When I heard the premise for the game Dungeons, I was really excited. Playing a Dungeon Master who designs dungeons specifically with the goal of luring in heroes before gleefully and maliciously murdering them for your own gain is an awesome concept. It's great to be running the show! And I really wanted to love this game. Really, really wanted to love it. Unfortunately, some of the cumbersome game mechanics made this game a really hard sell and less of the gleeful hero torturing marathon I was hoping for.
Dungeons starts you off controlling your most trusted minion, allowing you to get a feel for controlling a character through first person view. You get to walk around the dungeon, trying to get down to your lord to give him some important news. As you do, you realize that you've been under a spell and the game switches you to third person view, which is really the way the game is played easiest though you can switch back if you like. After a brief intro the game begins in earnest, with your Dungeon Lord escaping betrayal. Don't worry about the game being spoiled; the betrayal is simply the mechanic for setting up the rest of the game in which you learn how to design and build dungeons to lure in greedy heroes.
The first 'prologue' level of the game is extremely hectic and frantic. Characters are thrown into a fully formed dungeon without any real indicator what to do besides 'escape'. It takes a little bit of time to get more comfortable with the controls, but I was actually able to get my Dungeon Lord out and into relative safety. Here is where the game really begun. After being transported to a brand new dungeon, the game informed me that I needed to rebuild my power by working through a series of dungeons designed to help me build back up to my former glory. In each new dungeon I was presented with a main goal to accomplish as well as a series of smaller mini tasks.
The game is built around the concept of dungeon creating. Dungeon Lords need Prestige, which they gain by using Soul Energy to buy Prestige items. Prestige helps to complete objectives and it also fulfills the requirements for your various dungeon items. Your dungeon items are what you use to populate your realm. There are piles of gold, armory items and traps to name a few. You need these items to gain soul energy from your heroes. Are we starting to see a roundabout circuit here? Everything is incredibly intertwined in the game meaning that you'd better learn to manage your resources pretty quickly.
But simply put, when heroes come into your dungeon they want to be happy. They want the things in there that make the quest worthwhile for them. Some want to find gold, some want to beat monsters up, some want to trigger traps and some just want to sit down in some long lost library and soak up all sorts of knowledge. As their needs are fulfilled, they gain soul energy. In order to get that soul energy from them, you must defeat them and either put them in a cell or torture chamber to continue to leech it from them.
At certain times in the game, gathering Soul Energy became troublesome. The juggling act became a multi-tiered one man show where I was trying to figure out which items to buy and which resources to try to gather. While doing this, the player is presented with other objectives, many of them timed. These give the Dungeon Lord other things to do besides minding his dungeon, but it means that at times you feel rushed to complete an objective when you would rather be improving your dungeon.
As the game is played the Dungeon Lord does level up and gain the ability to pick up spells and increased attributes and skills which make can make him a badass fighting machine. But the first mention that I had gained points came in the very beginning of the game. I'd gained one skill point and one attribute point. Immediately afterwards, the game had me rushing to complete a mini objective that if I didn't complete, my game would end. And there were no other mentions that I could level up. I had to just 'know' to constantly check and level up as I went along. Granted, you do get a little line that pops up to tell you that you've completed a mini objective (which gives you skill and talent points), but there is no other in game indication for you to go spend the points. There is only one line that I found in the instruction manual that states that you can freely spend the points. The game itself doesn't do a good job of pointing it out to you.
While playing, the game does try to inform you of other important items, such as where to find the new dungeon items that have been unlocked for usage. The game is actually designed so that with each level new objects and new mechanics get added in, such as different hero types. And while it was interesting that the game was constantly expanding, it felt almost like the expansion was too fast. I'd play a level, get used to the new things they'd handed my way and would feel awesome. I'd be ready to tackle the new level with all sorts of new ideas and tricks only to find that I know had to adjust to brand new things being thrown my way. It seemed like there was no real room to get comfortable with what you'd just finished learning about before they wanted you to learn something new. And players need to make sure that they read the instruction manual in order to know what all the interfaces on the screen mean. The game points out some of the interfaces, but leaves out very important ones such as a button that lets you assign tasks to your goblins.
Also, some of the levels seemed very poorly designed. The most important object in your dungeon is your Dungeon Heart. It is what keeps your Dungeon Lord alive and keeps the dungeon infused with the energy to keep going. If it's destroyed, it's game over. Generally speaking you want to keep heroes away from it. But multiple levels seemed like they were designed specifically to give heroes the opportunity to come marching right to it and to start taking pot shots. Granted, you can use prestige items to try to lure the heroes along a certain path. But I noticed that even when I put prestige items completely away from my Dungeon Heart and tried to lead the heroes away from it, some of them seemed to meander over that way far too often. Yes, there are some hero types who make a beeline for it (and provide no end of frustration to deal with), but normal run of the mill heroes were ignoring the objects that were supposed to give them an "Ooh Shiny" response and instead were waltzing up to my front door.
Dungeons also features a mini map which is supposed to be used to help navigate through the dungeon and find objectives. I found it to be borderline unhelpful. Sometimes my game play would be interrupted to hijack the camera to another part of the dungeon to show me a new objective. Once it was done, the camera would zoom back to wherever I'd had it before. They did this to show me what I was trying to get to, but because of how quickly the camera moves it's practically impossible to know where it was showing you. So you are forced to rely on the mini map which shows a frustratingly small portion of the map at a time. And to look at other areas on the mini map, you actually have to move your main camera around the dungeon on the screen to get it to display other parts of the mini map. This means that when looking for some objectives I had to completely stop what I was doing and run my cursor around the screen until an icon showed up on the mini map that I could click on to try to figure out if it was the brand new objective I was looking for or an old one that I hadn't completed yet.
And for those who like sandbox modes, there is a custom game option that is available for use. However, there were issues with that as well. The screen for selecting the custom game maps do not tell you what sort of difficulty level to expect. Early on in the main game, the ability to use things such as traps had not yet opened up. But there were custom game maps that I had access to that specifically needed traps to be used for some of the hero types. While it was interesting to have access to so many of the game features in one fell swoop, a difficulty indicator would be nice for players who hadn't yet gotten that far in the main game. Also, I found that the custom maps made you level up your Dungeon Lord in very strange ways with no indicator as to the rhyme or reason. One map freely gave me skill points while another required that I spend Soul Energy to level up. The instruction manual gave no indicator as to why they worked in different ways.
But the graphics were actually very good for the game and it ran smoothly. I had very little hiccups as I was playing. And as I constructed the hallways and passageways of the dungeon I could imagine how dark and dank they'd look up close. The prestige items you put into the game are actually decorative as well and they looked awesome. I could put down a coffin or a skeletal light and it made the whole dungeon look more realistic. And the figures that made up the heroes and monsters were well done. It was fun watching the little heroes stalking around as they picked up gold or started chasing down monsters put into their path. The main minion who narrates to you over the course of the game wasn't even that annoying and he didn't speak often enough for me to get sick of him.
And there were many times in the game when I was having a lot of fun. Over the course of the game I had moments where things clicked and I was able to handle a situation a little easier than before. For instance, some of the heroes have the desire to inflict damage on monsters (and some have the desire to be hurt by monsters, the sadists). If I saw that a hero was about to be killed by a monster and I needed them to stay alive longer to gain more Soul Energy, I could specifically click on that monster, kill them to keep the hero alive and watch as the hero meandered off to continue satisfying their needs in my dungeon. But then again, there were moments where I experienced nothing but sheer frustration as I realized that I had to move a group of monsters yet again, because the heroes were able to sense them through a wall and go into an area that I was trying to protect or keep heroes out of, such as my Dungeon Heart room.
Overall though, this game is a serious mixed bag. Great graphics and an interesting concept, but the execution was sloppy at times, cumbersome and just plain frustrating. With familiarity with the game and serious dedication to replaying levels over and over, it becomes much more manageable to play and even more enjoyable as you get used to the controls and memorize the challenges that are going to be thrown at you for each stage. It is not, unfortunately a casual game that can be picked up and just played whenever you feel like it; you are likely to get frustrated at trying to juggle all the things a Dungeon Lord needs to do to rule his realm. Some days, running the show just sucks.