The art of dungeoneering has gone unappreciated in the realm of PC gaming for far too long. Long past are the glory days of Dungeon Keeper and its kin. Developer Kalypso is looking to fix that with the simply titled Dungeons. This latest dungeon-building strategy game doesn't put you in the shoes of an intrepid adventurer but rather a maniacal fiend who uses his vast engineering prowess to craft treacherous passageways too tempting for explorers to pass up. But in the end, their greed will get the better of them, and you shall reap the rewards.
At the center of it all is your dungeon heart. This is the life force of your personal labyrinth. If you lose it, all of your hard work turns to rubble. From here, you command a (tiny) army of goblin workers to start carving out rooms, corridors, and winding passageways from the earth. In the beginning, you may queue up two or three football fields' worth of rooms to mine, and then you wait--and scheme.
Once you have a space you're satisfied with--which you'd better be because the earth you dig out can't be replaced--you can begin the truly diabolical task of interior design. While it is important for any proper dungeon to be decked out with skull racks and candelabras aplenty, these abyssal aesthetics also provide you with prestige points--one of the three resources in Dungeons. Additional prestige unlocks additional items, such as monsters, prisons, and giant chests of gold for your unfortunate heroes to stumble upon.
And that's where the real money lies…in harvesting heroes. The entire goal of Dungeons is to provide your visitors with all manner of worldly delights; to dazzle their minds and line their pockets until they can consume no more. An adventurer may crave gold, equipment, knowledge, or even pain. Then, after you've graciously allowed them to drink their fill, you cut them down in their prime and reap their sweet soul energy, which is another valuable resource that is generated by their gluttony.
Dungeons harks back to afternoons lost between the pages of Dungeons and Dragons and a stack of graph paper--the joys of creation, with a deliciously sinister twist. From the moment foolish heroes set foot within your dungeon, you want their entire existence accounted for--from what they see to how they'll die. However, construction starts at the end of your dungeon, the heart, and you cannot furnish an area too far from it without first dropping a monster-spawning pentagram. As we furnished rooms, unlocked new items, and dug our way toward one of the hero-spawning gates in the levels we played, we occasionally got the feeling of working in reverse, since we were required to place our weakest items at the mission-critical heart of the dungeon, while the biggest and baddest accouterments became available only when we reached the hero's gate, which acts as an entrance. Then again, Dungeons will not only come with a single-player campaign; it'll also offer a free-form sandbox mode that will hopefully give you a lot more freedom to tinker with your domain as you see fit.
Once a hero gate is open, your attentions are split between monitoring the soul energy levels of your guests and spending all the currency they provide. Heroes are simple creatures and will slowly make their way through your dungeon, stopping to cower at the scenery, fight a monster, or collect a bit of loot. When they encounter a foe, they will slowly enter into battle and finally land the killing blow around the time that the next enemy spawns. If you put too many pentagrams in the same area, your heroes will stay busy--and unhappy--for a long while.
Once they bumble their way through your armories, libraries, and glistening piles of gold, the soul energy of your heroes will be reaching peak capacity. This is the time to strike. If you wait too long, your prey will magically escape from your dungeon--denying you of its spoils. And while your local monsters may be up to the task, chances are when it comes time to harvest the crops, you'll need to call in your avatar--a fiendish-looking rapscallion in red armor--and engage them personally.
You can level up your avatar and customize his skills, such as strength and intelligence, as well as his attributes. Some attributes afford you discounts on items for your dungeon or improve existing items, while others offer more direct benefits, such as fireballs and increased stamina. Combat is light and simple: Approach the enemy, toast the enemy, repeat. The real satisfaction comes afterward. Once defeated, a fallen hero provides a sample of his soul energy. But to get all of it, he'll need to be hauled off to one of your torture chambers to be processed first.
These adventures were never meant to have a happy ending--not for the heroes anyway. With only monsters and our avatar to dispatch do-gooders, however, our destructive options felt limited. The planned addition of traps should add a bit more sinister spice. Full of creative potential and plenty of sadistic fun, Dungeons is one to keep an eye on when it is released this February.