Akio Morita, founder of Sony, was once quoted as saying, “We don’t ask consumers what they want. They don’t know.” And to some degree, that’s entirely true; most consumers don’t know what they want until they are shown something new or improved. When a new genre is formed, it usually comes like a wave of disruptive force that creates a whole new way to play. When Bullfrog unleashed Dungeon Keeper on the world, giving us the chance to play as evil incarnate, we snapped it up. Smacking minions around, building racks to torture good guys, and otherwise making life rough on the would-be heroes was unlike anything else on the market.
That was 1999.
Electronic Arts now owns the rights to the Dungeon Keeper license, and they have exercised that license with what has to be the most egregious money grab free-to-play model ever released, ruining any goodwill anyone had for the dungeon management genre. Though Dungeon Keeper has succumbed to evil, I have good news for all of us who enjoy being very, very bad.
Realmforge Studios put together a decent outing with the original Dungeons. I reviewed the game (apologies as the text was lost in the great database fire of 2011) but I gave it a 76%, citing the makings of a revival of the dungeon management genre, but beating it up a little for not focusing on the minions — the true root of what makes the whole effort fun. Well, here we are four years later, and we once again plumb the depths of their efforts. Could Dungeons 2 deliver the experience we were all hoping for?
Dungeons 2 opens directly after the ending of the first title: the Ultimate Evil has had enough of the Alliance and King’s Ending, and he exits the confines of his dark dungeon to assault the castle directly. We never set foot outside in the previous title, so we’ll just assume this is the Ultimate Evil’s freshman outing into the overworld… and it didn’t go well. Practice makes perfect, though, so he slinks back to his lair to rebuild..However, it’s going to take a little more than smacking around our minions to get this done.
Games built in Unity or Unreal tend to have a very specific look to them. It’s almost a branding of sorts — the oversized shoulders, the isometric camera, and an almost formulaic approach to gameplay. I played through the entirety of Dungeons 2 and I didn’t realize it was built with Unity until the final patch which added the loading splash screen. It’s rich in detail, the characters are highly animated, there are colorful spells to unleash, and a wide variety of creatures to summon and train. I have to commend Realmforge, as I can usually spot the engine a mile away, but they’ve tucked in every edge and corner.
One of the hallmarks of a good dungeon management sim is a large underground space to dig around in, room to expand your empire, and caverns to explore. It is here that Dungeons 2 achieves one of its largest improvements. As the Ultimate Evil, you’ll spend the vast majority of this game bound to your throne, but hey — you’re in management, so you shouldn’t be doing any manual labor anyway! Dungeons 2 relinquishes more direct control over your minions, allowing you to create an underground lair worthy of your greatness. Like Dungeon Keeper, you’ll highlight chunks of earth you’d like excavated, and your minions will harvest gold from the rubble to fuel your war chest. These caves, even in the early levels, run far and deep into the ground. There are hidden passageways with allies, dangers, and foes, so treading carefully is the watchword until you have enough combat troops to keep your vaunted throne safe from harm.
Your minions, while obedient to a fault, are not willing to work for nothing. One of the first rooms you’ll set up is a treasury from where they will draw their pay, and a brewery where they expect beer on a regular basis. I’m certain this speaks to the working conditions of most programmers, and the surly attitude that comes when your minions don’t get their way is likely the same.
Beyond beer and cash, your evil empire requires other support rooms to expand. A Tinkerer’s Cave allows your goblins to research environmental traps and spiked doors, Crystal Chambers enable Nagas to pray at crystal clusters to generate mana for your evil spells as well as raise the population cap. Later levels introduce the Chaos Forge, allowing you to train your minions and expand their skills into new and more dangerous forms. There are also two more rooms that I found were somewhat less useful than the others — the hospital and the guard room. The hospital is critical in the early levels, but as soon as you can upgrade Nagas to use healing spells, they are likely to go unused in your dungeon. The guard room is meant to be a point where you can park minions to destroy any heroes that may decided to invade your domain. However, in practice I found that putting tar pits and thrasher traps were far more dangerous than any creatures I might put in that room.
A common problem in most dungeon management, or building games like Theme Hospital, is a large amount of repetition. Once you cleared a level, you would spend a great deal of time in the next rebuilding what you had just created in the previous. Realmforge realizes this is a drag on the game and progressively outfits the levels appropriately. If you earned the Hospital room in the prior level, there will likely be a small hospital pre-built for you at the start of the next level. Larger rooms with more ‘props’ in them are often more efficient, so expanding these rooms will be in order.
The flow of the single player game gives you access to just enough to keep you very busy in the ruling of your evil empire without overwhelming you. I do have two complaints with them, though. The first is that, once placed, I couldn’t readily find a way to move a placed prop. This means that sometimes you’ll have a great deal of wasted space as you try to place the overly large Brewery vats, eating up valuable real estate. The second was something that had more of a gameplay impact — minion wandering. Your Little Snots are critical to beer production, but they also do all of your digging and gold transport. They will brew beer, and then sometimes wander off to attend to your other whims. At times I had built two or three Brewery vats, but two of them stood unused as I couldn’t keep three minions at work crafting my world famous Evilweissenbock Beer. Simply being able to lock minions into their activities for fear of their own skin would improve some of the control over the production in the lair. Letting the kegs run dry is never a recipe for success.
One of the other major advancements for Dungeons 2 is the introduction of a second faction — Demons. You’ll really only engage the Demons in the latter levels, and you won’t be switching sides, so it’s always an adversarial relationship, at least in the campaign. Said campaign spans 11 levels, taking roughly a dozen hours in total to complete. The game also features a multiplayer component, but let’s talk about the campaign a bit before we pit our evil powers against our friends.
If there was one thing that Dungeons did very well, it was the delivery of laugh-out-loud narration. Dungeons 2 continues that tradition, but adds a lot more reactivity to the player. If you continue to ignore the narration, it does repeat but even these moments will make you laugh. Calling you things like “The Reluctant Evil” or “The Clearly Incompetent Evil” as you ignore mission objectives is fun. There are tongue-in-cheek self-referential jabs at the publisher, Game of Thrones references aplenty, a few nods to Warcraft and more here, and nearly all of it will at least make you chuckle. The narrative is sharp, keeps you on track, and for the most part provides any guidance that the tutorials may lack.
During your missions you’ll get the opportunity to head into the overworld to beat up on the wretched humans. When you are inside your own realm you can grab creatures one at a time, putting them into a large group and dangling them by the scruff of their beasty little hides. When you are outside, you can drag-select a group of your minions and direct them with an RTS-style mechanic. When you are in missions that frequently switch back and forth between the overworld and your lair frequently, the switch in control methods can be a bit frustrating.
My only other gripe with the game comes from a bit of pacing and balance. Maybe I tend to over-prepare, but I found combat a bit easy, and I was frequently a step ahead of the narrator. There are moments where I was trying to assault an area that was off-limits until the narrator told me about it or I tripped the requisite mission trigger. Sometimes the narrator would chastise me for trying to skip ahead in the script, but other times I would just find myself unable to enter an enemy base, blocked by an invisible wall at the gate. A little more playtesting might have revealed more moments to allow players a bit more freedom from the straight and narrow.
There is one technical issue that I couldn’t overlook. Even with an incredibly powerful system equipped with a GeForce GTX 980, I occasionally saw framerate dips when my coffers were full and I had a full compliment of minions. It wasn’t predictable, but it was certainly present. This has to be unoptimized code, as my system is more than capable of running this game many times over.
While Dungeons 2 is primarily a single player venture, but Realmforge did include a multiplayer mode for those inclined. The game ships with five maps and five modes — Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Domination, Team Domination, and King of the Hill. While you can’t play multiplayer with the AI, there is a Skirmish mode for exactly that. It is in Multiplayer and Skirmish modes that you’ll get to play as the Demons. Their room types, creatures, and production are all variances on the Ultimate Evil’s dungeon, though the creatures and spells differ greatly. The biggest compliment I can pay to the multiplayer is that I would have loved to have a Dungeons 2: Demons expansion to see more of how the other half lives in campaign form.