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Retrospective: Aging Nicely or Turning To Vinegar?

by Michael "txa1265" J. Anderson, 2008-05-10

After trying to keep pace with releases in multiple genres on multiple platforms through the fall and winter of last year, I thought I had burned myself out. In one way I had - I was burned out on playing games I didn't want to play in genres I really didn't like. That doesn't mean that they are bad games, just that they weren't anything I really wanted to play. Fortunately I didn't burn out on replaying games or trying games I had missed through the years. So instead of continuing to push myself to play games I didn't want to play, I have taken a step back and started smelling the glorious flowers of games I love...

I already started this last year with a retrospective on Jedi Knight at GamerDad's GamingWithChildren blog site, and more recently with my revisiting my 'No Sweating the Oldies' article. But now I'm about to get hardcore! I have a few games I'm playing now, games that are celebrating anniversaries this year - they have been released five, ten, fifteen, even twenty years ago! There isn't a pixel shader or volumetric shadow or bloom among them, yet they are all classics.

Or are they?

That is the question I will ask - these won't be purely 'OMG U R AWESUM' revisits, as I will try to go through them critically and evaluate whether they are worth playing. Obviously I won't be pounding on them for having graphics that make Avernum look like Crysis, but I will be passing judgment on gameplay. As I said in the 'No Sweating the Oldies' article, "while there are many games - like the original Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple ][ + that feel merely quaint when played now, there are many that are classics, and every bit as ‘worth playing’ as when they were released." I will be looking to separate the Castle Wolfenstein's from the Ultima IV's. And, extending the analogy of comparing games to wine I started in the title, I will conclude each retrospective by looking at how the game has aged: has it improved, stayed the same, or gotten worse. And I will look at the prospects for the future in terms of how the game will play years from now and how the style of game is faring and is likely to fare in the future.

But for now let's start a little closer to home with a game that I have already written on rather prolifically: Dungeon Lords. You can read my review, my review of the Collector's Edition (required to get the final patch), my original review, a lamentation, and probably other stuff I've forgotten I wrote. If you have read any of these, you know that I enjoyed Dungeon Lords but consider it an extremely flawed game, and noted in my review of the Collector's Edition that even with all of the bugs fixed it just wasn't ever going to be great.

So why play it again? Quite simply, because of two posts I read on two different forums. One extolled the fact that someone had discovered the game about a year before and was greatly enjoying it, and the other was someone comparing it favorably against some other games and saying that the rest of us were poisoned by dealing with all of the release turmoil. So I decided to attempt to start fresh with the game.

The installation is fairly painful - there are a ton of files in the game directory rather than using compressed bulk files for most things, so it is a slow process despite being only three CD's. Uninstalling is no quicker. After installation (I'll assume the Collector's Edition to avoid the need to apply patches), you start the game and get to watch a brief cutscene of a battle between two wizards and a long slideshow accompanied by a *really* long bit of backstory that will make no sense and that you'll never remember anyway. Suffice it to say that there is some crap going on and you'll have to deal with it.

After listing to the narrator talk herself to death, you are presented with the main menu - an animated screen shows a large castle door slamming shut and is accompanied by the forty second long theme song. Choosing 'New Game' brings you to the character creation screen, which is one of D. W. Bradley's (DWB from here on) proudest parts of the game, but not one that hardcore RPG lovers will tend to find quite so dear. There certainly is a lot of stuff there, and it accomplished one of DWB's goals - he wanted gamers to feel rewarded immediately rather than having to constantly wait to level-up. To do this he designed a system around 'advance points' as well as experience. Experience still gains you levels which you'll need to gain additional advance points access certain skills and spells. But everything you do in terms of advancement is based on advance points. You have to buy skills and also attribute points from the same pool of advance points.

That is where things start to get problematic. Because as you increase your level in a skill, each new level becomes more and more costly to obtain. But one of your attributes - Intelligence - will help mitigate that cost. What that means is that making your character more intelligent will help you pursue whatever skill path you desire more easily. From a role-playing perspective that is just idiotic - the example that jumps to mind is role-playing a dumb brute warrior. While it is possible to role-play and keep intelligence low, it hampers your ability to advance quickly in your chosen skills. There are classes as well that you choose as you progress that will make learning certain 'class skills' easier, but the effect is much smaller than a solid intelligence bonus.

OK, that aside, you have now created a character by choosing race, starting class and gendre; and you have spent your initial allocation of advance points. So it is time to start adventuring! You click Play, and then you hear several loops of the theme music while looking at a black screen with an hourglass in the middle while waiting for game to begin. You start in a wooded area with a controls help screen displayed and no apparent direction - so you approach the guy standing near the fire and get your first quest.

The dialogue system consists of clicking keywords and then reading voluminous text that appears on the left pane, then clicking on other words until you have exhausted all options or yourself, whichever comes first. Since you cannot be attacked while you are talking to people, you might as well ply everyone for as much information as possible. Once you have obtained your first quest, you open up your journal and find ... that you must have pressed the wrong key. No, that was the correct key, only there isn't any real 'journal' to speak of - just a single line with the most basic information. Worse yet, when you fail to enter Fargrove because the town is sealed, nothing changes in your journal or quest information.

Before you reached the gates of Fargrove, however, you likely noticed something else. Depending on the power of your computer, you likely experienced a quick freeze, stutter, jump, or something like lag ... and then were attacked. And if you just left your character standing still, you probably noticed that they got attacked by an endless stream of spawning enemies. Get used to it and get over it - that is just how the game plays. So by the time you have entered the sewers under Fargrove you will have experienced nearly everything the game has to offer - third person action-RPG combat, endless enemy spawning, symbol-matching lock-picking and trap-disarming, click-word dialogue, and one of the worst journals ever.

If you are beginning to worry that I'm about to carry you through a sixty hour game one dire rat at a time, relax - as the last paragraph mentioned, you have already seen all the major stuff the game has to offer. So from here on out I'll just highlight the good, bad and braindead stuff that you would see if you persevered through the whole experience.

Good: if you like the combat system early on, you'll love this game. Even in most parts of Fargrove enemies spawn out of nowhere, giving you plenty of chances to battle. Guards react and will battle enemies, and guards and citizens are invincible and don't seem to mind if you start tossing spells around the town.

Bad: of course, the flip side is also true - if you found the combat system inadequate, it will never get better. Unless you are playing a mage and save enough money and have enough patience to load up on the 'nova' spells to wipe out large crowds of enemies... but even then the fun doesn't last forever.

Braindead: when advancing in tiers of your class path you will be presented with the requirements for that level and whether or not you meet those requirements. For example, if you start as a Mage and complete the quest to become Sorcerer as a second-tier Mage class, the guild master will say ‘The Requirements are X, you meet those, would you like to advance?’ But you might realize that you don't actually meet any of those requirements! Don't worry - class advancement requirements are on the honor system! Seriously though, it looks like they wanted to implement them but didn't integrate them well enough that folks would be prepared, and the thought of forcing players to trudge back and forth checking requirements caused them to pitch the requirements...but not the dialogue stating whether or not the player met them.

Bad: after a while in Fargrove you might start to feel a bit lost. That is likely because someone you spoke to said something relevent mixed in with four pages of backstory and you stopped paying attention at page two. The Collecter's Edition added a quest you get in the Fargrove Inn that features thousands of words of backstory, making it easy to lose the important details of how you are supposed to actually get started with the quest. And as already mentioned, the journal is no help.

Braindead: if you play as a female, you will have the option to join a guild known as the Sisterhood, which provides nice classes that add perks to complement whatever other class path you choose. You are told to meet a certain person, and when you come upon them they are being attacked. If you choose to pick up loot rather than immediately speak with them, they disappear forever and you lose the opportunity to join the guild - and the quest remains open and uncompletable in your journal for the rest of the game.

Bad: magic is overpowered in this game, which is pretty typical for a RPG. Mages start out with the ability to spark a match with extreme effort and end up able to drop a small planet on your head while on the move. Balancing combat classes is always tricky, but most games come to some understanding. Mages typically have limited mana or 'spells per day' or total number of spells or something else to keep the player from just running through the world tossing fireballs. Dungeon Lords works off of a 'spell count' system: if you buy twenty Ice Shards spells, that means you can cast the spell twenty times before you need to let it recharge. However, the balancing decision DWB made was to make spell regeneration so slow - even when resting - that it turns the game to an 'inaction' RPG.

Good: I have always praised the dungeon designs in this game, and they are still the absolute highlight. If it wasn't for the excellent designs, the cool puzzles, and the engaging and varied feel of each new dungeon you entered I doubt I would have finished the game once, let alone half a dozen times!

Bad: while I love the dungeons, I really wish they had done something about spawning in dungeons. It really takes away from the wonderful design when you know that standing still to think over a puzzle means dealing with another spawn of six or eight snakes or skeletons or rats or bandits...

Bad: back to the subject of combat: regardless of what path you plan to choose, you will definitely need to plan around plenty of melee combat. This is due to a couple of things: the limited spells mentioned above for mages, and the tendency for enemies to rush and mob you. While playing a battlemage might be desirable for some, having melee combat requirements implied for all classes is just bad design.

Bad: speaking of bad designs, why is it that every chest you encounter is either trapped, locked or a Mimic? This choice has a couple of implications: because quest-critical items are occasionally found in chests or behind locked doors, players need to take several levels of thief skills regardless of their character development plans; also, since some of these required areas are fairly high level, getting enough skill to tackle them means that low-level chests and locks become a bore to open.

Braindead: just a question - why spend so much text and explanation on a story that is so uninteresting and full of cliches?

Braindead: the great elven city...populated by about nine elves! The massive inn originally was completely empty of any furnishings and had only a single working entry door. The Collector's Edition added furniture to the inn, but left other buildings barren; it also added a single elf wandering the area just south of the city and several others in huts in the tree-top walkways just inside the border gates.

Bad: it is hard to believe that a modern RPG by a master of the genre would not have a single true side-quest, yet that was true for the original Dungeon Lords. Only in the Collector's Edition did any optional quests appear - and no, I don't count quests required to gain class ranks as 'optional'.

Braindead: 'one at a time' syndrome. You encounter this immediately after the first battle - your enemies have dropped a dozen items, and you discover there is no 'collect all' button, but that you need to press 'shift' for each and every thing you want to pick up. This seeming desire to give every customer RSI extends to every trading function as well: repairing items, identifying items, and buying and selling can all only be done a single item at a time. Worse, if you have a high-resolution or widescreen monitor you will have to do this one-at-a-time stuff across loads of screen real estate thanks to unmovable dialog boxes.

Good: the teleport system. Most games make you uncover a teleporter to use it, but very few make you work to unlock it for use. Dungeon Lords doesn't make you go so far as Divine Divinity, which had classes of teleporters which required their own activation scrolls, but it does make it an effort to get the required moonstones to get started.

Bad: is there a single 'good' that doesn't have an associated 'bad'? I guess not ... because the quest to get the moonstones takes you to an island in the middle of a lake, and makes you swim there. This is terribly slow; until a patch there was no map to tell you if you were in the right place; and the water is not level or transparent.

Braindead: did you just read that the water isn't level in the game? It might sound like I'm nitpicking, but it isn't like I'm looking for some epic graphics achievement here, just a tad bit of physical reality. It is just plain weird when you are slowly swimming for fifteen minutes to be unable to see what is attacking you until it actually does, and to have the water right in front of you present a fifteen degree angle.

Braindead: there are single enemies worth more experience than every quest in the entire game combined. Sure you want the focus to be on the combat, but you also want to provide an incentive for players to stay engaged with what you are feeding them as they progress.

Bad: when the initial demo came out, there was a firestorm on the forums. Heuristic Park folks quickly said that it was an old build and not representative of the actual game. When the actual game came out...it felt rather familiar. Folks who hated the demo and believed the HP line felt duped, and those who say 'I buy based on the demo feel' must have felt vindicated.

Good: the Collector's Edition allows you to customize your character and choose whether they are left or right handed.

Bad: the original game said you could customize appearance but it never worked. The same is true for several other things added in patches and in the CE.

Braindead: the Collector's Edition is largely a patch (1.5) with some new quests and features added, yet even owners of the original were required to pay full price a second time to get it. While I can understand the need to make some money, the fact that there is at least as much that came with the 'CE' that was promised for the original as there is new stuff is highly insulting. In fact, there are some who have boycotted Dreamcatcher Games because of this arrogance and user-unfriendly decision.

I could continue, but I think this is a good time to stop singling things out. There is a pretty clear theme - there are loads of negatives about the game and anything that is good in the game also has a '... but...' associated with it. Yet for me it managed to cobble together a somewhat positive experience again when I played it this time. Would I still rate it as a 6/10? I'm not sure - but neither would I ever rate it as low as this good & bad list would suggest!

I know why I am willing to cut Dungeon Lords some slack and why I have paid twice and replayed several times - because as I say in my long-form original review, it is heavily derived (in spirit at least) from two of my faves: Jedi Knight II and Gothic II. D.W. Bradley mentioned both in various interviews, and that was the initial basis of my interest in the game. Dungeon Lords pales compared to those games, yet it is fun - so long as you know what you are getting and are prepared.

So is it a Classic? No, and it will never be.

Do I recommend it? In a word, NO. But...if you like the two games I mentioned, are looking for cool dungeons and excessive combat and are pretty forgiving of flaws - and can find it for a bargain, then I say sure, why not.

Oh wait...I know I said I was done, but there is one more that represents so much of Dungeon Lords that I just have to share:

Braindead: you check into the nice Arindale Inn, note that none of the fireplaces are lit, and that there is nowhere to sit anyway nor anyone to talk to...so you decide to head to your room to rest and recover health and spells. You go up, using your inn key to get into your spacious room and look at the nice bed and table. Then when you are ready to rest, you...wait for it...go up to the fireplace and kneel in front of it! Yep, that's right - the exact same mechanism for rest is used in inns as in the forest; rather than going to the bed and automatically sleeping and waking up fully healed and restored, you need to watch the accelerated clock go by as you slowly regain spells and other stuff. If that isn't a 'Classic Moment in Gaming' I don't know what is...

Final Verdict: This is tough because Dungeon Lords was not a 'fine vintage' on release (more like cooking sherry) and at best it was a basic table wine at the release of the Collector's Edition (except for those who still had the bitter taste of the initial release in their mouths). But in the past two or three years the game has remained fairly consistent - it isn't one of those first person shooters that fades away once the new graphics trick is released, but an adequate game with many flaws.

Future Prospects: Let's be serious here - you just don't build a palace on a weak foundation, which is all Dungeon Lords offers. In terms of the genre, action-RPG games will always be here and are doing fairly well, but the upcoming expansion and sequel haven't generated much excitement because people are concerned about putting out money for another unfinished mess, and rightfully so. Yet the game has sold over a million copies, so there is obvious desire on the part of a fan-base for what the game offers, so we can only hope the results are better this time. We can all hope to see D. W. Bradley once again produce works worthy of his time on the Wizardry series, but it seems unlikely that greatness will be found in the Dungeon Lords franchise.

Box Art

Information about

Dungeon Lords

Developer: Heuristic Park

SP/MP: Single + MP
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: Action-RPG
Combat: Real-time
Play-time: 40-60 hours
Voice-acting: Unknown

Regions & platforms
North America
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2005-05-05
· Publisher: Dreamcatcher

More information