Dungeon Lords



Genre:   Action-RPG

Developer:    Heuristic Park, Inc.

Publisher:    DreamCatcher Interactive

Released:  2005

PC Requirements:   Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, Pentium III 1.0 Ghz, 128MB RAM, 32MB DirectX 9.0 video card, 12X CDROM, DirectX 9.0 compatible sound card, Keyboard, Mouse



by Drizzt


The genre itself...and whence it was spawned

Computer Role-Playing Games (RPGs) have been around for a long time, but many think it was the release of the epic Baldur's Gate saga in 1998 that "resurrected" the genre. The game brought fresh life to a genre which had been stagnant far too long, and opened a new world of possibilities for role-playing games.

Baldur's Gate had everything an RPG fan could wish...an epic story, huge areas, an intriguing main quest, many subquests, and the world of Dungeons & Dragons in which to immerse oneself. Still, most players would probably have liked to look Sarevok in the eyes, or to experience Baldur's Gate as seen from the viewpoint of the Player Character.

So, two or so years after Baldur's Gate, Bethesda released the third part of the Elder Scrolls series, Morrowind. Although earlier games had also been in a first-person view, the world of Morrowind excelled at encouraging exploration, while featuring stunning scenery, cities that bustled with life, and the realistic cycle of weather and time. Although first-person RPGs had been around before, Morrowind represented a definite breakthrough in making the worlds seem alive.

What Morrowind lacked, however, and what most games that attempted to follow in its wake also lacked, was a better-than-mediocre combat and skill system. While it was a good idea to get better at things as you used them, this left open huge holes to be exploited for power leveling. And if you think of it, how realistic is it that you can become stronger and stronger by simply summoning skeletons, let them beat you into a pulp, heal, rest and then summon more skeletons while watching your skills increase?

Since Morrowind, there have been quite a few games in a similar style -- a few have managed to sort these problems out, while others have not.

Dungeon Lords is a new third-person RPG from DreamCatcher Games, promising an entertaining epic saga and exciting battles. Does it break free from the difficulties of the genre?

Well, what's all this then?

Dungeon Lords is, as you probably suspect, a game of dungeon crawling and role-playing, in which you battle monsters, cast magic and explore the world.

You choose a class to play, in which you then gain bonuses for certain skills, although you can still improve skills outside your class. This makes for a very free character development (but it is unfortunately limited in other ways). As the game progresses, you join one of three guilds, and can also join one of a few houses for additional quests and subclasses.

By completing the quests of the guilds, you get to choose from new subclasses.  And by joining the other non-guild houses, you can get even more subclasses, giving you new abilities and skills, depending on what factions you choose to join (you can add a total of four subclasses).

When completing some quests, you also gain special "heraldries", which basically just give you a boost in the skills of your choosing.

When you have learned this and created a character, you are ready to embark upon your journey.

The typical epic saga…

The first thing that struck me is that if you took Arnold Schwarzenegger from the early 80's (his "Conan" era), and made a story out of one of his movies, Dungeon Lords would outshine it in every way, as far as the word "cheesy" goes. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.  Be prepared for a story containing the following; an evil archmage, a fair princess in need of rescue, a tale of romance and betrayal, a decaying kingdom and an unknown hero rising to battle the evil tide.

Seem familiar?  Dungeon Lords is very straightforward about what it is.  It is a fantasy hack n' slash, with emphasis on the fantasy, which made me enjoy the story even more as I progressed.

It all starts like this...

In the first moments of character creation, the indications that the game was rushed to meet a publication deadline become obvious. There are arrows and controls to change the Player Character’s appearance -- such as the beard, hair and eyes -- but they do nothing. In a later patch, these are removed altogether. Why?  Nobody specifies.

After being slightly annoyed by this, you are teleported to a dark road outside the town of Fargrove, where a Messenger is awaiting you.

You are greeted by...ambient night sounds -- although to get these to work, you have to change your sound card hardware acceleration, something I did not know you still had to do for any game whatsoever -- but no music. Yes, there is no music in the game, even though there is a bar for setting the volume of it in the Options page.

It is evident that the developers planned on implementing music, but did not have time to put it there. There is music at the main menu, in the introduction, and in the credits movie, but apart from that, nothing. There is even a folder named "Music" with only the main theme in it.

How someone can neglect to include music in a game such as this is beyond me. Overall, fantasy games and role-playing games are built on atmosphere, and good music is essential to heighten it. Some may argue that music spoils the feeling of "being there"; but I disagree. In any case, these critics can always turn the music off. The rest of us cannot tune up something that is not there.

So after your ears get used to the ringing sound of nothing, you approach the Messenger to learn from him that you are summoned to the nearby town of Fargrove by the Celestial Order.  Without knowing who your Player Character is, how he knows the Celestial Order, or why he even cares about rushing off to help, you start in the direction of Fargrove. Of course, nothing is ever easy. The city is locked down tight, and you have to enter through the sewers.

This is where the game begins... as always in RPGs, there have to be sewers. These could have been shorter in my opinion, as they do nothing to add to the game itself, and are a mere annoyance.  After crawling (already dungeon crawling within fifteen minutes of the start) through dank sewers, you reach the town of Fargrove, and the game can begin for real.

The World

The town of Fargrove seems big at first, but this is mostly due to the lack of any real in-game map. An automap has been included in the 1.3 patch, but that does not excuse the lack of one to begin with. Running around blindly, trusting your memory to find your way back through a city is not many people’s idea of fun.

There is a world map that is included in the Dungeon Lords game box, but it is very hard to get your bearings from it, as the landscape looks almost the same everywhere. When someone says "Forbidden Lands" or "Battlefields of the Dead", you hardly expect the environments to contain lush forests and chirping crickets.

Which brings up the next issue -- there is not enough variation in the environment. Where Morrowind stretched from forests to mountain areas, swamps and deserts, Dungeon Lords stretches as far as the swamps. The only thing you find off the main roads is the occasional treasure chest, containing a bit of gold, scrolls and maybe a healing potion or two. Nothing gives you an incentive to go explore the wilderness, as there is next to nothing there.

The game contains a Quest Log which tells you what you are to do, and (if you are lucky) the general area in which to do it.  The direction this provides is inadequately detailed.  You are pretty much told simply to “go west” or “go north”.  I cannot imagine anyone enjoying running around without any guidance whatsoever, looking for a man wandering aimlessly somewhere in the wilderness.

There is a lot of running in this game. There are so-called “moonbridges” to give quick access to certain areas, but there are only six or so in the entire game. At least twice that number would have been needed to cover enough of the land to remove the frustrating times when you are just pressing "w" as you run endlessly forward on a road (and are reading a book or something at the same time).

Still, it is suitable that there are big areas in this game, as so as to reflect the "epicness" of the story.  And at certain places, the valleys and rivers really add to the traveling experience.

At first, you wonder if the towns are ghost towns. There are town guards and only one or two civilians on the streets. Not even the Inn (which is a classical gathering place in every RPG for listening to rumours and for talking to NPCs) is crowded. It is empty except for two employees.

The main fault with the implementation of Non-Player Characters (NPCs) in Dungeon Lords is that they only exist if they are somehow connected to the main quest or the subquest. And as there are no subquests at all to speak of (unless you count the guild houses as subquests), there are hence hardly any NPCs. The result is a world devoid of life.

Evil beings far outnumber the NPCs.  (If Lord Barrowgrim commands these many minions, one wonders why he doesn’t just attack at once). Random encounters with enemies in Dungeon Lords can happen anywhere, anytime. In the city, in the Inn, in the forest, at the time you are talking to someone or trading. Try playing the game at "most" random encounters and you will not be able to walk twenty feet between the encounters. They also stack up, so if you have a long conversation with someone, chances are you will be overrun afterwards.

What the enemies have in numbers, however, they lack in Strength. If you face archers and melee fighters, just get in front of the melee fighters and the archers behind will turn them into pincushions. Outnumbered? Just stand close to a corner, and the mob will stick there, unable to get around, Then you can pick them off one by one with a ranged weapon.

The NPC’s Artificial Intelligence is also not something to celebrate. Some of them have a tendency to wander, making you run all over searching for them.  You’ll find them walking in the air or stuck in a wall, unable to turn around.


And then we move on to the must crucial part of any hack n' slash RPG, the combat itself. In Dungeon Lords, it is similar to Gothic 2 and Morrowind, except that the player had better control in those games. In Dungeon Lords, the combat involves frenetic hacking and slashing -- pure luck if you hit your intended target. Morrowind was rarely messy enough for you to lose focus of your target, and if you did, you still had the pause function. Gothic 2 gave you the wonderful ability to lock on to a target with a simple mouse click, then continue attacking it as you stepped forward.

In Dungeon Lords, there is no way of keeping track of a particular enemy, and only on rare occasions are you attacked by fewer than five opponents. As these do not stand still, and swap places and run around, there is no reasonable way to keep track of a special enemy, forcing you to hack through the entire flock instead of concentrating on the strongest one.

There is also the "special" attack mode, which you are granted at a certain level. Whether this actually does any particular damage is hard to tell.  The “special” attack consists of performing an attack, then doing an entirely unnecessary turnabout before being in position for another thrust -- at which time the enemy probably has moved out of the way. And all the while you cannot move the character, rendering him/her defenceless against other foes.

This so-called system of combat makes some parts of the game a lot harder than they should have been, and you are often left tearing your hair in frustration as you die for the fiftieth time after mercilessly hammering the keyboard attempting to score a good hit.

By defeating foes, you gain experience points, which in the main are the same as learning points, used for improving your character. You can increase any skill want, provided you have enough learning points. What is fatal to this system, though, is that you cannot specialize your character.

For instance, I had been aiming to create a huge tank with all points spent on heavy armour and heavy weaponry. However, to increase heavy armour, you must first increase light and medium armour.  And to increase heavy weapons, you must first increase… light and medium armour.  As a result of this, many of the subclasses feel almost useless.  You can’t specialize your character in any way other than as a fighter, rogue or mage. One wonders why they even bothered with the rogue class, as his special abilities -- such as backstabbing and stealing -- were never included in the game (despite their mention in the manual). The "sneak" option is also virtually useless.

That the Player Character controls sometimes feel about as smooth as a pregnant stranded whale does not help matters. He/she easily gets stuck in corners, can stand in the air and appears to have some kind of superglue on all parts of his/her body when fighting in cramped areas.

Some additional design issues

You will inevitably die a number of times, and each time you will have to wait a long time to return to the main menu, then wait some more while the game loads. The reason? There is no "load game" from the in-game menu. That you have to exit to the main menu only to reload a saved game is nothing short of strange, and a total “miss” on the developer's part. There is not even a quick save or quick load, which would partly have eliminated the problem.

There are also a few strange design bugs, such as doors closing automatically, injuring or killing you if you are in the way.

On many occasions, the journal is not updated when finishing quests, and there is no consideration for completing certain quests in the sequence of your own choosing. For example, by first completing the quest of the Argalia for the Eastern Houses, I forfeited every chance of being able to add Eastern House classes to my characters. When I returned to the first Eastern House in Fargrove and completed their quest, they gave me no such class, and all my chances of becoming a Samurai went down the drain.

The design of the levels are pretty varied.  To start with, they are all linear, and there are only one or two ways you can go.  By the end they grow bigger, with more routes to each goal. However, some places, such as the Naga Temple, are infuriating to play without some sort of map, and at times I had to resort to a walkthrough. A few of the puzzles are also confusing and/or without sufficient clues, such as one where you are supposed to pull four levers in a certain order, and you must guess the combination out of thin air.

On a more positive note, there is not much running around looking for keys and pulling levers in this game. And on the few rare occasions where keys are required, all the locks usually respond to one key, reducing the amount of keyfinding and puzzling.  Always a good thing.

Technical issues then?

The graphics of Dungeon Siege vary in quality. Some outdoor areas, such as grassy fields and parts of the forest, can be quite beautiful. Still, there are no animals, no sign of anything except you and the “random encounters”. In the cities, the rooms are sparsely decorated, and feel as if they have already been stripped bare by ravaging troops. The best example of this would be Skuldoon, where almost all the houses are completely empty.

The animations feel rather tacky and, unlike games such as Half-Life 2 and Vampire the Masquerade - Bloodlines, there are not even facial animations.

The game’s sound includes everyday RPG sounds, such as swords cutting into things, grunts, and arrows embedding themselves. The chattering of enemies is often the same thing repeated over and over again, tending to get on your nerves.

All in all, Dungeon Lords leaves much to be desired, due to a lack of engaging details and an overwhelming empty feeling. It is a very stiff-looking game. There are also a number of graphical glitches, such as the classic clipping bugs (bodies falling through walls, etc.).

So, is there any good news?

Despite all these issues, I must say I had some fun with this game. When Dungeon Lords is not busy bugging up or getting you lost in the wilderness, it is rather enjoyable to immerse yourself in the story, battling dark creatures in old dungeons from a time long gone.  It is exciting to finally beat a particularly difficult boss, or to gain enough experience points to improve your character and be able to use a new item well.

Also, users with older computers should have no trouble with it. It runs very smoothly, and can be played without the CD in the drive if you do a full installation.

Dungeon Lords is an example of how rushing a promising game to meet a deadline can maul the game into something that bears little resemblance to the original idea. The game is amusing at times, but frequently disappointing.



design copyright © 2005 GameBoomers Group

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