This both is and isn’t the Dungeon Keeper we know and love. Confusing, yes. But bear with us.
Fans of the 20 year-old original Bullfrog game lauded the wicked humour, perfectly pitched game mechanic and minions' interaction. Many regard the 1997 Dungeon Keeper as the forefather of tower defense games, injected with real-time strategy elements to test your micromanagement skills.
But this is not the respectful, loving remake everyone's been gagging for. EA Mobile has repackaged it for mobile. And by that we don't mean tweaked it to work better on a touchscreen (although that's obviously also happened), but overhauled it to make money. So where once there was perfect pace, now there is endless, terminal grind, eased only by plonking money down on microtransactions.
EA, what have you done to our beloved game?
1997 versus 2014
The original game's characters are mostly retained, with the wickedly loveable imps for you to “motivate” with a slap across the cheek. Your army consists of the usual monsters, from the basic trolls, to fireball-tossing warlocks, life-sucking vampires and more evil minions.
Structures perform the same functions as the original version. You start off with the dungeon heart, the very life-force that keeps your dank abode alive. In time, you’ll need to build warehouses and treasuries to hoard resources, hatcheries to expand the population limit, and a whole slew of structures to defend your dungeon.
That’s where the similarities end. Where previously keeping the varied denizens of your subterranean empire apart was vital (warlocks were really protective of their library), in this remake creatures play nice with each other, removing a layer of depth from your dungeon planning.
In fact, penalties have been watered down so much, it’s inconsequential. Slapping an imp doesn’t reduce its health or happiness, neither of which even exist here. Even if your dungeon is wiped out, structures are resurrected, and you suffer only the minor penalty of losing gold and stone from any raid. The game is never over.
Brains and digital brawn
Despite the lack of penalties, it still hurts when you lose precious resources. Preventing a dungeon wipe out requires strategic room placement. Each building, with the exception of the warehouse and treasury, has its own defenses to bring the pain. Traps, available after you’ve built the workshop, need to be placed near areas with weaker defenses to give your dungeon a fighting chance.
Structures require space, and that’s when you’ll need to whip your imps hard and make them dig through the rubble. Avoid haphazard digging, it leaves the dungeon weak against enemy attack. Without at least a layer of rubble to stop intruders, a balanced fight could turn into an all-out slaughter.
Defending your dungeon and raiding others require brawn. Exercise some brain power too, as a full-on suicidal charge or clustering your minions together will turn them into minced meat. Sending a small wave of skeletons to scout ahead and spring fire-based traps could save your pyrophobic trolls from an early fiery death. Knowing your minions strength, weakness and movement pattern will put the odds in your favour.
Building an army and a massive dungeon requires resources. Gathering them will be the first test of your patience.
Stone quarries and gold mines produce precious resources to upgrade structures, and you’ll want to do that quickly to unlock new buildings and hire more and stronger minions. Who wouldn’t want to hire a dragon whelp and rain righteous fire upon their enemies?
The initial upgrade cost is relatively lenient, asking for a pittance of a few hundred to a few thousand stone or gold. The virtual wallet takes a hit at higher upgrade levels, in the range of a five-figure sum in stone to upgrade the dungeon heart.
To have that much, you’ll need to upgrade your warehouse to hold more stones, which in turn requires more gold from a treasury that requires expansion.
Get the idea? The vicious cycle begins, testing your patience while you gather sufficient resources, upgrade the warehouses and finally, the dungeon heart.
Need more time (and imps)
Upgrading, constructing and even digging for space to place your new structures requires the immensely faithful imp to do the dirty work. Two imps are sufficient during the initial building phase - wall clearing takes a mere three seconds, new buildings (well, the basic and early ones) are completed between a minute to an hour, as do upgrades.
The second test of your patience kicks in almost immediately, when you’re eyeing the mines at the outer edge of your dungeon. While soft rocks take a mere three seconds to remove, imps are stuck on a gem vine for four hours.
Let us repeat: Four. Agonising. Hours.
Think that’s bad? Try a "hard" gem vine, which requires 24 hours to remove. Gathered enough resources for that long awaited treasury upgrade? You’ll have to wait for another eight hours while the upgrade is in progress. Don’t get us started on the unholy temple - two blasted days.
Every upgrade, construction and dig means an imp is locked in for that task. With only two imps to start with, you’re stuck when both are on a job for a few hours on end. Yes, you need more imps. No, you can’t use gold or stone to hire one.
You need gems. 800 of them to hire your third imp, to be precise.
Precious gems are rewarded at random while you’re clearing rocks, but not nearly in significant enough numbers. And of course that's where the microtransactions come in. We can hear the cash register ringing non-stop.
A war between patience and microtransaction
The game has its fun moments when you’ve built a sizeable army and dungeon, start a campaign of raids and watch the resources rolling in. Getting to that stage, however, is a time-consuming affair if you don’t believe in paying a single cent for a free game. Some might accept the long waiting times as it moderates their time spent with the game.
But the insanely long wait, exorbitant upgrade cost and limited imps to work with are designed in the most unsubtle of ways to milk gamers of their money. And you're going to need a lot of it to survive against the game’s ridiculous waiting times.
We're not saying that all freemium, microtransation-supported games are evil, but this one isn't far off.
EA Mobile has even gone so far as to make it difficult to give Dungeon Keeper a bad rating on Google Play. An in-game prompt on the Android version asks what rating you think the game is worth. Select 5 stars and you're taken to the Play store, but select 1-4 stars and you're asked to send feedback directly to EA. You know, so no one who's actually thinking of downloading the game sees anything negative about it. Cynical, and then some.
Dungeon Keeper is a true challenge for gamers, but not the sort they're used to. Forget beating bosses, completing levels and racking up high scores - here the challenge is avoiding the microtransaction trap.
If you manage to avoid the bait and spend countless hours, days, even weeks, to build and defend your dungeons, hire minions and raid for resources, raise your fist in the air and proudly proclaim yourself the victor.
You won't get any points or trophies, but you'll be a hero in our eyes.