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Dungeons: The Dark Lord

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Developer: Realmforge Studios
Release Date: Sept. 27, 2011

About Tony "OUberLord" Mitera

I've been entrenched in the world of game reviews for almost a decade, and I've been playing them for even longer. I'm primarily a PC gamer, though I own and play pretty much all modern platforms. When I'm not shooting up the place in the online arena, I can be found working in the IT field, which has just as many computers but far less shooting. Usually.


PC Review - 'Dungeons: The Dark Lord'

by Tony "OUberLord" Mitera on Oct. 16, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

The Dark Lord takes the basic premise of Dungeons — luring, capturing and torturing goody-goody heroes — and kicks it up to sinister new levels, adding multiplayer, a new story campaign, new prestige gimmicks and much more.

Since Dungeons was a strong entry in a genre that has been all but dead for years, it stood to reason that there would be some sort of follow-up. Though Dungeons: The Dark Lord is billed as a stand-alone expansion, it feels much more full-bodied than such phrasing would imply. The Dark Lord maintains the same overall gameplay premise as the original title, but fleshes it out with a few gameplay mechanic changes as well as an entire new campaign. There are a few quirks here and there, but the game still has plenty to offer.

In the original game, you played as the titular Dark Lord, who was recently evicted from his reign over the underworld by his scheming girlfriend, Calypso. In this offering, you play as Calypso, who similarly is trying to claw her way back up to the top. Once again, the proceedings and the plot of the game are firmly tongue-in-cheek; there are a few parodies, including the easiest target, "The Lord of the Rings." It's goofy fun, though some of the cut scenes could've been shortened or simply occur less frequently.

There are still three main resources that you must keep an eye on during any particular level: gold, prestige and soul energy. Gold is straightforward enough and functions as your most basic currency, gained either by mining it in your dungeon or picking it off hero corpses. In the original game, you really had to track down the gold veins, but that is not really the case here. You get a tidy sum of gold by simply taking out heroes, and it really helps center the focus on them.

Every hero has a set of aspirations, such as finding a new piece of armor, dealing damage or stuffing their pockets. In the expansion, there are new hero types and new aspirations, such as the need to disarm traps or heal other heroes who have taken damage. This brings even more strategy into guiding the heroes to special rooms and toward each other. Just as before, though, letting them fulfill these goals lets their soul energy grow, and that's when you cleave the poor sod's skull in two.

Heroes felled in combat are able to then be transported to one of your open jail cells, where that precious soul energy is extracted for your own use until the hapless hero keels over and finally dies. Another new feature is the ability to take heroes out of their cell and torture them instead. Tortured heroes give up their soul energy more slowly, but end up netting you more energy overall. This soul energy is your most important consumable resource and is used for creating monster pentagrams, upgrading your monster level, increasing your number of goblin workers, placing gimmicks in your dungeon, and other nifty objects. Spending this resource properly is almost as important as getting it to begin with, and how you do so can really dictate the direction of your dungeon.

Heroes shouldn't be allowed to just traipse through your dungeon and leave with your gold and valuables. Not only do you miss out on soul energy, but you're also short of the stuff that they've taken. To help slow down heroes, you can place monster pentagrams on the ground, and they serve a dual purpose. First and foremost, these pentagrams spawn two or three monsters that hang around the pentagram to defend the area. Secondly, pentagrams help expand your dungeon's size, letting you build more rooms and have more control over a larger area. Different types of monsters fare better against certain types of heroes, so knowing which gates spawn which types of heroes can be important when choosing a pentagram.

Additionally, you can place traps in your dungeons, and this, like everything else, also serves a dual purpose. Traps generally act as a means of softening up heroes, letting you more effectively deal with them later on. As you gain prestige, you can place different traps that deal more and more damage. Traps also exist for heroes who have aspirations to disarm them before proceeding, and this also means that they make it safer for other heroes to proceed. If that occurs or the trap goes off normally, a worker goblin still needs to rearm it; it's just a lot more satisfying to have them take a chunk out of a hero beforehand.

Heroes collectively gain levels every few minutes, making them tougher to slay. Thus, you must spend soul energy at your dungeon heart to upgrade the monster levels to follow suit. Generally speaking, you must keep your monster levels within a level or so of the heroes to keep them comparable; otherwise, they won't be able to take or deal enough damage to fend off the heroes. Using the same energy to upgrade your goblin population cap can also be a good idea, so you can have more goblins tearing away at the earth to carve new rooms, gather gold, or carry fallen heroes into your insidious jail cells. With the addition of traps to arm, your poor goblins are needed more than ever, and at times, the maximum population of six isn't enough to keep up.

There's really an art to keeping heroes at the proper level versus appeasing their needs, and that is where The Dark Lord really begins to shine. It is one thing to cut down every hero at only 10% of their soul energy potential, which will certainly net you a tidy trickle of soul energy. It's a lot more rewarding, however, when you've designed a dungeon corridor to play heroes right into your hands by letting them visit libraries, armories, and gold piles as they slay monsters and fill their soul energy to the brim before using your dungeon lord to swoop in and cut them down. The reward is immediate; if you design your dungeons carefully, you will be absolutely rolling in soul energy, and if you don't, it quickly becomes apparent how you can do better in future designs.

The other primary use of soul energy is the creation of gimmicks, which are the random bits of decoration found in your dungeon. In addition to being a very organic way for the player to decorate his dungeon and customize its look, every gimmick placed raises your overall prestige. As your prestige grows, your dungeon lord's stats gain a boost for the duration of the level, up to a maximum boost of 400%, at which point you practically one-shot anything foolish enough to stand in front of you.

Gimmicks are now attractive to certain types of heroes. If a hero admires a gimmick, you gain prestige from it, so strategically placing them in the paths of the heroes that are most likely to admire them is a new strategic fold to the gameplay. In the original game, gimmicks felt like a means of dumping your soul energy willy-nilly, but in the expansion, they actually feel like a proper gameplay mechanic. Gimmicks now look different depending on the type of dungeon you're in, including the shiny new ice type, but of course, that is mostly a cosmetic change.

There are still a few flaws that drag down the experience; it's a mix of new ones and some carryovers from the original game. Your dungeon lord sometimes switches targets without you wanting to or may be affected by an enemy spell with only a small indicator as to what the spell does. It can be frustrating that some abilities seem to have little, if any, impact. In addition, there are times when your dungeon lord simply does not go to a location until you've clicked the location a few times or moved the camera around. Finally, though your dungeon lord is a powerful unit and great for countering an unusually strong gaggle of heroes, it seems like all fights are rather one-sided. More often than not, your lord is either ridiculously overpowered against heroes or is getting swarmed to the point where you can barely get in a hit before being taken out.

At the end of it all, Dungeons: The Dark Lord is a solid stand-alone expansion to the strong original game. The gameplay was no slouch before, but with the new additions and tweaks, it feels much more concise and focused this time around. It still seems that most of the issues with the game center around your dungeon lord, but when your dungeon is running like a well-oiled machine, your lord simply needs to sweep up what remains. Despite its rough edges, The Dark Lord is a welcome continuation of the series, and the entertaining gameplay has been bolstered enough to easily warrant a second attempt at becoming the lord of the underworld.

Score: 8.3/10

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