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.

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