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Developer: Realmforge Studios / Publisher: Kalypso Media / ESRB: RP
There really isn’t a proper way to talk about Kalypso Media’s forthcoming PC title, Dungeons, without at least a considerable mention of Bullfrog’s 1997 strategic lair-builder Dungeon Keeper. They’re both PC strategy games set in high-fantasy crypts and catacombs, they both oblige players to lay out and oversee the depths of labyrinthine dungeons crawling with monsters and heroes…and they both have something of a cartoonish, comedic quality to them. No wonder the Kalypso folks saw fit to hold their demo event in the lowermost depths of San Francisco’s Temple nightclub (said depths themselves decked out for the evening as a D&D-worthy dungeon, complete with faux-stone pillars, mock ‘flaming’ sconces, disembodied ersatz skeletal hands, feet and various assorted bones scattered hither and yon about the tables and bar, and even a live, tongue-in-cheek goth-rock band named Relic, clad for the occasion in studded leather mail—think ‘Spinal Judas Rush’ and you won’t be terribly far off the mark). We were there…
Dungeons, the flagship title of Kalypso’s lineup, gives you an overlord’s—well, underlord’s—view of various sprawling, mazelike dungeon interiors. It sure looks an awful lot like Dungeon Keeper at first blush, right down to the color-palette and intentionally-goofy overtones…but it soon begins to take on less the sense of a deliberate real-time strategy house-keeper and more something akin to a ‘Crypt Tycoon’ sort of outing.
To wit: You’re a dungeon-keeping underlord of some description, your girlfriend has screwed you over (yes, that’s actually the upshot of the setup as described to us), and it falls to you to get back on top–or on the bottom, or whatever–of the Evil Dungeon-Keeping hierarchy. To do this, you not only have to design, dig out, decorate, and otherwise modify a fiendishly clever subterranean labyrinth, you have to set it up in such a way that it doesn’t outright kill said interlopers, but rather it anticipates and plays upon the secret inner cravings of any Heroes who may wonder into its depths so that you may ultimately profit from them. I didn’t see any provision for creating restrooms for your uninvited customers…but I can’t say it would have surprised me overmuch to find one, either.
The turn of the gameplay-screw here is that each Hero who finds his way into your lair has a particular greed or interest that, hopefully, will eventually be his downfall. Wizened old Wizards will drool for your amply-stocked libraries of arcane lore; battle-hardened Warriors will seek new weapons, armor, and other gear; Adventurer-types will want to put another Orc-shaped notch in their sword-hilts; and common thieves, of course, have green eyes for traps to disarm and shiny stacks of gold to pilfer. The more they find traces of what they seek, the higher will climb their innate Soul Energy: Why merely kill in interloper for a quick, low-return thrill, when you can get him all worked up before hauling him off to a conveniently located torture chamber and really milk that psychic cow for all he’s worth?
It’s a level-design balancing act, as you deck out your dungeons with tempting piles of treasure, light-source torches, traps, lures, and, of course, minion spawn-points. Make your dungeons too immediately, physically dangerous and you’ll kill your ‘customers’ before you can haul them off and really reap the benefits of their Soul Energy; go too soft-ball on them and they’ll wander from temptation to temptation, eventually finding their way to the critical Dungeon Heart—sort of the high-value-target warp-core of your lair. If they take that down, they take you down, too. And then that demonic battle-ax of an ex-girlfriend wins, doesn’t she? It’s worth taking down and spiritually draining a few dozen Heroes to prevent that from happening, isn’t it? Damn straight.
While later, larger, deeper-layered challenges eventually allow for multiple dungeon lords to compete simultaneously against each other and the waves of incoming heroes, said enemy lords will be AI opponents; Dungeons is still a single-player experience, for all its competitive options. Successive missions/levels are interspersed with story-driving cinematics that constantly bring the game back to its essential comedic roots. Dungeons is slated to release in the first quarter of 2011, and will be a PC exclusive.