Dungeon Overlord: Review

In recent months there’s been a small resurgence in – or at least more attention paid to – the enduring influence of Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper games. If you’re too young to remember them, or have never been much of a PC gamer, the series had you managing a dungeon populated with a variety of evil creatures, building up your dungeon’s capabilities, expanding your menagerie, fending off pesky heroes from the surface and, ultimately, defeating the local lord and expanding your mail-fisted grip on the world. Being a Bullfrog game it also had a gentle and very British sense of humour that made affectionate fun of fantasy tropes and motifs.

Dungeon Keeper

Ultimate evil 'Horny' hanging out with three 'Mistresses'. The DK games were, of course, lauded for being sexually and gender-progressive. It was also very sarcastic.

The most widely-recognised bastard child of Dungeon Keeper to have crawled upwards from the bowels of the Earth is Dungeons, from German publisher Kalypso, and the most ambitious may be Dungeon Empires – a “tactical browser RPG” – but the game I chose to investigate was Dungeon Overlord, a Sony Online Entertainment-funded game integrated into Facebook. My reasoning was that unlike Dungeons it was free to play, and it was something I could play on my laptop and at work unlike the demanding-looking Dungeon Empires. I also continue to be curious about the potential of Facebook games, although it’s a curiousity that’s frequently disappointed.

Dungeon Overlord starts well enough. The plot, such as it is, is remarkably similar to 2007’s Overlord: a rival lord has smashed your dungeon and nearly killed you, so it’s time to rebuild and seek revenge. The intro sequence is surprisingly lengthy for a Facebook or browser game and even displays a few touches of charm and wit. Once it finishes, you’re presented with an isometric top-down screen, an empty dungeon over a lake of fire, and a pair of little scurrying goblins. The latter are your workers and load-carriers, and the game quickly teaches you how to recruit more creatures. The first is the warlock, who is chiefly used for research, but later you acquire creatures who are great for raids, thieving, defence and so on.

At the game’s outset I was quickly involved and enjoying myself, learning the ropes and exploring the game’s numerous options. Research and construction was all fairly rapid and I was happily checking in every few hours to collect resources and research. As in Farmville you need to collect harvested resources but they won’t disappear if you don’t collect quickly enough. New options and creatures were regularly appearing and there was lots going on to keep me entertained whilst I worked toward more distant goals.

Dungeon Overlord loading screen

I include the loading screen as a screenshot because you'll be seeing a lot of it. Seriously. Also, as you can see there are options to invite friends to the game and engage in microtransactions. I didn't want to dignify either by mentioning them in the main review.

After a week or so, however, this had begun to shift. Every piece of research took a vast quantity of time to work towards, and this only became lengthier when I failed to log in and regularly collect the resources generated by my warlocks. Upgrading my buildings took a huge amount of time – and the game only lets you upgrade one building at a time, an obviously artificial decision.

More irritatingly the list of resources overlords are required to gather – food, gold, research, iron and crystal – was extended with four Primordial resources and exotics like moonstone and basalt that can only be found in secondary dungeon colonies as well as resources that can only be acquired through raiding like leather, and probably more besides. These resources can take days to acquire at a low rate and some are tied in to your core progress through the game, which makes extending your dungeon a tedious chore. The initial pleasure of expansion, construction and acquisition is replaced with a grind that doesn’t even have the decency to make the process simple and streamlined. Because of storage limitations you can’t even convince yourself that, even though it’s taking ages to get the leather you need to upgrade one building so that you can build a new piece of furniture so that you can get a new creature so that you can finish a quest, at least you’re building up lots of useful iron for the future.

In defence of Dungeon Overlord I never encountered Evony levels of waiting; a week or more to construct a certain building was commonplace in that game. Of course, it might simply be that I never got that far into Dungeon Overlord. Regardless, waiting hours or days for one task to finish so that you can initiate a second is tedious, and as my sessions with the game became fewer and further between my creatures became angry and abandoned the cause, reducing my desire to play still further. I recently read an interview with the leader of EVE Online‘s Goonswarm Alliance in which he discussed the concept of a “failure cascade”; when a social structure is pushed to a breaking point after which events are simply the result of stress fractures playing out and total collapse is inevitable. Similarly a game like Dungeon Overlord, which exemplifies the law of diminishing returns and penalises lack of play, suffers from a similar flaw in its design: the less you offer players, the less inclined they will be to return, and as soon as one event breaks that will to play it’s only a matter of time before they’re gone forever.

Dungeon Overlord

This is what happens when you don't log in for weeks: everyone goes hungry and all your creatures leave. They get replaced by new critters, though, which I think is intended as a metaphor for the human ability to justify taking really, really shitty jobs.

It’s a shame because there’s a lot about the game which I do like. It’s surprisingly ambitious for a Facebook game and not only in terms of its complexity; aside from the various resources there’s a lot of crafting options; both rooms and creatures can be upgraded and you can colonise different areas around your main dungeon; it’s a “massively multiplayer” game and you can raid other human players for resources whilst the game world seems genuinely vast. I’m also fairly sure I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the game offers. And, although the game is obviously designed to cynically hook players in the Zynga “sunk cost” fashion(*)┬áit has clearly been invested with a lot of thought and energy in an attempt to also produce an interesting, complex game – which may be about as much as you can hope for from a microtransaction-funded title.

Unfortunately, unless you have an extraordinary patience for waiting, for being penalised for mistakes made through misunderstanding, for investment of time rapidly outstripping reward, and for a sluggish and clunky Flash interface, you will find Dungeon Overlord more trouble than it’s worth.

(*) I think there’s some mileage in a discussion about how the “sunk cost” method of hooking regular players conflicts with the “failure cascade” rule of diminishing gameplay returns, but I feel this may be a conversation for another day – or the comment threads.