Underrated Games: Dungeon Lords

Perhaps from reading earlier postings on this blog you've already noticed that I have an unusual taste for the obscure or underrated games and movies.  It's true.  I am a big fan of the underdogs and even the unwanted.  In fact, I find I take interest in games far more when I hear something negative about it than positive.  There's a little voice in the back of my mind that gnaws at me, that wants to figure out exactly why something gets a bad rap.

You see, I've come to realize that, especially in gaming, there is a lot bandwagon support and ridicule that goes around.  There are those certain games that seem to just get near-unanimous praise or hate no matter where you go.  The fact is that a lot of this is just the echo chamber.  Someone hears some faint kudos about something, they repeat it a little more loudly, others chime in, and pretty soon the thing hits "critical mass" and everyone is doing it.  Eventually you see just an average or mediocre game hitting top 10 lists all over the place.  The same thing goes for games of derision.

I'd like to start posting a little more about some of these games that, for whatever reason, have become grossly overrated or have gotten way more criticism than they deserve.  I think that many of these games deserve to get more fair looks from people, and the underrated especially should get a second chance.  Now don't get me wrong, most of these underrated games still have their faults and you won't see many of them hit my list of favorites any time soon, all I'm saying is that the level of vitriol and hate for many of them is completely unwarranted.

One such game is something I recently picked up for a few bucks last week called Dungeon Lords.
Now this is a game that I had heard about ever since it first showed up on the shelf nearly a decade ago.  Unfortunately, the game was released when overhead action-rpg clones were being mass-produced like crazy.  The first words that I read off the box's inner flap was, "...a great looking hack-and-slash experience", and I immediately pushed it out of my mind as yet another crappy Diablo-clone.

Reviews were even worse.  The game was being labeled a buggy disaster - one of the worst games ever made.  And it was certainly true that the game was, and still is (even after 2 more releases) full of bugs, glitches and is poorly optimized.  Originally, some were so bad that many could cause the game to become unfinishable because of a broken npc, script or a locked door somewhere.  I've always thought that it was extremely unfortunate in the gaming world for people to be so critical and pay so much attention to the bugs and ignore the actual content of a product.  Compare this to the restaurant industry, some of the best tasting food I've ever eaten often came from places that looked like it was used previously as 1945 Berlin bomb shelter.  Yet, these hole-in-the wall restaurants often seem to be highly sought after by food enthusiasts because they can often surprise you.  Yet so often in gaming, we seem to blow off everything as crap simply because it may look bad on the surface, never giving it a fair chance.  Even after Dungeon Lords was given more chances to redeem itself through new updates (and the latest release is very playable), the poor first-impression was written in stone and the game was quickly tossed into the metaphorical trash-bin of gaming history.

It's sad that I only really gave it a second chance by accident.  Recently, while reading through a let's play thread about Wizards & Warriors on RPG Codex, I came across someone mentioning that they had wished D.W. Bradley had done a sequel to the game rather than focus so much effort fixing Dungeon Lords.  I never knew this, and was completely shocked to hear that Bradley did Dungeon Lords.  Here's a guy who worked on Wizardy 5-7, lauded by many (again, maybe a bit overrated?) as some of the greatest RPGs ever made.  That guy did Dungeon Lords? My first thought was, "what the heck happened"?

Then another thought hit me, the I have a crush on underdog games, thought: "why do people hate this game so much?".  Here's a guy who has come up with some awesome, really awesome, games over the years.  The guy knows RPGs pretty well, so why would he lay such a rotten egg, much less spend sooooo many years trying to polish it?  See, that's the kind of thing that really gets my interest meter going through the roof.  Bradley saw something in this game that many others didn't and don't, and I absolutely had to know what that something was.  I picked up the MMXII version and have been really surprised so far at how good this game is.

I've spent the last few days playing this game with my two oldest sons - 10 and 7 years old and let me tell you, I've never had this much fun playing a cRPG before with my kids.  Never.  Is it still buggy?  Yes.  There's all kinds of little glitches, rough edges and the thing only runs with a good frame rate on my newest computer, but, holy cow it's a fun and, surprisingly, deep games.  To me, a game with a lot of bugs really means that the programmer was trying to do something original, something unusual that very few have tried before.  As far as originality goes, DL is far from a Diablo clone.

The best way to sum this game up is to consider it a an old-school grid-based RPG first, and an action-RPG second.  I know that sounds weird, but it's true.  I'm convinced Bradley approached this game with attention given to the classic systems first.  Unlike your common Diablo clones today that all follow the same conventions, Dungeon Lords breaks that mold in a lot of ways.  First of all, it has an incredibly deep character progression system.  The current version has, I think, 35 different classes of which your character actually gets to pick 5 throughout his quest.  Wizards & Warriors did something like that, but to a far lesser extent.  I love that kind of thinking because it gives you a chance to mold a character throughout the game, but unlike free-form class-less systems like Skyrim, you still have a character that feels unique and needed in your party.  You have enough choice that you can be who you want to be, but you don't fall into the does-it-all fireballcastingswordswinginghealerarcher class of many other modern games.

When I say that the game feels old-school, I guess it's hard to describe without playing it.  It's all the little things adding up like your character getting status ailments that actually impact movement or performance in real-time.  Or how there are monsters and enemies everywhere, even in the streets of the towns that will attack you.  Or how there is no quest markers, or paths to follow, requiring you to use your brain to solve puzzles.  The art style is non-stylized and fairly gritty.  I almost feel like I'm playing Wizards & Warriors, in a real-time action-rpg combat engine.

The combat system is highly unique in that it is a hybrid skill/twitch-based system that is very fast-paced and is run from behind the back.  And because it's multiplayer that supports up to 8 players, there's no other game in existence that I can think of that does it.  It feels like an MMORPG in a lot of ways, but quick and snappy and without any grind.  I've been saying for a very long time that someone needed to make a game like this.  We either have games like Kingdoms of Amalur or The Witcher that are good and fast, but single player, or we have games like Baldur's Gate that are too slow for multiplayer to work very well.  We need more games like Dungeon Lords.

Other bonuses include a very decent and mature story, a large open world, and a great randomized loot system.  The monsters in the game are done really well too, their animations and AI all feel unique and different.  Every battle feels fresh and, often, real group tactics are necessary to survive to get through a particular area.  I can't emphasize enough how great this game is in multiplayer - if you are going to play it, find someone to play with and your experience will be far better than going at it alone.

The game certainly has its flaws, but I now feel it has received a far worse stigma than it deserves.  It needs a second look from the old-school cRPG community.  It's a roughly cut gem that has been written off as trash for far too long.  Any game, especially one that I can enjoy myself, that can get my kids laughing (and fighting) over is a good game.

Edit: By the way, if you're interested in the game, I've heard good things about the Collector's Edition as well.  The class system worked a little different in that version (which some say is better), but lacks the graphics upgrade and bigger loot variety of the MMXII edition.  I personally prefer the latter myself.  Oh, and if you're a collector like me, the original game is the best one to put on your shelf as it includes the map and the nicer fold-out box art.  You can find any version on eBay for under ten bucks.


#4: The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall

Eight days ago, my ship sank and left me barely alive, stranded in a collapsed cave and looking for a way out.  I discovered a passageway in the back which led me through an ancient subterranean ruin, riddled with beasts and even the undead.

In the middle of a snow storm, I made my way a few miles south to the small town of Longbury.  Finally gaining my wits about me after a couple days rest at the Inn, I was implored by the local shopkeeper to help him.  Vampires were going to try to kill him at his home that very night and I was asked to fend them off so he could make his escape from the city tomorrow.

I spent the day shopping and found a couple nice outfits as well as a Katana which was far sharper than my shortsword.  I lay up that night at the shopkeeper's home, a small single room home with a loft bedroom.  At a quarter to 9 pm, the undead horrors arrived - two she-vampires with glowing eyes came crashing through the front door.  I swung with my Katana with all my might, but the creature's shrugged off my blows as if made of iron.  I panicked and backed away, but the vampires attacked without mercy.  I thought I was dead.  Then with a great crash, several guards came through the doorway and all went black.

I awoke in a jail cell, wondering why I was chained up.  I was being charged with Vagrancy because I was found in someone's home. I pleaded my cause to deaf ears, "I was only there to protect the home from the intruders!".  When I asked about the Vampires they told me they had seen nothing of the kind when they entered.  I stood trial and pled my case, but was convicted and jailed for 6 days.

I'm free at last, the snow is melting all around and spring is on its way.  I will join with the guild of mages and learn the ways of magic. I wont make the same mistake again, I will hunt the Vampires and find vengeance.

-Jemma June

 And that is a typical week of a character living in the game world of Daggerfall.  The author of the manual's introduction asks the question, "What's the story of Daggerfall?  The truth is simply this: we don't know yet."  Such an appropriate way to introduce a game with so many possibilities.

"And the best thing we game designers and programmers can do is give you what you want, and get out of your way".  How many game developers think this way today?  I dare someone to find any major modern game developer who speaks like this.  Ultimate freedom is a lost art in gaming these days, a mechanic that got pushed out for the eye candy of, what I call, interactive movies.

Today in games, you're put into a movie set with scripted lines, lots of cardboard props and actors and a perfectly orchestrated storyline.  Daggerfall couldn't be farther from this.  It's a giant sandbox where you're given exactly what you need, and almost nothing more, to write your own story for your character.  The game comes right out of the gate and offers you the tools to create a highly unique character.

Character creation is one of the best of any game I've ever played.  The breadth of options to customize your character are great.  My favorite part is building your character's personal history.  The interesting thing here, and one of the things people overlook, is that when you start the game, you can read your personal story based on how you built the character to begin with.  This is a really nice touch when most games never seem to recall character creation again.

Had this game come with better modding tools and we still had access to the source code, there's absolutely not doubt in my mind that this would, by far, be my #1 game of all time.  I've always been a fan of The Elder Scrolls games, but Daggerfall really stands apart as the title that truly gives you a taste of what this series should be about: enormous open worlds.

Enormous doesn't even cut it for Daggerfall, though this game IS, indeed, ginormous.  Unless I'm mistaken, the largest land-based video game world ever made, over 188,000 square miles, or twice the size of the island of Great Britain.  The world is filled with 15,000 locations to visit including cities of varying size, ruins, dungeons, graveyards and much more.  These aren't your average Skyrim-sized locations either, a single larger city in the game can literally have hundreds of buildings (all enterable) and thousands of NPCs to interact with.  To this day, there has never been a game made with the kind of dungeons you will find in Daggerfall.

And the quests.  Oh the awesome quests in this game!  It's amazing how much they were able to do with these when the game was made.  These are not just a bunch of random fedex missions, or kill ten boars grinds.  They are hugely complex and varied, from protecting someone, assassination missions, resolving business feuds, and entangling yourself in political webs.  They are deep as well, often featuring twists and turns that will catch you buy surprise.  Your quest often ends with different results as you make decisions on how to complete it.  Sure, you also get the "kill x" mission, but there is enough variety to make things feel fresh.

You can gain quests in a variety of ways:  through guilds, tavern rumors, political leaders, shopkeepers, maps and journals, and even through common citizens.  I can't think of any game that has as many quest hubs or the variety of Daggerfall.  The game is so huge, you could literally spend a hundred hours in just one town, doing missions for the locals and never even see the rest of it.

You'd think with a game this massive, and as randomly generated as it is, that there would be very little variety and detail.  And it's true that you shouldn't expect the kind of small scale detail as later Elder Scroll games (like being able to pick up silverware), but the game excels at the macro detail.  Each province is unique with different biomes, including deserts, forests, mountains, and jungles, and each has a unique history to uncover.  You can own or steal horses, carts, ships and even houses.  Dungeons, above all, are the prime example of that detail.

Each dungeon location is incredible.  Many have varying locations, such as castle forts, ruins, crypts, etc.  Once you enter the dungeon, be prepared for the most mind-bogglingly massive labyrinth you've ever experienced before.  One dungeon in Daggerfall is probably the equivalent of maybe half the dungeons in Skyrim in size, perhaps even more.  You can literally spend hours in one dungeon and still leave parts unexplored.  The dungeons are quite complex as well, they feature underwater sections, open-standing staircases, and lever-based elevators, secret doors, and traps.  Because of their randomly-based nature, you can find some truly amazing things going on.  Even some of the glitches make things more interesting.  Seeing a door, for example, on the side of a sheer cliff wall is exciting, you'll feel the constant urge to see what's around the next corner, or through the underwater passageway.

They can feel frustrating at times and getting lost does happen often.  But these days it's rather refreshing to play a game that doesn't hold your hand or lead you by the nose through a railroad path, disguised as a dungeon.

I love the Daggerfall campaign, it's my favorite campaign of the entire series.  This is a campaign for grown-ups.  It's deeply political and requires real thinking to get through.  Not only is it a mature storyline, but it is branching and has multiple endings.  Many of the quests can be completed in more than one way as your character can ally himself with different factions throughout the adventure.

The game does have its weaknesses, the biggest being the fact that the source code no longer exists.  If this was still available to modders, I can't imagine how much could be done with it today.  There is currently a makeover being worked on right now using the core engine with some promise called the DaggerXL project, but what this game really needs is a full remake by a serious studio.  Even barring that, this game is still amazing and stands tall even today.


#5: Neverwinter Nights

I wrestled for quite some time about putting this game in my top 5 and leaving some of the gems I've already mentioned off, but in the end I decided that this game stood out for one major reason.  I'll get to that in a minute, but first let me get the basics out of the way.

Neverwinter Nights is a game that came out with very high expectations.  It was riding on the coat-tails of the epic Baldur's Gate series and had a lot to prove.  3D gaming was just getting started and everyone was jumping on the bandwagon as quickly as they could, often to the detriment of game quality.  A lot of people were caught up in the hype and, to this day, many games from the era were quite overrated because of it.

To be perfectly forthright, I think NWN was overrated right off the bat - it got high marks mainly for the graphics, not for the initial campaign game-play (which was honestly not very good).  But in the end, that turned out to be alright because this game ultimately deserved what it got.

So what is Neverwinter Nights?  It's an RPG/DM client tool that came with a sample campaign out of the box to get you started.  If you were to judge this game solely on its initial campaign, you'd be completely missing the point.  To this day, there still hasn't been a computer toolset quite like NWN.  Sure, there have been plenty of RPGs since then that have tried to include DM tools (including its sequel), but none of have held a candle to both the accessibility and breadth of options that this game had.

It's still quite a mystery to my why there hasn't yet been another game made since that has done so well a job of mimicking the DM/player RPG experience on a computer.  There have been some attempts since then, but none have come close to doing it as well as NWN.

The ultimate beauty of NWN is the plethora of amazing custom modules that can be downloaded and used to play with.  Some of these modules literally rival many of the fantasy classic RPG story lines we've come to consider the best of the best and can last dozens of hours of playtime.  Not only that, but there are some wondrous multiplayer servers out there with custom scripting and massive, amazing worlds to explore.  It's hard to rate this game because, although the core campaign that ships with the vanilla game is less than spectacular, the amount of user-made content turns this into a diamond in the rough.  It's like a hundred great RPGs wrapped into one if you consider it all together.

I've spent a lot of time scouring the web in search of the best modules and would recommend the following as the cream of the crop:

  • A Dance With Rogues
  • Alazander Series
  • Auren Series
  • Careena Krakona
  • Cave of Songs
  • Citadel
  • Cormyean Nights
  • Darkness Over Daggorford
  • Diablo Lord of Terror
  • Eternum
  • Eye of the Beholder
  • Honor Among Thieves
  • Midwinter/Midsummer/Midnight Series
  • Prophet
  • Rose of Eternity
  • Runes of Blood
  • Sands of Fate
  • Shadowlord/Dreamcatcher/Demon Series
  • Tales of Artera
  • The Aielund Saga
  • Torslunda
  • Tortured Hearts I & II
  • Wanderer
My personal favorite is The Aielund Saga, a colossal adventure with an amazing story which will take your character from humble beginnings at level 1 to battling demons and demi-gods at level 30.  You can't go wrong with any of these though.  Many of these modules require the CEP add-on, a free community-made mega-pack of extra assets to really flesh out the worlds.  And don't forget to get the NWN shader mod and updated texture pack (NWNCQ) which does a great deal to bring the game's graphics up to modern standards.

With these mods (and many more), to this day Neverwinter Nights is one of the few "desert island" games that could literally take up a lifetime or two to fully experience.  While I was never that fond of the move to 3D and 3E, NWN's strengths more than make up for its shortcomings.  Because of that, I proudly welcome it to my list of top RPGs.


I apologize for being MIA for so long.  It wasn't that I had run out of ideas to post about, it's that I have gotten so caught up in trying to decide which games will go into my top five that I have been experiencing quite a lot of analysis paralysis.  To do these games justice, I've been having to replay them again as a refresher and have been writing their reviews concurrently which has added to the time.  Also, I've been playing some games lately that have really made me consider moving some things around on my lists.

I will be posting my #5 shortly, but may be adding a game or two to my honorable mentions as well in the coming weeks and months.  I just want to make certain that these games are something I truly appreciate and not just hyped up in my mind because they are new.