Dungeons has some pretty big shoes to fill as an entry into the dungeon master genre. Games like Dungeon Keeper 2 still hold some fond gameplay memories, as do more modern titles such as Evil Genius, which introduced other settings to the gameplay. Dungeons takes the genre underground into the realm of skeletons and heroes once again, but it does so with an interesting hook that is arguably one of the best to hit the genre to date.
The premise of Dungeons doesn't differ much from what you'd expect, but it is told with tongue planted firmly in cheek. You control a dungeon lord whose girlfriend has recently fired him from being the king of the underworld. After getting booted from the throne and forced to work for new bosses in the lowliest corners of the underworld, it's your primary goal to claw your way back to the throne and take down your ex-girlfriend. You must first restore your power — in perhaps some of the most vile and devious ways.
There are three main resources that you must keep an eye on: gold, prestige and soul energy. Gold is straightforward enough and functions as your most basic currency, gained either by mining gold veins throughout your dungeon or picking it up from the corpses of heroes. These heroes enter your dungeon from hero gates at predetermined intervals and have a primary goal of adventuring this new area. Every hero has a set of aspirations, such as finding a new piece of armor, dealing damage or stuffing his pockets. Letting them fulfill these goals lets their soul energy grow, and that's when you take your sharp battle ax and cleave the poor sod's skull in two.
Heroes felled in combat can be transported to one of your open jail cells, where the precious soul energy is extracted for your use until the hapless hero keels over and finally dies. This soul energy is your most important consumable resource, and it's used for creating monster pentagrams, upgrading your monster level, increasing the number of your goblin workers, and placing gimmicks in your dungeon. Spending this resource properly is almost as important as getting it to begin with, and how you do so can dictate the direction your dungeon takes.
Heroes shouldn't be allowed to traipse through your dungeon and leave with your gold and valuables; you'd be short the stuff that they made off with, and most importantly, you'd miss out on soul energy. To slow down heroes, you can place monster pentagrams on the ground, which serve two purposes. First and foremost, these pentagrams spawn two or three monsters that hang around where the pentagram was placed, and they help defend that area. Secondly, pentagrams expand your dungeon's size, letting you build more rooms and have more control over a greater 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 to place.
Heroes collectively gain levels every few minutes, making them harder and harder to slay. Thus, you must spend soul energy at your dungeon heart to upgrade the levels of your monsters 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 appease the heroes. It's also a good idea to use that same energy to upgrade your goblin population cap, as 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.
There's really an art to keeping heroes at the proper threat level versus appeasing their needs, and that is where Dungeons really begins to shine. It is one thing to cut down every hero at only 10% of his soul energy potential, which will certainly net you a tidy trickle. It's a lot more rewarding, however, when you've designed a dungeon corridor to play heroes right into your hands. Let them visit libraries, armories and gold piles as they slay monsters and fill their soul energy to the brim before you swoop in with your dungeon lord and cut them down. The reward is immediate; at any given level, 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 a dungeon and customize its look, every placed gimmick 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 that point, you can practically one-shot anything foolish enough to stand in front of your blade and let physics take its course.
Every level has its own set of objectives and challenges, such as escorting slime mobs to a cannon that splatters them all over a nearby town or rampaging through the cellars of a powerful magician so you can dice him up. As you pursue them, other objectives can be given to you, such as delivering a certain amount of gold or soul energy to your current boss, killing a group of things that probably deserves it, or building a number of rooms or gimmicks into your dungeon. Whatever the objective or challenge, it is a good idea to pursue them because they are the only way you get attribute and talent points to spend on your dungeon lord.
Attribute points are spent on agility, constitution intelligence and strength to bolster your dungeon lord's combat prowess. (It also increases how much the 400% prestige modifier boosts your stats near the end of levels.) Talent points are much more strategic for your dungeon, as you can spend them to give your dungeon lord new combat abilities and spells. You could also increase the range your pentagrams to expand the control area or speed up the work of your goblin minions. Aggressive players may want to beef up their dungeon lord and use him in combat all the time, whereas strategists may elect to leave him weaker and make the dungeon a force with which to be reckoned.
There are a few flaws that drag down the experience, and most of them center on issues with the UI. Your dungeon lord sometimes switches targets without you wanting to, or he may be affected by an enemy spell that only has a small indicator about what the spell does. Some abilities, such as flame strike, can be frustrating because they take up a ton of mana and rarely seem to have any impact. The UI as a whole sometimes struggles with conveying information to the player, whether it's how many heroes are in the dungeon or how much damage abilities are doing. There is a lot of manually scrolling around the dungeon to keep tabs on things, even when you need to focus on a particular task elsewhere.
Even combined, these nuances never amount to anything more than small head-scratchers and annoyances. The rest of Dungeons is a surprisingly solid dungeon builder that eclipses previous games in the genre. This is due in no small part to the soul energy mechanic; you want heroes to come into your dungeon and slay your staff, only so you can slay them to claim their buoyant soul and twist it to your own ends. It has been a long time since the genre has seen a new entry, and the wait has been worth it. Dungeons is one of the new kings of the genre, and it's incredibly difficult to put down.
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