Alright, Dungeon Keeper, You’ve Got Thirty Minutes

Dungeon Keeper 01

It’s impossible to pretend that I’ve felt or witnessed much enthusiasm for this, purportedly the latest instalment in the Dungeon Keeper series. We’ve seen nothing new for fifteen years, which is of course not unusual for fondly remembered PC game titles. In that light the forthcoming release of a new Dungeon Keeper might have prompted cautious enthusiasm, as with 2K/Firaxis’s XCOM Enemy Unknown.

This has not been the case here and it’s not hard to understand why. Electronic Arts own the Dungeon Keeper property and in the last few years have built a reputation for imitating proven monetising techniques established in the mobile market years ago – literal lifetimes in the quick generational cycles of smartphones. Last year they took the wildly successful and popular Plants vs. Zombies – a one-time purchase game – and expelled a sequel with divisive freemium features, in-app-purchasing and a requirement that players grind already-completed levels in order to progress. 

Over the three years Arcadian Rhythms has been alive thus far (it’s our third birthday in a bit over a month – please send cake) I’ve spent more than my fair share of time playing and writing about games built around this model, and it’s safe to say I’m fairly sick of it. I’ve previously said that if I never see another cooldown timer as long as I live, it will not have been too soon. This clearly makes me the perfect person to try out Dungeon Keeper.

As the title makes clear, I’m giving the fucker thirty minutes.

Dungeon Keeper 02

There is no fourth wall left to break.

Things begin on a familiar note: a deep, throaty, sinister voice welcomes me back: “So, you finally return, Keeper.”

Hey, don’t pin this on me. I never went anywhere. I played Dungeon Keeper II as recently as 2012. It’s still a great game, you know?

As expected we launch into things with a tutorial. Swipe to slap minions around, tap to mine out bits of rock, tap this button, tap that button, and by jove don’t tap anything other than you’re instructed.

A sign of the times, I suppose, that where Dungeon Keeper’s predecessors set you objectives and then left you to figure out the details, this game holds you by the hand all the way. The tutorial, happily, is over in just under twenty minutes – and would’ve been quicker had I obeyed the game’s exhortations to spend in-game currency on skipping 60-second cooldown timers. I made a cup of tea instead.

There are plenty of game elements that will be familiar to players of the original Bullfrog-developed games. A throbbing dungeon heart lies at the core of your domain. Imps are used to mine out rock and build rooms. Traps and doors can be constructed and placed to defend your dungeon. Trolls, bile demons and the infamous Horny are all present and accounted for.

Then there are the immediately obvious differences: your dungeon is yours forever, with no separate levels demanding a fresh start. Static stone and gold mines will slowly produce resources ad infinitum. Creatures can be summoned (via a queue, of course, which you can also pay to skip) once you’ve met prerequisites, rather than wandering in via a portal and bedding down.

The biggest difference lies in the dispensing with sequential level-based progression and the granting to players of a dungeon that is theirs forever. This new Dungeon Keeper allows dirt to be piled back into place – something the original games never permitted – meaning that it’s possible to entirely reconfigure a dungeon’s layout. Battles, meanwhile, are compartmentalised into raids and defence missions, with the former involve placing summoned minions and hoping they can best an opponent’s dungeon layout. The latter, meanwhile, puts your own defences to the test, again bolstered with summoned minions.

If I am entirely honest, it’s actually… not bad. I’m genuinely surprised to say it, but for a half hour of play this was good fun. I can also add that it’s been very competently developed, gobbling far less juice than most other games I’ve played on my tablet and performing smoothly throughout. Kudos to Mythic Entertainment for this achievement.

And yet! It’s clear from the very first few minutes with Dungeon Keeper that its cooldown timers will grow lengthier and its demands for in-game currency to expedite actual gameplay will concurrently increase. Besides which the core raid-and-defence gameplay is, well, it’s Clash of Clans. That the game is set in underground rooms and tunnels allows for a greater degree of tower defence-esque planning and optimisation is a nice feature, but if you’ve played CoC or any of its legion of clones there’s little here that feels new or enticing. (Correct me if I’m wrong, readers: I’ve seen CoC in action but not played it myself.)

As a critic I feel compelled to play on in order to report more about this game. It feels like the honest thing to do, even though the direction in which the wind blows is already quite clear. But as a gamer I would prefer to stop here, right now, this very instant. Why spoil a fond memory – especially one built on the back of warranted nostalgia?

[EA’s Dungeon Keeper was played on an £80 Chinese Android tablet (1.5ghz dual core, 1gb RAM). It’s made by a company called Ainol, so Shaun likes to refer to it as “a suppository”.]

Dungeon Keeper 03

“Best Value”