I’d like to play a little word association to start this review. Sid Meier: Civilization. Will Wright: SimCity. D.W. Bradley: ummm, clothing store, possibly?
Let’s face it folks, in order to have your name associated with a game, you’ve got to have some really killer products on your resume, and be the driving force behind them. Sid and Will have got that in spades, but D.W. Bradley is a name I had to search for. What I found was that he worked on Wizardry and some of the earlier Might & Magic titles. Okay, that’s decent work experience, but when was the last time we saw a good Might & Magic title, or for that matter a playable PC Wizardry title? It’s been a long time, that’s for sure, so the street cred doesn’t apply here. But I thought maybe this will be Bradley’s comeback. Maybe this will show people that one of the godfathers of CRPGs can still kick butt with the best of the new crowd.
Oh lord, was I wrong.
Dungeon Lords is the latest creation of the mind that made Magic (and Might), but the magic is certainly gone. The story is so incredibly generic, so laughably predictable and uninteresting that I swore at any moment someone would jump out holding a mic with a cameraman in tow, tell me I was on some new G4 Candid Camera show, then hand me the real game. Unfortunately that time never came, and I just became more and more disinterested.
The plot is pretty straightforward to begin with. You are a (insert race/class/gender here) who has been summoned by the high seer of the celestial temple of Fargrove to do… something. You’re not told what, exactly, but you’ve got nothing better to do, and so you try and get in the city. Well, the city’s locked, but fortunately you find a handy goblin who will show you a way in, in exchange for mugging you. A metric ton of dead goblins and a lengthy, but rather boring, sewer/theater dungeon romp later, you manage to get into Fargrove, where you find that the King’s daughter has gone missing, his enemies are planning to invade, and the city guards do a really bad job of keeping people who are NOT you out of the city.
From this point, you have to go around helping this person, saving that person, delivering this item, and generally being attacked every five seconds by enemies that spawn randomly out of nowhere and in large numbers. Eventually, you have to find the King’s daughter, fight off the forces of Lord Barrowgrim, and fulfill your destiny.
Now, the faults in the game’s story do not lie in the lack of things to do. Everyone has something or other for you to do, and there are definitely deceptions and intrigue going on. The problem is that it’s all so predictable; you know what’s coming and when. And there’s no real inspiration behind the plot. There’s no real character development to speak of in any of the NPCs, and very few people like you much. In the game’s defense, however, it does have a very prominently featured multiplayer mode, and I really think Bradley went in more for the gameplay than the plot. Unfortunately, as you’ll see in a moment, the gameplay doesn’t quite make up for it.
The gameplay falls into the same category as the plot: not interesting. The player begins by selecting a character and choosing its race, gender, profession, and skills (and thanks to the patch, you can even do what it says in the manual and change your character’s look.) Skills and attribute points are purchased from a starting pool of ability points, and later from points you gain as you kill stuff. There’s no fancy system to it: it’s a cut and dry purchasing of your character’s abilities.
Once you get into the game, you are presented with an over-the-shoulder view of the world. You interact with objects using the shift key when their names come up at the bottom of your screen, and the rest of the time is spent killing the hordes of goblins/rats/assassins/etc. that attack you with unnatural frequency. And how do you battle said enemies? Click… click… click… yeah, that’s about it. Granted, you can start doing some fancier moves when you get your skill in a particular type of weapon up, moving side to side or backwards, and even parrying and blocking with your shield. But at heart, your most reliable battle tactic is click… click… click.
Perhaps the game’s true strength lies in its magic system, but that would require me to have bothered to significantly upgrade my magic skills, and from what I experienced playing a mage character (an ELVEN mage, mind you,) you don’t get nearly enough magic oomph to match the incredibly more useful sword/club/ax/dagger. Even though magic is easy to use, both the damage and the number of spells you can cast are much more limited than physical weapons, so there is really no advantage to putting points into magic use, aside from possibly healing.
The equipment system is also rather unimaginative, with your character basically being a paper doll on whom you outfit body armor, gloves, rings, melee weapons, and ranged weapons. If you lack the strength to use something properly, you can still equip it, but you’ll get penalties that range from mild to massive.
So, to sum it all up, monotonous combat system plus underpowered magic system plus uninspired equipment system equals mediocre gameplay. Fa fa fa.
The boring gameplay and lackluster plot could be offset by the graphics, though… if the graphics were at all impressive. You won’t be pushing your PC’s graphics processor past a light jog, sadly, as the visuals are mediocre, like most of the rest of the game. The environments aren’t bad; they’re just bland and uninteresting. Lots of dull, drab browns, greens, and greys comprise the landscape, and with the exception of the elven city of Arindale, nothing really jumps out at the player as being creative.
Similarly, creature designs are nothing special either. You can tell what is a goblin, what is an assassin, what is a spider, etc., mostly because they all follow standard fantasy conventions. Compare them to the enemies and races of some other fantasy titles, such as Morrowind or Warcraft, and you’ll notice immediately how unimaginative these creature designs are.
Come to think of it, items, weapons, and equipment all look as if they were taken straight from the D&D handbook, showing that the art department probably wasn’t working overtime on this project. So graphically, Dungeon Lords is just another case of the blahs.
Aurally, Dungeon Lords is extremely poor. There is not much music to speak of, aside from the title screen and the introduction. I guess you could say the game tries to avoid theatrics in order to better integrate the player and the game, but music is kind of important in creating the proper atmosphere.
However, even more important to creating atmosphere are sound effects, of which there are none in combat. That’s right, no matter how much you swing your sword, you hear no clangs, crashes, bashes, or what have you. No footsteps in the game, either, meaning that you get a sense that your character is completely deaf. Every now and then there are some creaks of doors and rattles of chains, but they’re on a loop and generally don’t fit the area you’re in. It’s quite ridiculous, and it makes the game seem as if it was unfinished… well, along with the fact that unless you download the patch, the game is severely broken.
The voice acting is okay, but it all feels overly-theatrical, and, like most else about the game, BORING. Speaking to NPCs involves choosing topics of conversation which ultimately lead to other topics being unlocked until you’ve gone through their entire dialogue tree. Often those trees can be very long, and thus you have to listen to a lot of boring voice acting… at least when the game decides to function properly and let you hear the voice acting. There is so much broken with the sound in this game, that it negatively impacted my game experience.
Fortunately, the controls are workable, otherwise I would have found this game unplayable, literally. You control your character using the mouse to move your view and WASD to move your character. There are a variety of hotkeys that allow you to access various menu options, though they can be a bit confusing at first. Still, the controls were just fine, and probably the best part about the game.
Overall, Dungeon Lords is not worth your money if you buy it new, and may not even be worth it used, now that I think about it. The game seriously felt unfinished, even with the patch, and I’m not the only person who thought so. If this is the type of product D.W. Bradley plans to be associated with, maybe he should go back to selling clothes.