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Armchair Design: Dungeons


To take breaks from the writing I've been doing lately, I've played through the core campaign of Dungeons. It begs for comparison to the classic and excellent Dungeon Keeper games, of which I played Dungeon Keeper 2. I'll go ahead and get that out of the way: where Dungeon Keeper has you keep your monsters paid, entertained, etc., Dungeons has to entertain the heroes, and then kill them once they are full of soul energy, ready to leave your dungeon, and heading back to town. The rooms of your dungeon are things that the heroes will like: libraries and armories. (Or things for containing heroes: prisons, torture devices, and sacrificial altars.)

I enjoyed this game a lot. I like the ways that the game encourages you to make gameplay harder for yourself by tacking on additional, optional challenges. On the whole, I like the sense of humor in the writing, and I note its close parallels with the humor of Overlord and Overlord 2, a pair of games I have enjoyed very much and really can't say enough good things about. I am really kind of baffled that Marc Silk, the voice of Gnarl in the Overlord games, is not also the voice of your henchman-of-identical-role in Dungeons.

I would recommend this game to others. It provided me with many hours of entertainment, and I expect that I will shell out for the DLC and play a few of the custom modes that are available outside of Campaign Mode.

Having said all of this, I will now get into my armchair design rundown, or "Things I think didn't work quite right." While these things do detract from the game, they are all minor things that I found it easy to look past. Mostly I wonder what other designs they attempted and what problems they found with those designs that led them to this design.

Personal Combat

One of the things that this game introduces as a change to the Dungeon Keeper model is that you have an avatar in the world at all times (as opposed to occasionally possessing a creature). Incidentally, this avatar looks a lot like the Overlord of, um, Overlord, including his giant axe. But where Overlord's personal combat is button-mashing (you know, what with being played on the XBox 360), the personal combat of Dungeons is auto-attacking with occasional spellcasting. The casting times of spells being what they are, your avatar feels a little slow to respond when you cast. I never found spare talent points to throw into the Roundhouse Kick spell, so I don't know if that would have helped my opinion here.

The defensive spells, as far as I could tell, are objectively better ways to spend your mana when mana is limited. (In most levels, you eventually gain enough power that your mana regeneration goes through the roof, so mana stops being a limited resource.) If you're asking yourself whether it's better to knock off half of one enemy's health or make yourself completely invulnerable to attack for twenty seconds, maybe spells could use another balancing pass? The balance shifts a little toward offensive spells once you get most of the way up that talent tree, but invulnerability and super speed were mainstays of my spellcasting from the moment I got them through the end of the game. I feel strongly that the game would have been much less playable without the 10 points I spent on speed-increasing talents - five for passive speed increases and five for leveling up my super speed spell. There are a number of tasks in the game that are only possible with the physical presence of your avatar, or are penalized heavily without the physical presence of your avatar, and speed boosts are the only way to get all of that done on the game's tight timing.

Sir, I Demand Satisfaction!

As heroes wander through your dungeon, they interact with various things (called "gimmicks" in the game) that either distract them for a time (prestige gimmicks) or make them happy, according to that hero's listed desires. For example, there are paladins who seek Masochism (that is, they're tanks and they like taking damage for a living), Knowledge (libraries), and Equipment (armories), but there are also assassins who seek Treasure (piles of gold), Damage-Dealing (they're DPSers, okay?), and Trap-Disarming (traps, on which more later). The other thing heroes can seek is healing output.

The problem with this is that it's sort of a pain to lead heroes by the nose into situations that will give them what they want, and heroes want what they want in exact numerical values. So an assassin who seeks traps, damage, and treasure will hit his limit on damage and treasure, and then not be satisfied until he finds traps... no matter how much treasure or damage he accumulates. This is the part I wish they had done differently, because healers are either the easiest or the hardest to satisfy, depending on the presence of other non-healer heroes. What I would like to see instead is a loss of efficiency, or some other kind of soft limit, such that I don't absolutely have to find this one thing for this guy in order for him to be happy - he could be happy with a much larger amount of the other things he wanted. Maybe they felt that this made it too easy to focus on just one or two dungeon elements and ignore the rest, though. (In response to that, I have to point out that that's one of their favorite optional hard modes...)

I'm a Traps Man

“Wake up baby! Ain’t one kinda bomb gonna do the trick.” “You gotta have all sortsa traps and bombs for every occasion.”

So, as mentioned, some kinds of heroes need to disarm traps in order to be happy. So you start stocking your dungeon with traps just like you stock your dungeon with monsters, libraries, armories, and treasure. Then you realize that your traps have just murdered the paladins, necromancers, wizards, healers, and so forth in the face, because of a couple of key points.

1. Heroes don't always have full health when they wander. Their AI prevents them from using healing potions until a certain point.
2. If a hero is getting stomped in a fight, he flees from the fight in a random direction to drink a healing potion. This can run him into other monsters or into traps, and in either case that kills him prematurely.
3. If something other than you kills a hero, be it a monster or a trap, you lose something like 60-75% of that hero's soul energy. This means that if a fully satisfied hero who has run out of healing potions (heroes enter the dungeon with 2-5 healing potions) hits a trap on the way back to the Heroes' Entrance, you're denied much of that soul energy. Yet stopping the hero from reaching the Heroes' Entrance was theoretically a goal anyway? So it feels a little like the game punishing you for doing what you're supposed to do.

Traps have the alternate and highly desirable function of doing tons of damage to enemy dungeon lords or their minions who move in on your turf. Screw those guys. So I find it particularly hard to know the right way to distribute traps in a dungeon. My eventual method was pretty haphazard, but I beat the game, so... I guess it was okay? What I can say for certain is that the overall dungeon flow works a bit better on levels without traps or trap-seekers.

Nobody Beats Up My Heroes But ME!

As I mentioned, heroes who are taken down by traps or monsters immediately lose most of their soul energy. On the other hand, if you take down the hero yourself, you get bonus soul energy. This is a massive inducement to take down all of the heroes personally, and I get that that's what they want, but they really don't need both the punishment and the reward. I would be happier if the game dropped the punishment and increased the degree of the reward, or just dropped the reward (since the real reward is getting to harvest 100% of the hero's soul energy in your prisons, torture devices, or sacrificial altars). I found that having both in the game was frustrating, since I need to be accomplishing story goals while also watching the life and soul energy bars of every hero. (Fortunately, the interface here is pretty solid, and pausing the game is just a thing you do.) This does mean you must space out your monsters, or they will all attack a hero at once. Likewise for traps - you want to put some decent distance between a trap and a monster-summoning pentacle.

Some Sneaky Little Jerks are Attacking Your Guardian, Master!

Much like in Dungeon Keeper, you have a Dungeonheart that you have to defend against the heroes. You can summon a guardian to watch over that Dungeonheart. That guardian has a big bucket of hit points and does a moderate amount of damage per hit. He's there to kill some heroes, but mainly he's there to delay heroes while you run or teleport back to your Dungeonheart.

There are three reasons that heroes ever attack your guardian.

1. If they go too long without satisfying any of their needs (i.e., without accruing any soul energy), heroes get angry and search for your dungeonheart so as to take out their anger upon it.
2. If a champion shows up, heroes in the area lose their interest in satisfying their needs, and follow in the champion's wake toward your dungeonheart. This is bad, and this is why you kill champions as fast as possible.
3. If they stumble across it in their exploration of your dungeon, heroes wander into your dungeonheart's chamber and attack. This is frustrating, because you didn't exactly do anything wrong; it just happens that they were standing someplace where the most interesting thing they saw was your guardian.

So you have to worry a lot about redirecting heroes away from your dungeonheart, particularly heroes who aren't angry or led by a champion. This means that, more or less by accident, you often find yourself killing heroes who aren't yet "ripe" with soul energy, just because something about your dungeon's traffic-flow led them there. I would like it if the game spent a little more time teaching you how to avoid this, or made heroes of the third category significantly less interested in tackling your guardian.

The AI

In the portions of the game that have you fighting an enemy dungeon lord, it is awfully easy to trick the enemy AI into following you over to one area, only to dash past them with superspeed, convert a pentagram in another part of their dungeon, lather, rinse, and repeat. It's also pretty easy to get them to attack one of your high-toughness monsters and stay focused on that while you go do whatever it was that you wanted to do, like slaughtering their monsters or beating up their guardian. I suspect that I am an average-or-slightly-worse player of Dungeons, but the AI did not present the level of challenge I had hoped to see. I wonder if there's something more than I don't know about this, though. (Also, from what I can tell, NPC dungeon lords are immune to damage while converting one of the player's pentagrams, while the player has to work pretty hard to make sure nothing will attack him during his cast time for converting a pentagram. This irritated me quite a lot.) The AI does at least try most of the time to stay within the boundaries of that dungeon lord's domain, so as to receive the massive amount of passive regeneration that that grants.

In Closing

So as you see, I have problems with the game, but none of them are dealbreakers. The graphics, humor, and variety of challenges entertained me. The only missteps in the humor as far as I was concerned were the World of Warcraft meta-references, such as the corrupted paladin named "Marthas" and his enemy "Volbar Againstdragon"... those, I could have done without. I really just wanted the game to rely on its own material for humor, rather than winks at someone else's.

An excellent game, and one I will continue to enjoy, but with areas that could have used more work.

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