I paid 99 pence for Dungeon Lords, at the same time that I bought Fire Warrior.
I find it hard to believe that you can sell games that cheap and still make a profit… Then again, it’s an original box from 2005, so I suppose 99 pence is better than 0 pence and taking up space in a warehouse. Plus the shop unit that has the bargain basement had been empty for ages, so the overheads can’t be that bad.
I also picked up the Human League’s Octopus, an album I had never glimpsed in the shops before (and isn’t even on Spotify) and had wanted for some time (Tell Me When is their best tune). It was even in perfect condition, considering some of the other battered barrel bottom remnants on sale nearby. (This is the real reason why I tend to go there; the low low prices are a bonus but the obscure rarities are priceless.)
Unfortunately, while Octopus turned out to be brilliant, Dungeon Lords did not live up to the promise of its blurb.
Dungeon Lords is an RPG that, on the face of it, is going in precisely the sort of direction I would take a stand-alone This Wreckage. This gave me a good feeling, because if somebody else thought of it too I can’t be totally wrong.
It’s a large, pretty open third-person hack ‘n’ slash action RPG (emphasis on the action). Levelling is Drakensang-like spend-your-points-whenever, and all basic skills are open to everyone (classes and sub-classes affect more specialist skills later on). Conversation is Morrowind-esque, with a number of topics to ask about on the right and all the dialogue on the left (though I’d go for tighter Deus Ex-style semi-cinematic conversations myself). Stats affect things and there is plenty of equipment to play around with.
On paper, then, a really good looking formula. What could possibly go wrong?
Combat is based on clicking to attack and trying to line up combos by clicking at the right time. The way you attack is affected by the direction you’re walking in at that moment (left and right do wide group attacks, forward does a focused single-enemy attack), and you can block if you have a shield up. This is great stuff — sounds like Venetica, with the addition of the movement direction changing your attack type. Sounds perfect!
In reality, it’s a clunky, juddery mess. Combos clump together woodenly, blocking often fails to respond (though blocking hilariously negates cloud-of-gas attacks), enemies swamp you and constantly interrupt your attacks, the high-level combos institute a pirouette that leaves you open to all attacks, attacks can spuriously turn the floor to ice (not literally, as that would be acceptable in a fantasy game) and slide you into a corner…
It’s like the combat system wasn’t really finished; things just happen. But then, immediately on starting the game, in the character creation screen, the manual claims some controls that just aren’t there. Walk around the internets a little and rumours of the game’s premature release abound… The game, apparently, just wasn’t finished. From my impressions, they didn’t even get close.
Maybe given more time combat would have been refined and tweaked into a wonderful experience, a perfect implementation of some very good ideas. As it stands, though, it’s a first-pass — hinting at what might be, but still jarring and frustrating. Which is a bad platform to start from, in an action RPG, considering 99% of the game time is spent… fighting.
Unfortunately, combat is not the only gaping hole.
The world is huge. This is great; we love content. Morrowind is huge, full of exotic places to explore, people to help and dungeons to raid. Baldur’s Gate gives us a huge city and loads of wilderness to exploit. Lots of distinctive, colourful people to save from awe-inspiring evils (or rats).
The world of Dungeon Lords is completely empty.
Well, not completely. Even in the walled town of Fargrove (whose gates are locked) you are constantly beset by thieves and goblins. The game generates random encounters very frequently (and that’s just on “normal”), and often in overwhelming numbers. (I think the better solution is to pre-generate random enemies on entry to an area, so you come upon them and they do not come upon you, allowing you to avoid or counter-ambush as you see fit and gain a little respite once you’ve cleaned them all out.)
And… That’s about it. There are a couple of guards and a couple of civilians, which is better than the elven town Arindale, where there is not a soul outside the buildings. Inside the buildings… You’re lucky if there are two people: inns contain a lone inkeeper and a single quest-related character, shops contain a single storekeeper. There isn’t even much furniture; the elven rooms are wide and open, light and airy, but contain nothing but eerily bare walls. At least the Fargr0ve inn has a few tables and chairs.
The world is expansive, yes, but needlessly so. There isn’t any variety in the wilderness — just endless light forest and grassland and the odd half-hearted swamp. While Morrowind may sprawl, it has a lot of recognisable features, changes in tileset and foliage, rocky outcrops and tomb entrances and signposts, landmarks to navigate by: you feel like you’re actually getting somewhere. Dungeon Lords has only monotonously winding dirt tracks to follow.
Maybe the dungeons are better? We like dungeons. The dark tombs and Daedric temples of Morrowind, the lost Dwarven depths of Drakensang‘s Murolosh (and the creepily brilliant descent into Grolm-held territory), the forgotten robotic stronghold of Unreal II‘s Drakk homeworld.
Uh, no. Some dungeons stink of procedural generation, but have enough special features that if they were procedurally generated then they must have been baked and then tweaked into what we get to play through. Furniture is not as absent as in the civilised lands (crates and chests to loot), but completely arbitrary architecture abounds. The random encounters continue, so even if you think you’ve cleaned the place out some goblins will soon come cackling out of that dead end you just emptied.
I never thought I’d see the day that I’d complain of too much content, but the dungeons are also far too large. The game even begins with a huge dungeon crawl — yes, when you’re still getting to grips with the skill setup and the combat system, before you’ve seen a single merchant, you get a good two-hour or more dollop of twisty sewers and infinite goblins (and those fucking goblin ballistae). Lack of hand-holding is one thing, but that’s a bit much (and it’s a really dull start).
The game is infinite respawn, but respawn costs you attributes and all your unspent levelling points — since there is, in the first dungeon and at several places later on, no way to escape but by forging ahead, you have no choice but to stomach the attribute drops and keep going. I’m all for some kind of disincentive for death, but after a few times it stacks up and you end up so bad you can’t hit things anymore — it’s a horrible spiral of frustration that only gets worse.
So invest all your points in skills, I suppose, because attributes are transient and ephemeral things. Not that you’re going to play the game after this glowing review (or, hell, maybe you are).
Since it’s a game from 2005, almost every surface in the world has a nice shine to it (especially your tight starting trousers), though the actual level geometry makes me look generous with the triangles.
Animations are pretty wooden, though flying enemies do tend to go on bombing runs rather than hovering suspiciously (except the bees, which, well, can hover). But nobody likes Cliff Racers and this just makes them harder to hit with your sword, so it’s hardly a bonus.
There’s no music, either. Only a menu theme. You can look in the music folder of the game — there is only one track. The menu music. How can you have an RPG with no music? The mind boggles.
The Moral of the Story
Dungeon Lords is a skeleton of a game. It’s not even a beta version, because “beta” implies some level of completeness with only bug-fixing and tweaking to go (at least, it did before this age of infinite beta). Dungeon Lords cannot be defined by what is there but broken — it can only be defined by what isn’t there at all. And that’s… Well, pretty much everything that would have made it a finished game.
I don’t want to judge Dungeon Lords so harshly because it boasts “a fantasy action RPG by D. W. Bradley” on the cover like I should know his name — which means it’s probably a pet project of the kind I indulge in, and I certainly wouldn’t want people to write huge blogs that tear apart my stuff so I really shouldn’t do it to them.
However, the biz on the interweb says it was rushed out and then his company went bankrupt, so I’m sure if the game was actually finished it would have panned out a lot better. The core ideas are good, even great — there is so much potential hidden in this train wreck.
That’s what makes it worse, I suppose. To experience the horror and imagine what beauty could have been…
I have uninstalled this game and will never finish it. If I want to grind masochism, I have better places to do it.