I think you still get gouged even when taking into account VAT.

  7. J Arcane says:

    That DF9 snark is just tasteless, and I’m inclined, grudgingly, to request more detail/context on the Gamergate reference because that would sure as hell give me pause depending on the target (which from your allusion sounds like the wrong one entirely).

    • LTK says:

      The whole thing with pop culture references instead of humour is putting me off a bit as well. I held a lot more goodwill for the game after reading this review, which partially disappeared when I watched the embedded trailer afterwards, in which they decided to parody 50 shades of grey for some inexplicable reason.

    • vorador says:

      While it could have been handed better, i think the way Double Fine handled the DF9 debacle deserves all the snark it can get.

      From someone who paid for the “game”. If it can be called that.

    • Alec Meer says:

      (open image in new tab to make it legible)

      • MadTinkerer says:

        Ah, so just the right amount of offensive, then. I chuckled.

      • noodlecake says:

        Hmmm… The “humour” is definitely clumsy, considering the stress and misery the whole “gamergate” movement caused…

        It’s genuinely enough to put me off buying this otherwise seemingly fun game.

        • Dilapinated says:

          feel like if this were a joke about GG rather than the victims of their campaigns it’d be on a bit more firmer ground.

      • Jenks says:

        Oh how controversial and offensive! I’ll never buy the game now!

        /dramaqueen

        • ChiefOfBeef says:

          Looks like RealmForge for all their faults know which side their bread is buttered.

      • Zekiel says:

        Thanks. So not really at all offensive, but also not really at all funny… so how did it make it in dialogue exactly?!

      • MellowKrogoth says:

        Sounds like they’re just making fun of how other studios got a lot of attention, intentionally or not, by exposing their personal dramas all over the internet, while they didn’t. It’s also a good bait for the easily scandalized or offended, it would seem.

        Also, nice work focusing on the victims, purposedly ignoring the fact that some real corruption and manipulation problems in the games industry started the clusterfuck that was the GG movement. Demagogy at its finest. Personally I think that no matter what happened, those root causes deserve to be made fun of.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      “That DF9 snark is just tasteless”

      Are you unfamiliar with the origin of the Scavenger Room from DK1?

      • CKScientist says:

        I’m not, and I can’t find anything about it on the internet. Care to explain?

  8. deadfolk says:

    Wait, so it’s good?

    Nuts!

  9. RedViv says:

    The imp minions are called “little snots” and that already charmed me from the start, somehow.

  10. Michael Fogg says:

    Any dungeon should have, almost by definition, levels. I can’t fathom why all these dungeon games, with today’s technology, still choose to render them as flat planes. Think of the possibilities: to build vertical shafts, sloped tunnels leading into the depths (complete with rolling boulder traps), halls with galleries to place archers on… Also the surface level should be freely visible by zooming out, instead of a separate map. Up your game, devs!

    Btw. there’s something strangely alluring in the phrase ‘twatting the big gem’

    • MadTinkerer says:

      A Game of Dwarves does this. The problem with having multiple level dungeons in a DK-like is how to represent it in 3D without obscuring part of what’s going on at all times. Dwarf Fortress handles it by not having 3D graphics and simply committing to the idea that the player can never know every crucial piece of information at all times. A Game of Dwarves is okay, but it’s no Dwarf Fortress, because of this problem.

      Maybe if there were multiple dungeon levels on a game map, but you only had to worry about one at a time, or something, something could be worked out. But just as moving Mario to 3D means changing the interface completely, and changing most of the gameplay, making a DK-like have multiple levels would change into not necessarily being bad, but not really being like DK anymore. Which is what happened with AGoD.

    • BurningPet says:

      Dwelvers does that.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Like many “great” gameplay ideas gamers have, it sounds great until you try it (Dwarf fortress and several of its clones have done it by now), and then you realize multiple z-levels complicate everything and make it hard to keep track of things, without really adding that much to the core gameplay..

  11. MadTinkerer says:

    I was happy with how WftO turned out, but it sounds like I’d like Dungeons 2 even more. I’ll try it out.

  12. CKScientist says:

    I’m glad this has turned out well. I played & enjoyed Dungeons 1 and its expansion pack, but they were ultimately rather limited.

    I think my approach to DK2 was rather the same as Alec – I liked the atmosphere and the lives of the creatures. My favourite bit was always My Pet Dungeon. I don’t suppose I would enjoy WftO.

  13. Avaenuha says:

    Ugh. Between the clumsy attempts at humour and the unnecessary gendering of the trailer*, my interest in this plummeted from “definite purchase” to “nope”.

    * Normally I don’t care about gendered game protagonists, they’re an artistic choice for the story. But this isn’t a protagonist, it’s a personification of the player (who does not exist as a character in the game) created purely for a marketing trailer. There’s no reason it even has to have a gender. I’m a girl, I want to be an evil overlord, too. Fill your trailer with references to the player as “Mr Evil”, all you’re doing is telling me is you think I’m not meant to be playing your game.

    • NonCavemanDan says:

      All I could think of was the companion series to the Mr Men children’s books and wondered why I couldn’t play as Little Miss Evil.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Well I’m glad I’m not that over-sensitive and over-politicized. I’ll be enjoying the game, whether or not I can identify with the man/woman/green alien who’s portrayed as the evil overlord, thank you very much.

    • aircool says:

      I know how you feel. I hated playing all those Alien games as you were always stuck with playing Ripley. I would have much preferred to play Hicks.

  14. Atomic Playboy says:

    Dungeon Keeper has an amazing art style and clever dark humour, Dungeons 2 on the other hand…

  15. zombiegamer-nl says:

    if you want a bargain > € 19,99 @g2play
    link to g2play.co.nl