Welcome to Dungeons and Disneyland. My name is Bea. N. Evil and I’ll be your guide today. We hope you’ll enjoy your time here, but first, we need to set down some rules for your enjoyment and safety. Please always travel in groups, keep all heads and limbs attached at all times and please refrain from feeding the ogres. Human flesh plays havoc with their intestinal system. Thank you for your patience and welcome to your doom. MWAHAHAHAHA!
Paradox have a long history of associating themselves with complex and challenging games, but Dungeonland (from Critical Studios) may be their first foray into releasing games that are so heavily biased against the player that victory seems impossible. With the easiest difficulty being designated as “Hard”, it’s plain to see that here, the Dungeon Maestro is king.
Dungeonland is best viewed in two separate forms. There’s the experience that three of the four players will have, playing as the valiant heroes and there’s the infinitely more fun experience that the Dungeon Maestro will have. The heroes will sit down to Dungeonland and play a basic action game (I almost went for action-RPG, but there’s absolutely zero role-playing to be had here), where they fight through crowds of adorably cartoonish monsters and hard-as-nails bosses to complete a dungeon and receive vast rewards. The Dungeon Maestro will sit to the game and instead dictate where monsters and turrets and traps will appear, augmenting these with magic spells, the ability to possess and play as any monster and the much vaunted evil laugh button, which does exactly what it says on the tin.
Already you might be wondering if one of those experiences is preferable to the other. You’d be right. Playing as the heroes seems like something to do to pass them time until you get to play as the omnipotent Dungeon Maestro. The heroes can choose between the trio of traditional fantasy archetypes of mage (healer, crowd-control), rogue (DPS) and knight (tank) and each of these splits into a further two classes that can be purchased from the store using gold won from matches. The heroes have a perk system (perks also purchased from the store) and two special abilities for each character, one limited by being tied to available potions. The heroes can even customise their look, with new armour and weapons from the store changing the aesthetics, although the top-down camera and crowded battles obscure most the details of each character. In the main though, the heroes will die. Over and over.
It’ll appeal to a certain sub-sect of gamers, but to play as a hero in Dungeonland is to throw yourself pointlessly at a wall of spears and explosive traps and laser-eyed phoenixes. Dungeonland forces you to work in a team more than any other game I can think of right now; if you fail to co-ordinate your attacks and healing and fail to help fallen friends, you’re going to lose. If you do manage to operate as a well-oiled machine, but the Dungeon Maestro is halfway competent, you’re still going to lose. The odds are stacked against a heroic victory to the point where it begins to feel more frustrating than challenging. Compounding this problem is the life system, which seems an unnecessary throwback to older games; the heroic team has by default, though some perks can add a life, three lives. If these three lives should run out, even if you’ve still got two characters alive and fully healed, the game ends and the Dungeon Maestro wins. It’s a system that will punish those new to the game and if you aren’t entering the game with a group of understanding friends, you will be harangued and kicked from games.
There is a single-player campaign to act as a tutorial, but with the companion AI that’s currently in the game, this is nothing more than a cursory attempt to explain the controls. The AI for computer-controlled heroes is dire and you simply will not survive past the first boss of each single-player campaign; they fire off abilities at terrible times, refuse to resurrect the human players and lack the ability to even pretend that they’re part of a team. Conversely, the Dungeon Maestro campaign against the bots is stultifyingly easy as a result and seems to exist as a quick and easy way to grind money for the in-game store and fails to teach the rudiments of that mode either.
That’s not to say the game is awful. When it works, rarely, it really does click. The theme park aesthetic allows for a lighter tone than your usual dungeon-crawler and the satisfaction from running past a food stand in order to spear a slightly hungover looking phoenix is sublimely ridiculous. If you can play as part of a team that works well, the interplay of supporting your team and accumulating vast amounts of gold provides the sort of primal joy of acquisition usually associated with your Torchlights and Diablos. Of course, playing as the Dungeon Maestro and forcing those you previously fought beside to engage your malevolent machinations gives the sort of sick pleasure that schadenfreude barely describes. It never gets old to time your maniacal laugh to play just as a player dies to your hordes of cutesy dragons. When the stars align, Dungeonland is a fun and engaging multiplayer game.
But otherwise, it’s a release that feels half-baked. Paradox also have a long history of publishing games well before the public should be involved and indeed, Dungeonland looks and plays like a game still in beta; the store even has sections locked off with a “Coming Soon” message plastered across the screen. If you can guarantee that you’ll have three patient friends to play with and that nobody will hog the Dungeon Maestro role, then there’s a degree of fun to be had here, but honestly, with games like The Mighty Quest For Epic Loot coming out soon (and for free), you might be best holding off until the game has undergone the expected months of patching ahead.