"Youíll almost be glad when the chirping crickets and hooting owls fall silent, replaced by rustling of leaves or the scraping of claws on stone that pre-empt another battle. Itís fun to explore new portions of the map and watch the blank areas fill in as if by magic. Thereís a definite sense that adventure could lie beyond each hilltop."
Donít let Dungeon Lords: Collectorís Edition fool you just because it comes in a deluxe metal case. The wizard painted on the front isnít there merely to look pretty. His malevolent red eyes, his wavy gray beard and silvery tresses, even the jagged scar etched in his foreheadÖ these are but a taste of the game that waits beyond the shrink wrap. Thereís no room for sunny skies and comical sidekicks. Instead, prepare yourself for a no-holds-barred, grueling journey through a world where even the rats and algae want to kick your butt. Dungeon lovers, rejoice; youíve just found your new best friend!
The game begins in a mysterious forest with trees so thick that the sky and stars might as well not even exist. Pale shafts of light filter down through the foliage and you can hear the sounds of distant wildlife as you wander through the harsh environment. Then, a demented giggle comes from the steep bank rising to your right. You look up as goblins skitter down the hillside, axes gleaming and eyes alight with malice. You raise your shield and block one blow, then counter with a quick thrust. As the other creatures prance about, you swing wildly and land a hit that sends your first adversary to the ground. A potion and some coins drop from his corpse.
As if spurred on by the death of their comrade, the remaining goblins begin to circle. You dare not run and you canít remain on the offense for long, lest the one with the bow and arrows get in a cheap shot while youíre distracted. The battle is tense and the stakes are high. Each parry or thrust might be your last.
Thatís just one battle, and Dungeon Lords: Collectorís Edition is full of them. Every step you take, every second you pause to catch your breath could mark another ambush. As you trek through various environments--be they forest and swamps, sewers and abandoned buildings or even populated cities--you must remain vigilant. Each corner might shelter a swarm of bats, a handful of rats or a pack of hungry wolves. Your continued success always feels precarious because thereís no relief.
Combat is typical of the genre, which unfortunately means that the usual sluggish camera is present. If it takes too long to turn or settles on an awkward angle, youíll suffer. Battles seem almost to be designed around this flaw. When youíre leaping about, trying to avoid blows one goblin is reigning down on you and tapping the left mouse button to return a few strikes of your own, his cohorts could very well be looking to shank you from the rear. Or perhaps youíre at odds with a troll and his massive chains, and the guy with the spear gun on a nearby ledge gets a perfect shot while youíre grappling with the camera. A few well-placed hits can send you to the ground before you know it, which is the perfect opportunity to check out the lovely texture work, but not so good for your heroic plans.
Falling in battle sucks not only because itís inconvenient, but because the long-term effects are extreme if you let it happen often at all. Rather than send you packing back to the last town you saw, the game lets you revive yourself at will. This might sound alright, but thereís a catch: you lose attributes if you donít happen to have a revival item in your inventory. For example, letís say that youíre slow to drink a potion and some goblins make mincemeat of you in the sewers. The monsters start to wander away, pleased that theyíve cut short your adventure. At this point, you press the ďRĒ key and revive yourself. However, the screen advises you that youíve just lost some agility points. Thanks for nothing, Dungeon Lords!
It gets worse. Suppose you defeat a goblin and gain 120 experience points. These go toward your overall progression and toward the mastery of skills like the ability to easily disarm treasure chests in dungeons (a must, since some of them hold the solution to puzzles youíll need to solve), or to wield heavy armor without taking a hit to your characterís battle performance. They also can increase your stats on a micro-level. Thatís nice, until you fall unconscious in battle and lose any unassigned points. Itís actually possible to weaken your player as you progress, unless you take frequent advantage of the gameís save-anywhere feature.
Why play, then? Why put up with such a broken system? Well, because itís not entirely broken. Itís just tough. If youíre careful with your items and you donít take unnecessary risks, exhilaration replaces dread. Thereís satisfaction to be had when you survive another goblin raid and your victory enables you to pick more locks or cast more devastating spells. Youíll almost be glad when the chirping crickets and hooting owls fall silent, replaced by rustling of leaves or the scraping of claws on stone that pre-empt another battle. Itís fun to explore new portions of the map and watch the blank areas fill in as if by magic. Thereís a definite sense that adventure could lie beyond each hilltop.
Suddenly, you can appreciate the gameís more positive complexities. You can revel in the variety of side quests, character classes, weapons and customizable skills or wince when a magical spell sends you staggering away from a throng of devious opponents. Sure, not every RPG fan will like it. Some might find it too harsh, or poke fun at slight graphical glitches that crop up on occasion. There are plenty of people out there, though, who long for the next good dungeon crawler and donít care about petty refinements and FMV. This oneís for them.
Staff review by Jason Venter (February 26, 2006)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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