“Not necessity, not desire – no, the love of power is the demon of men.”
– The Dawn of Day, Friedrich Nietzsche
“The following is a contributor post by the Moronic Cheese Mage.”
Dungeon Keeper rather quietly celebrated its 20th anniversary in June 2017 – the PC strategy masterpiece from the, now defunct, Bullfrog has dropped out of the gaming conscience.
That’s unless you played it back in the day. For those who did, it’s firmly entrenched in our gaming memory as one of the most wickedly innovative, inspired, charming, and brilliant PC strategy games from the 1990s. It could well be the very best of the lot. Even now, it’s unique beyond belief.
Bullfrog was already famous for titles such as Theme Park, but with Dungeon Keeper it landed something special.
“Being bad never felt so good”, goes the tagline. And, by heck, are those copywriters right. It remains thoroughly engrossing – with a real, live, beating heart at its core!
Has a game ever so gleefully, and with as much charm, dealt with the macabre?
In 1998, LucasArts landed Grim Fandango, a mighty fine effort. The Diablo series springs to mind, too. But Dungeon Keeper utterly revels in despicable behaviour on a granular level.
You’re expected to be an evil tyrant, with a disembodied narrator (your mentor, essentially) guiding you on this quest.
As the player, your control over the experience is a green claw. It’s perpetually gyrating and twitching with a fiendish lust for gold.
The goal is to protect your dungeon heart and defeat your enemies. Simple, right? No.
And for clarity, this review encompasses the original title, plus the Deeper Dungeons (released in late 1997).
These are available from GOG and Origin as the Dungeon Keeper Gold pack – it costs about $7 (£4.59 here in England).
Setting up your demonic shop
In fundamental form, each stage begins with the need to design your dungeon by building essential rooms.
There are imps to support you, who are devout to your cause and utterly obedient. You can even give them a slap to make them speed up!
By clicking around on surrounding soil sections, they’ll dig through into new areas. This helps your design rooms from scratch – it’s a good idea to provide lots of space, but resource management means you must also keep an eye on your financial resources.
Although weak and timid, the imps are essential as they’ll dig through your gold patches, fortify your dungeon walls (to stop enemies getting through), take control of enemy rooms, and various other activities.
You need to add a certain set of rooms to attract “workers”. So your fundamental infrastructure should look something like this:
- Treasury: To store all your loot.
- Lair: This is where your creatures will sleep.
- Hatchery: Where chickens roam for hungry monsters to devour.
- Library: Popular with warlocks, they go here to research new rooms and spells.
- Training room: So your creatures can level-up and get better at fighting.
- Workshop: So you can build security doors and traps to fend off invaders.
It’s essential to mine gold so you have a steady amount of income to fund building those rooms.
Once you’re ready, you can “open” your dungeon to nefarious creatures from across the land to come and work for you. If you’ve set everything up correctly, then you’ll get the likes of beetles, warlocks, dragons, and bile demons turning up.
They all have specific skills you’ll need in your demonic conquest. But, rest assured, they’ll expect pay – so you need to keep the gold rolling in.
A consistent issue is training creatures. It’s utterly essential to do so as you go up against some tough foes – but it costs gold.
As such, you’ll have to carefully manage your gold stock. But more often than not, you’ll have to delve on deeper into unknown territory to find a new gold stock – or, if you’re lucky, a purple gem section (which can be infinitely mined).
Of course, that can lead you across stray bands of warriors out to defeat you. So it’s a complex process that has you on edge with suspense as you play, really dragging you into the experience.
The Lord of the Land approaches!
There are two sets of enemies you’ll come up against:
- Rival dungeon keepers.
- The Lord of the Land and his bands of heroes.
The good guys come in the form of samurai warriors, giants, wizards, fairies, archers, and dwarves. The samurai warriors are particularly tough, so you’ll need your workforce trained up to level 10 to be effective. That’s the highest limit, but once your creatures are there then they’re a force to be reckoned with.
Across some levels you might have to deal with the heroes, plus several rival keepers.
So the process of the game is to get gold, level up creatures, then head off to invade other regions to annihilate a different dungeon heart.
Of course, the whole area is surrounded in black as you’re deep underground. You have no idea just how powerful your rivals are, so it’s a tricky business judging whether you’re strong enough.
Sometimes, if you’re out of gold, you’ve got no choice to plunge on in and do battle.
Despite the humorous nature of the game, these elements really do ramp up the tension.
You also become so engrossed in managing every facet of your dungeon you’ll find the hours flying by. Your personality will also start to lean towards a devilish sense of glee whenever you wipe our some do-gooder. Bwahahaa! etc.
Despite the overall excellence of the experience, there are issues with Dungeon Keeper. It’s kind of expected after two decades – it was a different era of gaming.
For example, sometimes you’ll reach a stage where all you can do is wait for your creatures to level up before you can progress. And that can take time.
There’s no speed up option, so time can start to drag a bit. But it’s usually only an issue for a short while.
And despite the impressive range of features available, by modern standards the lack of different rooms, monsters, and features may disappoint anyone unfamiliar with gaming circa 1997.
However, that’s a limitation of the time Bullfrog, so clearly, worked unbelievably hard to circumvent. For 1997, this was an industry-leading achievement. And I’m not criticising it, as such, more lamenting how the series has received no adaptations in decades.
And it’s a real shame no one will return to tweak a few issues and make Dungeon Keeper more streamlined.
Buckets of black humour
There are giant dollops of dark humour sprinkled throughout Dungeon Keeper. This is most prevalent during the into and outro screens for each level.
Before you start, the demonic voiceover goads you with tales of how wonderful one region of the world is – with a picture of some idyllic location there for you to start at.
That’s then reduced to a charcoaled mess once you’re finished, with the voiceover congratulating you for annihilating the region.
Alongside there are various little gestures and neat little touches that are weirdly charming.
When the warlocks research a new spell in the library, for instance, they’ll dance on the spot and make a, “Hah hah… hah hah!” noise.
Elsewhere, the morbidly obese bile demons have a colossal fart as a special attack that steams up the local vicinity something rotten.
It’s all about the *GUTTURAL ROAR* details
What helps Dungeon Keeper stand out to this day are all the tiny little extra details Bullfrog’s team took the time to add in.
It was a very ambitious piece of work, with incredible lighting effects.
The AI is incredibly advanced for 1997, too, with lead programmer Simon Carter writing and organising 800,000 lines of code alone.
Brainstorming ideas for the title must have been a blast! For instance, the little imps cadge a sneaky smoke on a pipe during some of their (usually incredibly brief) downtime.
But there’s also a spell that lets you possess one of your creatures. You can build your dungeon, then possess an employee and go for a wander around. You can even possess one of the chickens in the hatchery… right up until the point you’re eaten alive.
But there are hundreds of other such moments, ranging from the satisfying moment some heroes are flattened by a boulder, to when you discover a purple gem patch and become stinking rich.
It’s just overflowing with character, simply put, and that only comes from going above and beyond your commitment levels with a project.
Heavily delayed and redesigned, it was no easy task to complete. But its legacy is there for everyone to enjoy.
Satanic production values
Industry legend Peter Molyneux led the project, working on game design and various other aspects. Development began in November 1994 and took several years to realise.
The initial plan was to release it in late 1995, but the team wanted to shift the game more towards a living world the player creates. From the start of 1996, Molyneux’s focus became this project entirely.
After another delay, EA eventually published it in June 1997 for Windows 95 and MS-DOS.
Sega Saturn and PlayStation ports went unfinished. But it’s interesting to note Theme Park did get ported over to the likes of the former consoles and the SNES – although it’s a far less advanced title.
Despite extensive critical acclaim (in 2014, English newspaper The Guardian labelled it as one of the best video games from England) it shifted only around 700,000 copies worldwide by 2003. The likes of Theme Park sold millions, so the team was disappointed.
It’s a macabre title, lacking the family-friendly themes of the shiny, cheerful Theme Park PC box artwork. On store shelves, that instant appeal for a wider audience wasn’t quite there.
But had it reached consoles, surely it would have done a lot better. PC gaming just wasn’t as accessible back in 1997. Most people I knew didn’t have a personal computer – they either couldn’t afford one or there just wasn’t the need for it.
Anyway, Molyneux left Bullfrog immediately after completing Dungeon Keeper (July 1997) and formed Lionhead Studios. That produced the Fable and Black & White games, but shut down in August 2016.
As for the series, Dungeon Keeper 2 arrived in 1999 minus its former director. It met with strong reviews, but I generally found it to be inferior.
Then, in one of EA’s moments, it cancelled the third title in the series, but did go on to publish an MMORPG app in 2014 developed by Mythic Entertainment. It was a critical disaster, with Metro handing it 0/10, IGN 3/10, and Destructoid 4/10. That pretty much killed off the series.
But, at least there’s always the original to fall back on.
Showing their age a bit now and in low-resolution, but for 1997 Bullfrog did an excellent job. Being from that era, I have no issue at all with the way it looks. And the sense of atmospherics they create, as well as all the little extra attention to detail, is incredible.
But for PS4 Pro, maxed out PC spec HD graphics-loving slaves then they may struggle with its dated appearance.
Although there aren’t a wide range of compositions across the game, each and every one is perfectly suited to ramp up the atmosphere.
As you’ll often spend large chunks of time on one level – particularly for the Deeper Dungeons add-on – the music has to be good. And it’s claustrophobic and quietly chilling, but never intrusive.
Add to that some incredible sound effects that really should be iconic in the gaming community.
There’s the “Game loaded!” growl from the narrator/mentor, individual noises unique to every character you come to love (and rely on for in-game cues), and spooky additions like a set of heroes tunneling inches away from your walls.
Every aspect of the game was clearly laboured over with immense detail. It’s incredibly addictive, with only a few technical limitations from the era holding it back for something even better.
The opening levels guide you through what’s required and, from there, it’s up to your ingenuity and smarts to get the job done.
The more casual gamer may struggle with the difficulty setting on later stages, but on the whole it’s got a surprising “pick up and play” ability for a strategy game.
With the full Deeper Dungeons pack, you’ve got one heck of a difficult task on your hands. Overcoming some of the stages on the expansion pack levels will test all your devious might.
My favourite strategy game of all time, since 1997 onward I’ve returned to it regularly and become consumed by it.
There’s a certain nostalgia factor there, sure, but I can really see younger gamers appreciating its gameplay balance – even if it’s lacking the wealth of options of modern titles from the genre.
The concept – so brilliant in its simplicity – amazes me to this day. You manage a dungeon – genius! And Bullfrog took the concept and got absolutely everything out of it.
There are so many brilliant, masterstroke decisions dribbled throughout that you can’t help but let the whole experience charm you.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I have a colossal amount of love for Dungeon Keeper, 22 years after first playing it on my mate Phil’s PC.
Time and time again I’ve returned to it, especially in the streaming era where it’s – thankfully – readily available on GOG and Origin (although not Steam, yet).
And my word, on GOG I’ve thumped over 100 hours into the thing since 2016. My recent return to it – primarily on the Deeper Dungeons – in April 2019 brought about 25 hours of gameplay. I went to bed with bile demons and warlocks triumphantly bellowing in my subconscious.
Dungeon Keeper is utterly enthralling and addictive. It’s on the verge of outright genius. Whilst it may have some minor flaws by modern gaming standards, there’s nothing that’ll stop me from returning to this unique piece of work over the coming decades.
What would be perfect, though, is if some dev team picks up the series and gives it a proper reboot or remake. That… that would be despicably delightful.
Aggregated Score: 9.0
The Moronic Cheese Mage is also known as Wapojif. That’s Mr. Wapojif to you. He’s a self-deprecating humorist with his head on straight. For silliness and surreal humour, definitely find your way to his blog at professionalmoron.com.
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Categories: Game Review