Dungeon Lords

Dungeon Lords

Written by Tyler Sager on 6/8/2005 for PC  

Dungeon Lords, the action-RPG from Heuristic Park and Dreamcatcher, is an exercise in frustration. It’s frustrating because, throughout the game, I could see exactly what the designers meant to do, if only they had enough time. They obviously didn’t, though, because Dungeon Lords is one of the most unfinished titles I’ve come across in quite a while. And while I’m fairly confident that Dungeon Lords would never be a great game, I think it might have been a good one.

The problems begin with character creation. Players can choose from a variety of races, only 2 of which have female options. Next, players choose from one of four generic fantasy classes: Mage, Fighter, Rogue, or Adept (cleric). After picking from a rather nice selection of skills, I was then introduced to the first of a long line of frustrations. The character creation screen shows the options to alter character appearance. The manual devotes an entire section to character appearance. But this feature doesn’t work yet. So after several futile clicks, I resigned myself to the default Dwarf face, and dove into the game.

Gameplay is pure hack-n-slash, and quite linear despite the initial wide-open feeling. Find a quest from the few NPCs populating the world, carry out that quest, rinse and repeat. The story revolves around gathering five sacred Relics of Power to stop a crazed evil wizard from destroying the world. It’s fairly generic fantasy fare, made all the more blasé by uninspired dialogue and voice acting from the NPCs. Quests themselves were often confusing, relying on nonsensical triggers to further the plot. I found myself unable to move through a particular quest without first randomly stumbling upon an NPC somewhere in the wilderness, with no clue as to why meeting this individual would further things along. There is a quest log included, but it was quite buggy, often ignoring current quests or leaving finished quests in my “to do” list.

Combat, the heart of Dungeon Lords, quickly becomes monotonous. Left-clicking swings whatever weapon is currently equipped, right-clicking blocks with a shield. With enough skill, weapon combos can be chained together by clicking repeatedly, although these combos more often than not leave the character wide open for counter-attack. After a few battles against swarms of rats or goblins, everything seems the same. A few of the later monsters have some unique attacks, but most simply charge forward blindly, thanks to some poor AI. Thankfully, I found my character could out-run just about every monster in the game, so while tromping through the wilderness, I’d just keep running with the hoards of baddies behind me, and I’d hardly ever be touched. Once I hit a town or new load screen, the monsters would vanish, and I wouldn’t need to waste my time dealing with them. In dungeons, where it’s a bit harder to run away, monsters would often get caught in doorways and corners. In fact, I beat most of the boss battles by simply standing to the side of a door and filling the enemy full of arrows for about 10 minutes.
The magic system in Dungeon Lords is quite limiting, making pure caster characters almost impossible to play. Three of the schools of magic are powered by a sort of recharging ammunition. For example, Arcane magic is powered by spellbooks. Each spellbook of Fireball is one “charge” of the spell. These charges refill over time, but that refill rate is far too slow to be of any real use in most combat situations. Much of the support magic is helpful, but those wanting a pure “blast-em” character will be sorely disappointed.

I found it very difficult to become emotionally involved with the game, as the world just feels empty. There’s very little interaction with the environment, both in towns and in the wilderness. The first city was full of buildings that couldn’t be entered. There were a few random NPCs wandering the streets, but it hardly felt like a bustling center of humanity. Once I ventured into the rest of the world, however, I found the first town to be a teeming metropolis compared to the other settlements. The Elven city consisted of about six buildings, and just as many NPCs. Every building was barren and empty, almost completely devoid of furnishings. Inns contained no beds. Shops were simply an NPC behind a counter, with no wares on display. Grand temples were nothing more than a guy in robes standing in the middle of a vast, open hall. It seems like the designers just ran out of time, and threw in the bare minimum to get the players from point A to B.

And this time crunch obviously didn’t stop with the buildings. Entire features of the game were missing. There is no automap, even though the manual and the in-game help file indicate that one exists. There are items collected in the game that do nothing. There are locations that obviously were intended to be useful, but are now just there to look at. In addition, Dungeon Lords is crawling with bugs, many of which are game-breaking. I found that saving in several different save slots was essential to making any progress. Often a vital action would fail to happen, or an NPC would get caught on the scenery and fail to trigger the next event, and it would become impossible to continue on with the plot. There are many skills that have been removed from the game, although the manual and several in-game notes make mention of these. In planning characters, I thought Identify or Repair might be useful. Little did I know that these were now non-existent. There are many more bugs and glitches, major and minor, plaguing this title. Some of these issues are going to be cleared up with future patches, but right now things are a bit of a mess.

Graphically, things are mediocre. Not only is the world empty, it just isn’t much fun to look at. There’s nothing outright bad about the graphics, but there’s just nothing impressive, either. The characters have some clunky movements, and only a few different animations. The monsters are equally uninspired. Many of the monsters reuse the same graphics, such as the different spiders, wolves, rats, and some humans. The only way to tell if it’s a wimpy spider or a Big Mean spider is to highlight the critter with the cursor. The dungeons do look decent, and each has a unique feel. The wilderness, on the other hand, needs work. First, because of the lack of automap, I would have really liked a few landmarks to help orient myself. But most of the land looks exactly the same. Most of the places of interest are highlighted by campfires or somesuch, but it’s still difficult to find a way around, especially once the character steps off the road. Finally, the water animation deserves special note. Never before have I seen water with actual topography. I dove into the lake, and actually found myself merrily swimming up and down hills in the water. Maybe this is a world so imbued with magic that the water doesn’t stay flat. It was quite distracting. Most of the game was spent running from one place to another (often a 5-10 minute run, and that without stopping to fight on the way). There are a few “moonbridges”, teleporters dotted around the landscape, but they were too few to be of much use. The dungeons were typical fantasy cliché, from the Sewer to the Witch’s Maze to the requisite Puzzle Dungeon (a particularly frustrating, dimension hopping dungeon.) There were key-and-door puzzles, lever puzzles, and far too many of the dreaded jumping puzzles. This is not a short game, at least by action-RPG standards. Usually I find this a good thing, but with the level of bugs and rough edges, the last half of the game became quite a chore. I cheered when I finished the laughably anticlimactic final battle, but not due to a sense of accomplishment.

Sometimes I really wish I could say, “This game isn’t done yet. Please check back in 6 months.” I think there’s a decent game hiding somewhere in the unfinished code that is Dungeon Lords, but I just can’t be certain. Unfortunately, I must review a game “as is”, and “as is” right now just isn’t very good. Maybe with a lot more polish and time this would have been an entertaining fantasy rehash, but it’s a far cry from that at this point in time. Give this a pass for now.
Although released, and action-RPG Dungeon Lords is unfinished. It’s like going a day early to the amusement park. No one’s running the concession stand and the carnies are still bolting together the Tilt-a-Whirl. You can take a ride, but don’t be surprised when it collapses on your head.

Rating: 5.9 Flawed

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.


About Author

I'm an old-school gamer, and have been at it ever since the days of the Atari 2600. I took a hiatus from the console world to focus on PC games after that, but I've come back into the fold with the PS2. I'm an RPG and strategy fan, and could probably live my gaming life off a diet of nothing else. I also have soft spot for those off-the-wall, independent-developer games, so I get to see more than my share of innovative (and often strange) titles.

Away from the computer, I'm an avid boardgamer, thoroughly enjoying the sound of dice clattering across a table. I also enjoy birdwatching and just mucking around in the Great Outdoors.
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