One of the critical problems of the gaming industry today is that nearly every game is an adaption of a successfully proven concept. This is probably why there is a lot of hullabaloo (scrabble bonus points) whenever an interesting new concept game comes out, even if the concept and execution are flawed. But at the end of the day 95% of the time we’ve done it all before: whether we’re shooting aliens with force shields that are oddly susceptible to melee attacks (Halo), humans who have developed chainsaws with invulnerability shields (Gears of War), any civilization game, etc–despite minor variations, games are typically incremental improvements of a proven formula.
That is why I gave an exclamation of glee when I recently re-dug up Dungeon Keeper 2 (now classified as Abandonware, woohoo), a game with a refreshing concept that seems so simple yet has never been followed up on. Nearly every fantasy book and genre has tackled the concept of storming a dungeon, Dungeon Keeper 2 (and of course its predecessor) allow you to play as the dungeon master. Your responsibility is to tunnel about, creating an acceptable dungeon that will draw in the nastiest of creatures while fending off invasions of glory seeking heroes.
The game has two primary modes (and a multiplayer that is near-unplayable due to crashing issues; more on that later): a campaign mode and “pet dungeon” mode. The campaign focuses on a series of dungeons with the goal of gathering all of the portal gems, upon which terrible things will happen to hapless humans. Missions are completed by killing a boss hero who is holding the gem, sometimes by brute force and other times by relative guile (the boss hero will still end up being jumped by your army of creatures and brutally murdered, he just won’t see it coming). Pet dungeon mode includes a series of scenarios where you have to amass score by building out your dungeon and accomplishing certain objectives. Pet dungeon mode also allows you to play in near-perpetuity, controlling the frequency and strength of enemy hero invasions while building out a complicated lair.
What makes the game shine is the intricacy and detail you can spend in building out your dungeon and managing the creatures within. An example of the depth of the game is imps. Imps serve as your primary workers, summoned via magic. They tunnel about, claim land in your name, mine gold, but also serve in combat support roles. The imps will alert your denizens to invading heroes, drag your hurt creatures to safety, or drag unconscious enemies to your prison and dead enemies to your graveyards (only terrible things await enemy heroes imprisoned or bodies dragged to the graveyard).
Your primary goal is to attract an assortment of powerful creatures to the dungeon to perform your bidding. All creatures have a basic need for food, home and getting paid. But beyond this you have a variety of room types you can build to attract the proper creatures and put them to work. For example, the industrious troll needs a workshop to be attracted to your dungeon, and can build a variety of doors, traps, and other devices to fortify your dungeon. Another room, the torture chamber, serves multiple purposes: enemy heroes who have fallen can be tortured to death or continually tortured then healed, both yielding different boons, and the torture chamber serves to attract the mistress monster, a high DPS melee warrior.
Like any game, Dungeon Keeper is not perfect. From a technical standpoint, the game is extremely unstable. Multiplayer was almost impossible due to the lack of an autosave feature and the fact you’d have two different computers each with a high probability of crashing. Since playing it in 2009, I’ve found some of the old problems, but the frequency varies wildly. One campaign level was particularly egregious, but after making it through it, I’ve not had the game crash in a solid six hours of gameplay.
From a gameplay perspective, the game suffers from some of the expected foibles of the time: the AI is OK, but not great. Periodically, creatures get unhappy not being able to find a staple (food, money, or a home) when such resources are clearly available. What I would call “dungeon management” is a mixed bag. For example, although you can set up “guard rooms” to fortify strongpoints, you cannot set up patrols to watch the halls in general. You also can’t manage creature behavior beyond dropping them in the room you want–i.e. a warlock can be researching, guarding, or training, but short of dropping him manually into the room you want, you cannot encourage him to learn a particular behavior.
The game has a “possession” mode, which allows you to take control of a creature directly and go into faux-FPS which allows you to personally lead creatures into battle. I am not a huge fan of this because it takes away from the strategic nature of the game. It might be more interesting if there were some sort of hero or lieutenant monster that could be given limited direct control at a strategic level rather than being forced to jump into a limited FPS mode. Admittedly, it is fun to wander your dungeon and see it from a monster’s perspective, although a first person camera feature serves the same purpose.
The last complaint is that the game is somewhat too easy and limited in the challenges it pits you against. Although the potential for challenge is there (i.e. rogue characters who stealthily try to steal from your treasuries, holy knights who try to kill your dungeon, etc), it is largely limited to a mass of enemy heroes that storm out of a designated area and start rampaging about. For a 1999 game this is probably enough, but it is the sort of thing that makes one yearn for more in a sequel. In this case, unfortunately, a sequel will never come, as Bullfrog went under and Dungeon Keeper 3 was canceled. But anyone who has ever played D&D or any fantasy game for that matter can easily envision specific challenges that a player could forced to react to.
Ultimately, the greatest aspect of the game is simply playing as the dungeon master. Any avid gamer/fantasy dork cannot help but get a kick out of imprisoning fallen heroes until they rot and rise again as undead servants, or constructing traps and heavily fortified defenses to protect your dungeon. Creating a living, breathing dungeon, full of a variety of creatures is extraordinarily fun and an experience unlike most other games out there. But like Master of Magic or Master of Orion, Dungeon Keeper 2 is another fantastic game license that has been neglected, leaving gamers who want more imprisoned by the past and tortured by the lack of a future… but at least we don’t have to rise as shackled undead.