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SummaryDungeons & Classes
The GoodDavid Bradley probably needs no introduction to RPG fans. Having designed the most interesting Wizardry installments, he moved on to spearhead an ambitious project: a large, modern, action-oriented RPG that would retain the depth and the complexity of his earlier oeuvre.
Unfortunately, Dungeon Lords was released in an embarrassing state, plagued by bugs and lacking essential features and content (mini-map, empty rooms, etc.). This severely undermined the game's reputation; lambasted by professional reviewers, it was quickly forgotten. After five or so patches (which were released fairly quickly), the game became much more playable. In fact, the fully patched Collector's Edition almost feels like a different game.
Dungeon Lords is a large, relatively open action RPG; by far not as massive or rich in content as Morrowind, it is somewhat closer in concept to the Gothic series. The core of the experience here is character building. Monitoring the growth of your character, choosing a playing style and a path of advancement is one of those basic aspects of RPG design that some games belonging to this genre manage to capture better than others. Dungeon Lords captures it really well. It is a game designed for those who enjoy taking an initially weak, powerless character through a challenging journey, actively turning it into an unstoppable, ferocious warrior. In that sense, Dungeon Lords is noticeably more "hardcore" than Gothic.
The game offers a variety of interesting races to choose from, each having different affinities and thus more or less suitable for the diverse paths through its complex, expertly crafted skill and class system. The skills are what you'd expect from a combat-oriented RPG - weapon and armor proficiencies, lockpicking, different magic disciplines, etc. Following different paths through the classes, however, unlocks more unique skills and allows the player to invest and focus on a very specific build, from the good old plate armor-clad tank to a priest-like character or the quintessential wizard - and much more.
In fact, the class system is probably the best thing in the game - it's so fulfilling to slowly ascend in the ranks of your chosen guild and then making that tough decision concerning your second-tier class. You see, the initial class you choose is but a starting point on a long road through many branches, resulting in a whopping thirty or so (!) classes and a lot of combinations thereof. If you fancy becoming a shadow ninja while also dabbling in nether magic and dual-wielding medium weapons - you can eventually attain that, with a lot of patience and experience points. Or, rather, focus on one path and reach the third tier, gaining some very nice learning bonuses and special abilities. Are you familiar with those RPGs that make you want to replay them right after having finishing, with a different class combination? Dungeon Lords is one of them.
On a simpler level, Dungeon Lords is an entertaining fast-paced action RPG with plenty of combat (you can set the encounter level to "low" and still meet many foes in the game) and addictive experience grinding and hunts for better equipment. There is an enormous amount of weapons, armor, and magic spells of quite different disciplines (which require gathering different items) in the game; it's great at satisfying our collector's instinct. Trapped treasure chests (their amount has greatly increased in the patched versions) offer a lot of goodies - and, with their semi-random content, you can reload and hope for better results if you are looking for something particular. The game is great at conveying the simple joys of outfitting your character, making him specialized in something, impatiently searching for that vital piece to gain advantage in combat and seeing how formerly impervious foes collapse after just a few strikes after a dexterity increase, a well-developed skill tree, or just the right weapon for the right build.
Dungeon Lords is not the most exploration-heavy RPG I've seen, but it's also not the most linear one. There are some annoying main quest triggers that open up certain areas in a rather contrived fashion and dungeons locked because you do not possess the right item or password. I'd certainly prefer the entire world to be open right away. However, after completing the introductory sewers and the initial (and probably the most lackluster) cemetery dungeon in Fargrove, the city's two gates open, allowing you to explore much of the overworld - which at least offers the possibility of challenging yourself, trying to take on powerful enemies early on, getting a lot of experience, visiting a few areas "out of sequence", braving a high-level trap chest, etc.
While the overworld in the game is not very interesting, things change when you gain access to the dungeons. They are very well-designed, atmospheric, and memorable. They are long, yet not monotonous, rich in exploration and offering just the right amount of challenge. Optional battles, secret rooms, treasure, traps, hazards, puzzles - you name it, it's there. The Shadow Ruins, in particular, stand out as one of the most fascinating puzzle-based dungeons I've ever encountered in a role-playing game, with an eerie, magical feel and completely unique, imaginative challenges.
The BadWhat is it with those games that get released too soon? It's almost Ultima IX all over again! While it's true that the most glaring flaws were fixed with subsequent patches, the game still feels unpolished and underdeveloped in much the same way Ultima IX was: you can't quite shake off the feeling that something is missing, that the game could (and should) have been so much more.
I'm not even talking about such rough edges as enemy-dropped gold and weapons hanging in the air, the player character getting irrevocably stuck when climbing on a ladder during a crucial quest (luckily, there was a workaround for that one, but it's still very annoying), supposedly different enemies using identical models, familiar weapons needing re-identification, and so on. There seems to be a general negligence here, as if certain design aspects were simply ignored.
For example, the overworld is large and beautiful, but empty and monotonous: it's basically the same forest or craggy path surrounded by irritating impassable mountains all the way through. Sure, there are enemies and the occasional treasure; but a strong feeling of copy-paste is present, and it's never good. One begins to feel detached from the game world; it's not busy or interactive enough, as there is too little detail and not enough objects. I can't quite understand how they could be satisfied with all this after having designed excellent dungeons. It's almost the opposite of what happened in Gothic.
Modern RPGs tend to focus on memorable characters and interesting quests. While I don't care much for characters (it's a game, not a book), I do care for quests; and Dungeon Lords is sadly lacking. The guild quests provide a good, steady incentive; but they are devoid of any imagination or variety - it's all about traveling somewhere and killing someone. There are no NPCs to talk to besides very few generic guards or demigoths, none of which say anything interesting. In Fargrove, the game's first and by far largest town (there are only three towns in the game), there is one (!) real side-quest given to you by a tavern NPC. This feeble attempt at providing additional quest content (from which the game could have greatly benefited) only draws more attention to the general poor design here.
There are hardly any significant plot-related choices to make during gameplay. At one point there is an option to try and kill a character instead of paying him to receive a key item. I wish the game offered more possibilities like that, let the player be more active in shaping game progression beyond class considerations and the occasional choice of which dungeon to tackle first.
The Bottom LineYou'd think that it would be hard to enjoy this awkwardly crafted, somewhat half-baked, old-fashioned game; and yet it may just warm the heart of a role-playing aficionado. It's charmingly conservative and addictively rewarding, and was clearly made with a lot of love for RPGs. It's not the ultimate role-playing game it tried to be, but it's still a worthy and important contribution to the genre.
Just make sure you're playing the fully patched version or the Collector's Edition. And don't bother with the weak, disappointing newer version.