For all of its chummy quips and hordes of orcs battling My-Little-Pony-esque unicorns, Dungeons 2 comes off as slightly cynical. The first entry tried to revive Dungeon Keeper in 2011 (well ahead of EA's free-to-play debacle last year), and it valiantly attempted to make the franchise its own by giving you direct control of the Keeper and focusing the gameplay on luring heroes in and entertaining them before harvesting their souls. It didn't turn out too well, but developer Realmforge Studios has resolved to give us what it thinks we want. The core dungeon game is almost lifted straight from Dungeon Keeper, the narrator reflects on your actions in a bemused British accent, and dungeon maintenance is paired with an overworld real-time strategy element that closely resembles Warcraft III. Sales figures and reviews have proven that we like these things, yes, but too much gets lost in an ambitious attempt to mash them all together.
“You wanted Dungeon Keeper,” Realmforge seems to say, “so here you have it.” There's little to none of the original Dungeons' innovations here. Happily, this means that veterans of Peter Molyneux's 1997 game will find much that's familiar, whether it's the throne room and the hole from which you summon minions or the surrounding dungeon that's packed with gold veins and potential tunnels just waiting to be dug out. Should one of the "little snots" who do your bidding stop to break the fourth wall and wave at the camera, you can slap them around with the giant, disembodied hand you use to guide progress and set minions to new adventures and tasks. Dig out a square or rectangular space and slap down, say, a brewery to attract orcs to hack and slash for you. The production process is slow at times and the AI is responsible for making the little snots work, but this is Dungeon Keeper in all but name.
It's kept from being a straight clone by a new overworld RTS mode that sends you and your minions off to the world above to mess stuff up and occasionally nab MacGuffins from other, smaller dungeons. The world certainly looks good, and there's a pleasing visual element to the whole affair in that the landscape shifts from grassy and sunny to hellish and reddish as your hordes move through it. "Horde" is an appropriate word--the game itself calls them that, and it sends you off to fight the forces of the "Alliance," right down to the familiar blue-and-white fortifications from the Warcraft series.
Alas, Dungeons 2's RTS element is undercooked. Regardless of which stage of the campaign you're on, the basic strategy never deviates far from amassing a swarm of orcs, goblins, trolls, and snaky naga in the dungeon to attack the Alliance, and you accomplish this most effectively by selecting the whole pile and right-clicking on units to attack. There's some fun involved in watching the world change as you pillage and plunder (even if my GTX 780's performance dragged when too many enemies were on the screen), but the act of guiding your army is complicated by an awkward shift in control schemes from the underground. Deep in your dungeon, you can't control minions directly, which led to some frustration when I realized my little snots were just loitering around because I hadn't dug out a room large enough for my intended project. In the overworld, you can control your units, although singling out the few minions that have special powers involves trying to pinpoint them from the swarm with your mouse and selecting them independently.
The chief surprise I encountered while playing Dungeons 2 was that I enjoyed it despite these downsides. I suspect a lot of that has to do with the near-constant humorous narration, voiced by Kevan Brighting. It sounds like he's playing the exact same role that won him such acclaim in The Stanley Parable. Brighting's voice work never fails to hit the proper notes here, even if the script pours on the self-awareness too thick (at one point, your overworld minions encounter and slaughter a bear, and you're told that it was pointless because bear meat isn’t used for anything in the game). Sometimes, it feels as though Realmforge is trying too hard, although the narrator's always good when he's used as a tutorial of sorts to correct the Ultimate Evil--as the main character's called--when he goes in the wrong direction.
All of this might be much more fun when you take advantage of the LAN and online multiplayer content, which gives up to four players their own dungeons and lets them fight over a shared overworld. Unfortunately, this review arrives prior to the game's full release, so other players are as hard to find as original, sealed copies of Dungeon Keeper from 1997. Its directions are sometimes muddled, and the whole affair feels like it was oversimplified to cut down on micromanagement, but the beauty of Dungeons 2 is that it never fails to let us take some glee in sowing discord. It's not quite a keeper, but it's an improvement over the original.