'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

'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

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 its own defenses, just settles for looking exactly like its 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 adviser 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 that must be met 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 a 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 gamerspeak for pile of unimaginative crap). 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, 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. Maybe $5, 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 you 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 surround the Realmforge office with torches and pitchforks?

Eh, not yet. It'll depend on how their next game fares. Until then, as far as the game "Dungeons" is concerned: Burn it.

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Video Games: 'Dungeons'

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