From a game design viewpoint, nostalgia can be a tricky needle to thread. By paying homage to a classic title, games can combine those grand old memories with fresh new ideas to create truly enjoyable experiences. Or, if the title fails to live up to its predecessor, a game can instead cause curmudgeonly old gamers such as myself to yearn for those golden days of yore. Such is the case with Kalypso's Dungeons. While it references many fantasy titles, Dungeons borrows most heavily (and unashamedly) from Bullfrog's Dungeon Keeper series. And as I dug my way through several different levels of the underworld, I found myself more and more wanting to put this new title to rest and blow the dust off that favorite old game.
That's not to say Dungeons is a particularly bad game--it just isn't one that strikes a solid chord for me. Perhaps it wavers a bit too much between a dungeon-building sim and an action-RPG. Perhaps the humor and in-jokes are a bit too forced to be consistently amusing. Or it just might be that I'm too-fondly remembering the past.
Regardless, there are some novel ideas rumbling about in Dungeons. The most interesting twist this time around is the concept that heroes are a dangerous resource rather than just a plain nuisance. While placed in the role of a deposed dungeon Underlord, players must claw their way back up (or down?) through the ranks of underworld power to find their way back to being top dog. To do this, they'll need to build underground mazes and catacombs designed to impress the dark denizens. Paying for all these improvements requires both gold and Soul Energy. Gold can be collected the old-fashioned way, by calling on peons to hew it out of the very earth. This method is quite slow, but thankfully there is a much quicker method--lure heroes from above, pockets brimming, and simply take their money. But it's not quite as simple as all that.
In addition to gold, heroes also possess that second precious commodity, Soul Energy. And Soul Energy is quite a bit trickier to gather. Heroes wander into the dungeon through various entrances, which spawn the do-gooders at regular intervals. When they arrive, they are completely devoid of Soul Energy and are hankering for adventure. The only way to build up a hero's Soul Energy is to allow them to fulfill their needs, such as the need to gather treasure, equipment, and knowledge, or the need to maim and destroy (or be maimed, for those slightly twisted heroes.) Thus it is up to players to design a dungeon in such a way as to make these heroes happy, by dumping piles of gold throughout the chambers, and setting up armories and libraries to keep the goodies flowing. For those combat-oriented heroes, monster spawn points must be put in place--but just enough to rough up the heroes without outright killing them too early, lest all that Soul Energy go unharvested.
Once a hero is "full" of soul energy, they'll attempt to leave the dungeon, taking all their ill-gotten goodies and energy with them. It soon becomes quite a dizzying balancing act, keeping track of which heroes are ready to be collected and which to leave alone. In addition, players must constantly improve their dungeons with prestige items, underworld tchotchkes such as piles of skulls, flickering torches, and creepy sarcophagi. Not only does this increase in prestige make the dungeon more dungeon-y, it also serves a few other purposes. First, it helps keep those pesky heroes occupied. When not busy filling their pockets with treasure or goodies, heroes will stop and admire their surroundings. Should the walls be barren and uninteresting, heroes might start getting bored. And bored heroes are a Bad Thing--they'll soon get fed up and strike out after the Dungeon Heart. This all-important feature is the core of the dungeon--lose it and it's game over. In addition to keeping heroes in line, prestige also empowers the player's avatar, the dungeon lord himself. Rather than being a disembodied architect, the dungeon lord is a physical unit on the dungeon map. As prestige increases, so, too, does the dungeon lord's powers. As long as he is within his area of influence, he gains combat bonuses as well as increased regeneration of health and mana. And if this sounds like an action-RPG, it is. Not a great one, though, much to the detriment of the game.
The fact that the dungeon lord is an actual playable character just didn't well for me. Mostly this was because combat just wasn't all that entertaining. Even with a simplistic experience tree's worth of abilities to field, I just didn't find much to hold my interest with a playable avatar. Due to the fact that the rest of the dungeon is a balancing act designed to keep heroes alive just until they were full of soul energy, much of the game is spent racing the Dungeon Lord around the map, chasing after heroes who are close to leaving. I would much prefer the role of architect and puppet-master, cleverly designing my dungeons to string the heroes along until just the right moment, when I could end them with a well-played trap or monster ambush.
There is a decent mix of goals and challenges for each level, although this, too, is a mixed blessing. Many of the goals were more oriented to the action-RPG part of the game, rather than the dungeon-building side of things, and so I didn't find them as interesting as I would have liked. I would have also preferred a more sandbox-style play--many of the levels begin with almost half of the dungeon carved out, and the "correct" digging paths painfully obvious. I realize the choice to make Dungeons a builder-RPG hybrid was a conscious one, but it failed to deftly walk the line between the two genres.
That being said, Dungeons is not a terrible game. And I did find myself liking it more as time went on, rather to my surprise. But, in a somewhat ironic twist, all of the game's allusions to my old favorite titles had quite an unintended effect--I increasingly wanted to return to those old gems rather than continue on in this soon-to-be-forgotten path.