Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Dungeon Keeper Series

“You know that downy soft piece of furniture in the next room? It has the power to cure fatigue and restore vitality…”

That I can remember that quote from a game released in 1999 is testament to the unexpected level of humour this series was imbued with. The game was dungeon keeper 2, and that particular phrase was said directly to you as the player if you played the game past midnight. It was one of a series of hilarious quips the game would throw at you, on the hour every hour after midnight.

“One of your imps does a great impression of you. He can even do the ears.”

Just a heads up before I get into the nuts and guts of this article, I’m going to be covering both dungeon keeper games here with the emphasis probably going to be more on the second one. Most fans of the series will tell you the first was the best and that’s as maybe, but from personal experience I just found DK2 to have greater longevity.

Dungeon Keeper was released in 1997 by Bullfrog Productions. It was quickly followed up by an expansion pack, The Deeper Dungeons, in the same year and received a full fledged sequel in 1999. At the time of the game’s original release Bullfrog Productions was home to Pete Molyneux, the games industry’s most divisive designer. The man has been pretty much universally lambasted over the past year or two for his studio’s failures over Godus, the kickstarter funded disaster that is still ongoing, but I’m certainly not going to add any fuel to the fire here. I just think that, looking over the history of what he as a designer has contributed to modern gaming culture, he should busy himself with just creating games, hire someone to run the business and never, ever, be allowed to promote his own output.

Dungeon Keeper almost seemed to serve as an antithesis to Bullfrog’s other, “happier” management games. This is the studio responsible for classics like Theme Hospital and Theme Park, games where the player’s ultimate aim was the wellbeing of the people within the game world. Then comes Dungeon Keeper, heaving its hideous demonic form out of the shadows, urging you to build torture chambers, command an army of demonic beings against the goodly knights of the overworld, and slap chickens to death. The strapline on the box, “Evil is Good” tells you all you need to know about this games’ attitude.

At the same time it wasn’t a full two fingers up to the established canon of Bullfrog Productions. We aren’t talking about a videogame nasty here along the lines of Manhunt or Postal. If you didn’t think it was possible to create a game with heart and personality, and most importantly humour, at the same time as encouraging you to starve your captured enemies in your prison so they die, giving you a loyal skeleton to join your army, you need to take a look at Dungeon Keeper. It really is a perfect balance of gameplay and dark humour.

The gameplay was an innovation at the time, and is still largely unique. With an isometric view over an underground lair, you highlight areas of rock for your imps, your basic “worker” minions, to mine out. Into the space left from the mined out areas you can then place rooms, such as libraries and workshops. These rooms will then attract higher powered minions to join your army who will then research or build upgrades for you to use in your dungeon, or against the enemy. At the same time, Having your minions working for you levels them up, so that they will work or fight better as they go.

The game brought two huge innovations with it. One I loved, the other not so much. There was a huge satisfaction for me in highlighting an area of rock, in perfect squares, and seeing my imps excavate it out. Repeated over the course of a level and seeing a dungeon of my own design coming to fruition gave the game it’s first unique selling point and seemed to scratch an itch I never knew I had. I get a similar fuzzy, OCD alleviating feeling from Minecraft nowadays.

I’m sure a psychiatrist could give a real in depth analysis of this need to gain satisfaction from building something, all I know is I like making symmetrical stuff wot looks gud.

The second innovation the games brought to the table was the ability to possess your minions, and in a first person perspective control them whether they were fighting, training or researching. This was a nice idea but it had a few drawbacks. For one, there was no A.I. in place to take over the running of the dungeon. Things just ticked along as you had left them, and any problems that arose in the dungeon just weren’t dealt with. Secondly the first game especially had this awkward way of changing your perspective on the dungeon when you exited the possessed minion and returned to overseeing the level. It would change the camera angle and position, and became really disorientating. I’m guessing there must have been an easy way to change the camera, but I can’t ever remember finding it.

That minor gripe aside, I can honestly say Dungeon Keeper 2 would easily fit into my top ten games of all time. With its combination of dark humour and unique gameplay, it still holds up as playable today. The best place to get it is from where it’s currently on sale for $2.39. I can’t be bothered to work out what that is in real money but it’s definitely worth it. Even at its regular selling price of $5.99 I’d recommend it.

There was never really a mod scene for Dungeon Keeper 1 or 2. I’m not too sure why, as the gameplay could easily have been adapted for other themes. Right off the bat (foreshadowing pun fully intended) I’m thinking a batman simulator, where you have to build and manage the batcave. You could even build Batman’s loadouts in response to calls for help that you get from Gotham City Police, then he’d head out to fight the baddies in the kit and equipment you chose, with the success or failure of The Dark Night governed by the appropriateness of what you’d given him. Shit me I would have played the hell out of that if it existed.

Despite a lack of a mod scene, DK 1&2 did spawn a small legacy. Evil Genius was proper good, and took the underground base building and wrapped it in a kitsch 60’s spy movie story. You were the big bad guy with an underground lair to build, obviously inside a volcano, where again you were tasked with hollowing out rooms, training minions, laying traps etc. With just a few minor flaws in the game that aren’t really worth mentioning, and a bit of a difficulty spike about halfway through, I still have no problem recommending it. You can get it on Steam for £6.99 which is probably a little steep, but when it goes on sale for under a fiver I think it’s definitely worth a pop.

I’ve heard people say the Overlord games are pretty similar, and I guess thematically thats true (comedy games about controlling demons) but the gameplay is totally different so I find it hard to recommend here. There’s the Dungeons series, but I gave them a razz and wasn’t particularly bothered about them. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, I think it tried adding stuff to the formula that didn’t need to be there, like capturing influence zones or whatever they called them. Like a lot of people with a beloved game/movie/book, I just wanted more of the same but better looking please.

Then you’ve got War For The Overworld, Just out of early access on steam and retailing for £22.99. I hate to think what kind of legal loopholes they had to jump through to get this game released, but this game is Dungeon Keeper 3 in all but name. Even the name, War For The Overworld, is the strapline of the cancelled original DK3. Richard Ridings returns from the original two DK games to narrate, and the small amount of time I’ve spent playing it I’ve found it to be pretty much everything I would want from a threequel. The game is made by an indie studio, Subterranean Games, who have done an awesome job and even though they have released the game from early access are still actively developing it, releasing regular patches and updates.

So I hope this has whetted your appetite for a little dungeon building of your own. I’d recommend starting with Dungeon Keeper 2, and if you like it and want more, try War For The Overworld. The original Dungeon Keeper is also available from, but unless you wanted to play it for nostalgia purposes I honestly can’t recommend it, just because the graphics have not aged very well at all.

“But Olly!” I hear someone cry- “What about Dungeon Keeper the mobile game? You haven’t mentioned that!” Well, lonely stupid person, If you want to try out the poster child for free to play, pay to win rubbish that pisses on a fond childhood memory better than Rolf Harris, go ahead.

I’ll not tolerate that sort of thing under my roof young man.

As usual, feel free to come hurl abuse, praise, and your comments about the article @themightyodog or in the box below. If you have an idea for a relic from PC gaming’s past you would like me to tackle, get in touch on twitter and I’ll do my best.