It's often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In the case of Dungeons, its imitation of Dungeon Keeper doesn't so much flatter as it does take the game out on a date and buy it breakfast in the morning. Nearly everything, from the character you play as to the world map that expands as you spread your reign of evil, is lifted from the Bullfrog classic. There are some new ideas, but more often than not, these make the game worse. These include lifeless hack-and-slash combat, an unrewarding leveling system, and tedious resource gathering. An injection of humor and some good voice acting take some of the pain away, but it's not enough to save Dungeons from being a dated trip down memory lane.
Most of the humor comes at the beginning of the game, where a silly plot introduces you to a dungeon master known as Deimos. He's having relationship troubles with his demonic girlfriend Calypso, and sadly, not even a bunch of flowers and a back rub is enough to win her back. Instead, she decides to steal Deimos' throne and cast him into exile at the top of the dungeon. It's your job to guide him back to power by rebuilding his empire and exacting revenge on his ex-girlfriend. The basic gameplay is ripped wholesale from Dungeon Keeper. You have to build a thriving dungeon in real time, filling it with monsters, such as mutant frogs, flying snakes, and rabid rats; traps, such as floor spikes, swinging stones, and arrows; and decorative items, like skulls and statues. Your main objective is to lure enemies called heroes into your dungeon. They run around your dungeon calling out for "more experience!" and threatening to destroy your dungeon heart, which can end the game. Rather than ask you to immediately kill them, Dungeons puts a new spin on things by asking you to look after them before you indulge your sadistic side.
Heroes carry a certain amount of soul energy with them, which increases as they find interesting things to look at, fight with, or learn from as they explore your dungeon. You need soul energy to build decorative items and other structures called gimmicks, which in turn increases your prestige level, unlocking new missions that allow you to progress. To keep that soul energy flowing, you need to cater to each hero's need. If heroes crave gold, build a treasure chest; if they crave knowledge, build a library; or if they're masochists, create more monsters. Catering to the needs of mere mortals becomes incredibly tedious because the heroes never seem to be satisfied, often complaining about a lack of amenities such as libraries or armories, even if you've built several. When you've had enough, you can choose to kill the ungrateful adventurers and steal their gold or send them to a prison or torture chamber to extract more soul energy.
Unfortunately, killing heroes isn't as simple as sending your monsters after them, because you don't have direct control over any monsters you've built. They just sit in their pentagram homes until an enemy happens to walk past. They often ignore passing heroes, and are barely strong enough to defeat them on their own. To deal significant damage to heroes, you must increase your monsters' experience levels by using soul energy. This requires a large amount of energy--more than you can gather from just a few heroes. This is fine in levels in which monsters are used more as bait than as dungeon defenders, but can be frustrating in levels in which you must fend off large groups of enemies. By the time you've gathered enough soul energy to level up your monsters, hero levels have increased several times, making it incredibly difficult to keep up with them.
Instead of using monsters, it's often much easier to do your own dirty work. Deimos lives down in the dungeon alongside his minions, and you can move him around the map to kill enemies with his staff weapon or with spells, such as fireballs, poison arrows, and ice bombs. Should he get killed, he's sent back to the dungeon heart, which loses some of its life energy. Deimos isn't particularly strong, though you can level up his stats and gain new spells. You don't actually earn experience when fighting or building, though, making your efforts ultimately unrewarding. Rather, you're just gifted with a set of points at the start of each new level.
If that's not enough to dampen your spirits, then the missions you're given certainly will. Most revolve around carrying out menial tasks that disturb the frightened inhabitants of villages above your dungeon. Whether you're digging up half the map to destroy a set of shelves in a cellar (really) or completing mind-numbing fetch quests where you have to dig for hidden chests of gold, most of the time, you're waiting for your goblin minions to hollow out sections of the map. Even worse is an escort mission, where you have to protect six blobs of slime while they're attacked by a pack of heroes. Not only is it frustrating that you're hopelessly outnumbered, but should a blob of slime be destroyed--or should you actually manage to save one--you also have to wait for 10 minutes before another appears, making the whole thing unbelievably drawn out. Higher ranked dungeon lords, such as the Zombie King and Minos, give you additional tasks, but these only serve to annoy, rather than make use of that downtime. Some of their tasks include sending them your hard-earned gold and soul energy, destroying monsters, or digging out yet more sections of the dungeon, all of which are timed. If you fail to do so in the disproportionately small amount of time you're given, they dispatch a wave of extremely powerful heroes called champions, who often overwhelm and destroy your dungeon heart.
These same tasks are repeated throughout the 20 levels of the campaign, albeit with different creatures or characters. There's some respite during boss sections and missions where you have to capture enemy dungeons, but even then, there's not much more to do than hack-and-slash your way through. Aside from gathering soul energy, resource management is limited as well, with a plentiful supply of gold coming from felled heroes. In addition to the campaign mode, you can set up custom games, most of which eschew the endless digging missions so you can concentrate on building your perfect dungeon, which makes them a little more enjoyable. There's no multiplayer, though, which is a missed opportunity, particularly as the dungeon-capture missions show it's feasible.
At least the visuals are well designed, and though they lack detail close up, they capture the feel of a dark and dingy dungeon, with decaying skulls, coffins, and creepy-looking monsters lurking along claustrophobic corridors. The voice acting is good, too, being suitably hammy and never taking itself too seriously. In particular, the voice of your companion Mr. Sidekick is spot-on, with a gruff nasal quality that exudes pure evil. This isn't enough to make Dungeons fun though. Despite borrowing so much from Dungeon Keeper, Dungeons hasn't managed to capture what made Bullfrog's game so much fun to play, and its own additions make you feel like less of an all-powerful dungeon master and more of a zoo keeper for humans. Unless you're desperate for prettier graphics, you'll have much more fun seeking out an old copy of Dungeon Keeper.