DUNGEON KEEPER / Electronic Arts / PC

Dungeon Keeper sort of sits in the period where PC gaming transitioned from the "read the manual" era to the "comprehensive in-game tutorials for every little thing because Windows brought in all these filthy casuals who we know won't read the manual" era. There's an in-game tutorial level, and then the next few proper levels after that are actually kind of an extended tutorial that gradually introduces new gameplay elements one or two at a time. Technically, you can lose these, but it's really difficult to.

All of this is important because Dungeon Keeper plays like a traditional RTS for the most part, but is just different enough to be non-intuitive and annoying at first. Even though you're told everything you need to know in-game (eventually), I could see the initial lack of direction and the old blocky graphics running off a number of modern players before they give it a fair shot.

Welp. Their loss. Dungeon Keeper is perhaps Peter Molyneux's best game (I'd give it to either this or Populous), back from the 90s period where he consistently delivered. It fuses the RTS style of a Warcraft or a Dune 2 with elements from the yet-to-be-coined Tower Defense genre and wraps it all up in a goofy-dark tone that would be a little cliched if it came out in 2014, but was still pretty novel in 1997.

You're an unnamed evil overlord who has, for no one specific reason, decided to take over a peaceful fantasy realm. You'll do this solely by building dungeons underneath one section of the realm at a time, recruiting a small army of creatures, repulsing any parties of heroes that dare to intrude on your domain, and eventually killing off the Lord of the Land. You usually begin only with a Heart of the Dungeon, essentially the HQ you must protect from invaders, and a handful of imps. The imps dig out tunnels and rooms for you, and building new living spaces and support rooms entices creatures to wander into the dungeon and join you. You'll also have to mine gold to pay for your construction and also periodically pay your troops.

Levels break out to basically two different styles. The first few give you ample time to sit back, build, and learn how the game works, as you wait on small parties of enemies to gradually make their way in. Eventually, after you kill enough, the Lord of the Land saunters in (complete with bold Cam Clarke declaration of impending doom) and once he's been dispatched you win the level. These are the more tower-defensey of the levels, as they simply involve getting your creatures and defenses up to snuff before the clock counts down to the next wave of invaders. Other levels have you actively combatting another Dungeon Master, however, who will build out their own territory, try to get to the limited gold deposits ahead of you, create new creatures to send after you, and has their own Heart of the Dungeon you have to seek out and destroy to end the level. Here the game feels and plays more like a traditional 1990s RTS. There's also a two-player mode along these lines.

There's a few wrinkles to all this that really differentiate the game from Warcraft, and probably caused some confusion for RTS vets. One is that the game is designed to automate a lot of the stuff you'd have to micromanage in RTS games via creature AI. In fact, you can't really give direct commands to creatures, just make strong suggestions. You can tell the Imps where to mine and dig, and they'll prioritize that, but otherwise they run around on their own little AI schedule claiming new territory for you, reinforcing walls and carrying loose gold back to the treasure room. Monsters can only be indirectly commanded in a few ways - picking them up and dropping them into a training room to get them to level up, for example, or setting a "rally point" for them to converge on in enemy territory. But you can't just drag a box over a group and directly tell them to "kill this particular enemy" or "go stand in this one spot and wait for me to come back."

Compounding this system is the fact that monster types have their own little personalities, and sometimes petty grudges against other monster types. When you've got giant spiders and mutant flies in the same dungeon, for example, you'll need separate lairs and training facilities for each or your fly supply will mysteriously dwindle. Some of the bigger and tougher monsters also sometimes decide they don't feel like listening to your commands, and have to be bribed with extra gold or imprisoned for a while to cool their jets.
There IS a way to directly control one monster at a time, and while it's the game's killer app, it's also not tremendously useful. You can step into the shoes of any of your monsters, and take direct control of them from a first-person perspective, moving about the dungeon in clunky 90s 3D and attacking enemies. It's a neat feature, especially for 1997, but I never really found much practical use for it.

I found my interest in the game waxing with the more "tower defensey" levels and waning a little with the more "PvP" style confrontations with other dungeon masters. Not that any one particular level in the game is *bad*, but when you're up against an AI that can build the game just starts to feel like a more limited version of Warcraft where you have less control over your units. Dungeon Keeper falls within the Age O' Modems so multiplayer is likely to be at least a little problematic and involve fan-made patches, and naturally I didn't make any kind of effort whatsoever along those lines, but I get the sense that if you played one of the bigger maps it could be the better part of an hour before you even bump into the other player.

The lack of precision control of units contributes to a general lack of strategy in battle; level success generally involves placing guard posts in the right place relative to your dungeon design, and making sure to drop your monsters in the training room as they appear to get them leveling up, then swiftly grabbing them up and dropping them en masse near powerful enemy mobs when they appear. That and the graphics not holding up well are really all there is to complain about here, though. And the sound work has certainly held up well, with great effects (you want good headphones for this game) and a memorable narrator.

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