Well fantastic. Because as we learned on June 26th 1997, It’s Good to Be Bad. Dungeon Keeper is a videogame originally released for the MS-DOS and Windows 95 and it’s still one of the tightest, most strategically satisfying experiences to date. There is something so charming, so viscerally gripping about the game that I can pick it up twenty-three years later and have as much fun as I did when I was 6 (though I can actually beat the game now).
Birthed from the mind of Peter Molyneux (also famed for Black & White, Populous and the Fable series), the game was developed by Bullfrog, a now-defunct company which made classics such as Theme Park and Theme Hospital, the game of concern here could well have been called ‘Theme Dungeon’, being another real-time strategy and simulation game. I could go on about the development issues that clashed badly with the company’s acquisition by Electronic Arts, but I’d rather just talk to you about the game.
And what a game it is.
Dungeon Keeper is a game where, like many simulation games, you must design and build something. In some games it is a theme park or a restaurant, in others it might just be a nice house. In Dungeon Keeper, you must build a terrifying, efficient, mystical dungeon capable of attracting monstrous creatures from the depths of your imagination in order to crush the goodly heroes of the surface, as well as take on rival keepers who will be able to build up their own dungeons against you.
The general gameplay idea is thus: you begin with a dungeon heart, which you must protect. If this is destroyed by your enemies, it’s game over. To prevent this you have Imps, weak and cowardly creatures who are the cutest and most productive creatures you’ll encounter. They are your miners, your scouts and your babies. By tagging swathes of earth with your cursor, your Imps will break down walls, mine gold and claim land for you, stretching your dungeon’s borders further outwards. Using this technique, you must clear the way for various rooms, which will help you run your dungeon and attract monsters.
And the creatures you play with make the game fantastically charming. From gigantic Flies who like to explore underground lakes to the horny Mistresses who use their free time engaging in masochism, every minion you entice feels unique. It’s truly impressive how much life Bullfrog breathed into the game, your dungeon feels alive with activity. It’s not like other real-time strategy games where units only move when you ask them – it’s perfectly possible to win some levels only building rooms and ordering Imps around, no need to micromanage your creatures at all.
Designing your dungeon intelligently is a key aspect of the game. You must build Lairs to let creatures rest, Hatcheries to keep your creatures feed (this game is incredibly vegan-unfriendly) and other rooms to attract the creatures in the first place. Libraries will attract the studious and grumpy Warlocks, who will research spells for you and make for great ranged fighters. The smoldering and cacophonous Workshop will attract Trolls, who are green, carry hammers and will craft doors and traps with which you can defend your dungeon without lifting a finger. More complex rooms will unlock as you progress as you head through the levels: Torture Chambers with which you can extract information from your captives, Temples where you can sacrifice your own creatures in the hopes of collecting a reward, and horrific Scavenger Rooms which will whisper sweet promises to your foes’ creatures from afar, hoping to convert them to your side. Having a fully-decked out dungeon is no small order.
The sheer variety of rooms makes designing a dungeon fun. You will eventually get your head around some basic design philosophies which will make life easier for you and your creatures. Warlocks shoot fireballs at Imps passing through your Libraries? Build them at dead ends. Using the corpulent, greedy Bile Demons to man your Workshop? Build it next to a big Hatchery. The player will pick these habits up naturally through the many levels of the game, and it makes the experience feel like a gradual build-up of knowledge and strategy – and you will need it.
The game throws many new tricks at you throughout the game to keep you on your toes. After many levels where you only face smatterings of Heroes who go down fairly quickly with little to no strategy other than ‘train up your creatures before dropping them all onto the enemy pack all at once’, you will start facing enemy keepers, who have all the same resources as you: they can mine for gold, they can trains their own creatures, they can place traps and doors to impede you. What was once a quick zerg-rush has turned into a slog through enemy territory.
Dungeon Keeper likes to throw in a curve-ball every now and then too. Some levels will have you up against two keepers at once. Some will have you stranded with very little gold. One memorable level has you begin in another keeper’s old dungeon, being attacked from every angle. Each level is fun in its own way: even the few breather levels where the difficulty drops for a while. The difficulty ramps up in a fair manner and it never feels too brutal, which is more than can be said for modern contemporaries such as War for the Overworld.
Speaking of War for the Overworld, Dungeon Keeper began a nice little tradition of the ‘Faceless Snarky Mentor’ character who will advise you from time to time. Instead of flashing up a little message when you try to buy something too expensive, you will hear the beautiful, grand voice of Richard Ridings (also known as Daddy Pig from Peppa Pig, weirdly enough) telling you “You Do Not Have Enough Gold”. He will also tell you when Your Creatures Are Under Attack and when Your Treasure Room Is Too Small. You will hear these voice lines over and over and over until you start hearing them in your sleep. But so iconic was he that Ridings reprised his role as the FSM for Dungeon Keeper II (more on that another time) and the spiritual successor to the series, the aforementioned War for the Overworld (definitely more on that another time). He’s a real highlight of the game and the genre overall, with other similar entries in the genre such as Dungeons III using a very similar disembodies mentor who likes to crack jokes as much as he likes to aid you in your devilish quests.
And devilish, they are. One thing you may have slightly picked up throughout this whole piece is that Dungeon Keeper is a game where you Play The Baddies. Its tagline is It’s Good to be Bad, and your main foes throughout the game are heroes that delve into your dungeon to stop you. Something that illustrates this amazingly is the level-select screen, a lush kingdom that you seem to be viewing from a tower. As you play through the levels, areas of the verdant, peaceful kingdom turn red and dark, fiery and bloody. You see in front of you the damage that you are doing to the countryside, the towns, the morale of the people: all to a sonorous stylings of the Mentor telling you exactly how terribly nice the next location you will plunder will be. You’ll tackle levels with names like Eversmile and Snuggledell and leave them with new, better, more evil names like Brana Hauk and Steepscythe. And the ludicrous evil is just so satisfying.
Overall, I recommend the game even today. The strategy holds up, the atmosphere holds up, the humour holds up. It Holds Up. I recommend buying it cheaply through gog.com and installing the fan-made KeeperFX, a necessity for making the game run well on modern machines.
Who should definitely get it: strategy gamesr, simulation gamers, people who like challenging experiences, dark fantasy fans, anyone who enjoys the visceral satisfaction of playing the bad guy with no repercussions, anyone who wants to hear Richard Riding’s sultry voice, lovers of scantily clad women with whips, horny devils, dragon fans.
Other games like this are: War for the Overworld, the Dungeons series, Evil Genius, Dwarf Fortress.
Other games with similar humour are: The Fable series, the Overlord series, Void Bastards.
You will not like this game if: you only want pretty games.