Wow: Dungeon Lords

I have to apologize and take back what I said last time about Dungeon Lords being underrated.  I didn't really mean it, simply because I hadn't given the game enough play time.  I usually have a good sense of sniffing out a good game and a bad game just by taking a quick look at it.  My senses failed me this time and my early judgement of the game just didn't quite pan out like I thought it would.  The game just isn't good...

...it's one of the best games I've ever played.

I haven't been able to put it down since I last posted.  That's three weeks of playing pretty much every night.  If you think that's not that long...you have to remember who's saying it.  I don't play games like this anymore.  With my schedule, putting a week into a game is an epic marathon for me these days.  I've become so jaded with RPGs lately, I sincerely thought that I had known of and played every good one that had ever been.

I'm floored by how good this game is.  I have never seen a game get so grossly mischaracterized as Dungeon Lords has.  The negative reputation it has received is practically criminal.  This is an awesome, awesome game.  It really deserves to sit side-by-side with Gothic, Diablo and Neverwinter Nights.  You often see games half as good as this get mountains of praise.  But I don't want to say this without backing it up.  I want to be more specific as to why this game is so good, many of these features are unique and have never really been done before or since.

Let me preface this by really taking back something I prematurely said in my last post.  You need to play the Collector's Edition, not MMXII.  The changes they did in the MMXII edition are very substantial and almost 100% detrimental to the game.  Even saying that, it's a testament to the quality of this game that I would heap as much praise as I did on it even in it's latest, stripped-down state in my last post.  I purchased the CE about a week ago after I had become curious about some saying that it was a different.

The problem with the MMXII version boils down to the fact that they really stripped out many of the old-school systems that made this thing shine.  Specifically, the character advancement system mimics many other run-of-the-mill systems you'll find out there which goes something like: "get level->earn new skills/stats/spells->rinse/repeat".  Not a bad system (but a joke compared to what the CE does, which I'll get to in a minute), but what they failed to do was to re-balance the rest of the world to work with this sort of system. For example, in MMXII, you gain spells automatically every time you level and each class is assigned a specific spell school.  However, they forgot to actually remove all of the purchasable and findable spells in the game which no longer do anything.  This practically renders half of the vendors and treasures in the game useless.  The nerfed magic system means that one of the greatest things about Dungeon Lords is completely gone.

I could go on and on with others besides magic, but suffice it to say that many of the incredible and thought-out systems have been broken or just removed in MMXII.  Repair, identification, death penalties, stat & skill allocation, and equip penalties are all shadows of what they were in the previous versions of the game.  The game's graphical update is also pointless.  The system requirements went way up for what was essentially a more "colorful" texture palette.  No models or textures were actually changed - they were literally just made more bright.  Widscreen has been implemented, but with some simple hex editing, the CE can be played in widescreen very easily (I'll explain that below).  The ONLY thing that the MMXII does better is to add a lot of new random color-coded loot - but the fact that nothing was rebalanced for these uber items, the game becomes an extreme cake-walk.  And that's another huge issue with MMXII: difficulty.  The game is extremely simple, and I was playing on hard the entire time.

I don't want to spend this entire post talking about how MMXII messed it up.  It's still a good game all on its own, even with all the poor changes and simplifications.  But if you want the real experience as it was intended, go with the Collector's Edition.  It's already patched to 1.5 and ready to play out of the box.  The box, by the way is awesome, it comes in a metal tin with a very nice internal layout.  Again, you can get this on Ebay for less than $10.  Even as I write that, what a terrible shame that this game has been almost universally derided for nothing.


Okay, now on to the meat and potatoes of this game. Hands down, the #1 most awesome thing about this game is the character development system.  I've said for a very, very long time that Morrowind had the best character advancement system in any cRPG.  Dungeon Lords is the first game that seriously rivals it, if not surpasses it.  That statement doesn't come lightly because my #1 game of all time is getting owned by a supposed and near-universally labeled, "terrible" game.  I can't deny it though, the game let's you play practically any sort of combat character you can imagine.  Now Morrowind also allows you to build a pretty effective passive character too, with lots of points in speechcraft, alchemy and such, but what DL does right it does really well.  Let me explain.

Dungeon Lords gives you a decent selection of 7 races and 4 classes (more like archetypes) to begin with, plus another 30+ "prestige" class upgrade to later on in the game.  Not only that, but you can choose to have a total of 5 simultaneous classes to take on throughout the game if you want (though not required).  Now, right there alone, we're talking about thousands of combinations for character builds.  That would be pretty impressive if that's all it was.  But the game doesn't stop there.  The game has class specific skills that can only be acquired by joining a guild or advancing to certain prestige class (eg. Fighters don't get dual wielding right off), and then there are other skills which your class may take, but aren't automatically leveled in at all when the game starts.  In other words, if you aren't yet trained in the skill, you can't actually use that skill yet.

Now, here's where it gets really interesting.  Your "level" in the CE version is mostly arbitrary, being level 23 doesn't really mean a whole lot.  This is because the game uses advancement points that are awarded not only when you reach a new level, but for every time you gain experience doing something.  Attribute stats and skill levels are upgraded with a cost modifier that gets more expensive the stronger your particular att/skill becomes.  You increase these by spending these advancement points from a single universal advancement point pot.  What makes this so great is that you get to decide where exactly you want to put your advancement points when you obtain them.  If you wanted, you could play the entire game putting no points in your attributes (str,int,dex,agi,vit,hon), and putting everything into your skills...or vice-versa.

Obviously, your skills and attributes help determine how you do in combat.  But it's how they work together that make this highly unique.  The game allows you to equip any piece of weapon, armor or use any kind of spell you find, BUT you will incur penalties if you're not skilled or strong enough to use it properly.  Morrowind did this, but the penalty only applied to the specific thing you were trying to use.  So if you only had skill in light armor and you donned plate mail, your armor class would be greatly reduced.  That's a decent way to represent a penalty, but Dungeon Lords does it even better.  Wearing a set of armor you are not skilled enough to use means that you still gain the full benefit of the damage reduction it gives, but your reflexes become severely hampered - you miss more often, your swing is slower, and your general mobility is reduced.

In practice this has an incredible effect on game-play.  It means that depending upon the situation, incurring penalties for higher damage reduction may be desired.  For example, fighting monsters in close quarters where mobility is impossible anyway, the need for heavier armor to reduce damage temporarily outweighs your ability to move around.  Terrain can play a huge role in your choice in using the right tool for the job.  Crossing a narrow bridge where you're being pelted with arrows suddenly means that your heavy plate-mail and big shield is worth putting on even if you wouldn't be able to hit the broad side of a barn.  At the moment, offense is unneeded for a strong defense.

DL also has a neat way of limiting the jack-of-all trades danger that affects other games.  Not only do races give higher ceilings in certain areas (dwarves, for example can have a higher strength limit than elves), but classes give you learning bonuses.  The cost to increase your magic skills will be far cheaper as a magic class than as a fighting class.  Sure, as there is no level cap in this game, you could eventually make a do-it-all character, but it's not practical and it's certainly not as easy as simply practicing throwing fireballs to become a shake-and-bake wizard ala Oblivion and Skryim.

This brings me to a pet-peeve of mine found in nearly every RPG ever made since the beginning of time (yes, this even bleeds into tabletop RPGs).  Why oh why is there never any benefit to going without armor or a shield?  Some of the greatest fantasy heroes of novel and cinema went without these things.  Remember Robin Hood?  Conan?  Inigo Montoya :)?   Dungeon Lords lets you build a character like this.  No armor or shield skill is ever required in the game and since they skill points are all shared from a single advancement pool, it means that there is a trade-off to make when putting points into any skill.  100 points can be divided into thirds between a weapon, armor and shield, or you can put all 100 into a weapon.  You can make Conan in this game and make him effective, and not just for show.

Onto magic.

The magic system in this game is really cool.  There are four schools: Arcane, Celestial, Rune, and Nether.  You can cast spells either as one time consumable scrolls like other games, or you can scribe them into your spellbook.  You can buy spells from shops or find them as treasure.  Now, first off, anyone can cast any spell, just like anyone can wear any weapon or armor, but the spell duration, strength, and range will be impacted by your skill in that particular spell school.  Each school works drastically different.  An arcane spell that is in your spell book can be cast an unlimited amount of times, but after each casting, there is a cooldown period.  The more times you scribe a spell to your book, the more times you can cast it.  Increasing your scribe skill will allow that cooldown time to go faster.  Celestial magic requires you to obtain crystals, and I still don't even know how Rune magic works.

Nether magic is the most unique of the four.  Instead of finding spells to scribe, you find "katals", or items dropped from creatures in the game that you can mix together to find combinations to create spells.  Once the spell is cast, you have to re-mix more katals to get the spell again.  Think a witches brew.  It may sound complicated, but it's really not.  It's a mini-game that is actually quite fun on its own.  Some ingredients are very rare and difficult to obtain, but they will also provide the most potent magic.  MMXII, unfortunately, completely changed this cool system and put in a mana bar that really dumbed it down.

What really makes this game come together is the way it forces you to perfect resource management.  People will often write off Dungeon Lords by labeling it an "action RPG" like Diablo.  It's so much more than the mindless click-fest that such a label implies.  This game's combat, believe it or not, has more in common with Baldur's Gate than Diablo.  Battles can be paused by going into your inventory screen.  In this game, this is part of the strategy to win.  Running into a group of enemies and clicking a way is a quick way to die.  And death in DL is meaningful because it is harsh.  You permanently lose a random attribute each time.  Dying too much means your character becomes seriously handicapped and in the middle of a difficult dungeon, that may mean leaving to rebuild some broken stats.  This is fantastic - I wish more games would think this way.

Anyway, pausing the game will help you plan a strategy using the limited potions, spells and equipment that you have.  I have found myself pausing often during many battles to plan out my tactics.  "What weapon and armor combo is best in this situation?"   "Should I use the potion of power now or save it for later?"  "I should probably save magic missile for the mages and use sleep on the goblins."  These are common and important questions I ask myself all the time playing the game.  I love old-school D&D because it is all about resource management.  You find yourself looking for every advantage, every small shred of leverage, to give you the edge in your next encounter.  DL mimics this well.  I rarely get through a dungeon without having expended almost every scroll and potion buff that I have at my disposal.

I want to take a moment to talk about the weapon and armor in the game as well.  Everything you pick up comes unidentified.  There's nothing that you automatically know about something you find, even mundane stuff.  That longsword your carrying could be magical for all you know.  I realize this may annoy some people, but I love it.  It's old school.  Identification can be done at a shop for a price, or you can do it yourself with the identify skill.  When trying to identify something, you're given a success percentage.  More mundane items will be easier to identify, the best stuff will be difficult to discover.  Repair works nearly the same way as items will wear down after a while and break.

The weapons and armor, as I explained earlier, have both a strength and a skill requirement.  You may be skilled in using a battle axe, but not strong enough to swing it well.  Not only that, but they have ranges as well.  This is a really neat feature, making these item requirements feel multidimensional.  They aren't just stat boosts in your hands as many other games portray them.  They feel like they have weight.  A strong magical dagger may be quick and powerful when it strikes, but it when trying to deal with multiple enemies, it's difficult to hit them without getting very close.  Swinging a big battle axe from side to side can hit multiple targets in one sweep.  I'm reminded of Gimli at Helm's Deep beheading a row of Orcs in one swing.  You can do that in DL with a weapon with enough reach.  On the other hand, a wide swinging weapon is a detriment in a confined hallway where there is little room to work with.  The only other game that does that, that I know of, is Dark Souls.

Shields in DL are implemented better than any other cRPG I've played.  They play a huge role in the game, and taking a barrage of arrows without one is a quick way to get killed.  You can certainly play without a shield, but you'd better have a lot of points put into speed, range, and/or stealth to make up for it.  I've heard many write off bows and ranged combat as useless.  I'm here to tell you, it's not.  It works well in this game.  It's nothing to write home about, but it's certainly not a dump stat.  It has its place and my current character uses a bow quite often.

I want to take a moment to talk about the story.  I've seen it panned so many times for being just another generic, cliche, fantasy clone.  I really don't understand this.  The story revolves around several intertwined plots: The good king and bad king hate each other.  Each has a powerful wizard ally who also hate each other, so the evil king gets his evil wizard to kill the good wizard and threatens to invade the good kingdom if he is not allowed to marry the good king's daughter.  The good king's daughter is in love with the head of the guard, and when the good king finds out, he imprisons her boyfriend.  When his daughter hears this, she runs away and is nowhere to be found.  The evil king begins his invasion of the good kingdom believing the good king has hidden his daughter on purpose.  So, you're tasked with not only helping to defend the kingdom, but finding out what happened to the daughter, her boyfriend, the wizards, and collecting the lost relics that are hidden around the world. 

The story is surprisingly good.  Even more than that, the story is executed very well and the pacing feels perfect.  I've yet to feel a dull moment in the game.  The voiced dialogue is very good, which is surprising because many games, even the AAA quality RPGs, seem to always screw this up.  The conversations are not too long and not too short, you never feel like you're getting bored reading pages of text, yet you feel like you're getting a good feel for what is actually going on.  Unlike most action RPGs where the story is just a footnote to the gameplay, I always feel like I'm part of something bigger that's going on in Dungeon Lords.

To top it off, the game is multi-player which, as I already explained in my last post, has never really been done before in a 3rd person, story-based, action RPG before.  It can't be said enough just how fun this game's combat is.  It reminds me of a faster-paced Dark Souls.  Everything is snappy and responsive.  Your actions feel like they matter, you never feel cheated by the game.  When playing with just a couple other people, the fun factor goes up even further, and the monsters come in larger and larger packs.  It is possible to see monsters come in groups of 30 or more.  Those big battles are really fun when you and a friend are sitting back-to-back, HP and resources are running low, and you just barely hang on for the last kill.  You don't get that kind of emotion from a game of Baldur's Gate even in multiplayer.  And, yet, DL can be almost just as tactical and strategic as BG.  There's plenty of pausing, regrouping, and changing tactics mid battle to take advantage of terrain and locations.  It's got the best of both worlds going in DL - it's a frantic, fast-paced killing spree, but it's also methodical and strategic.

I am honestly having a really difficult time finding a single thing to criticize the game over.  Every part of it is at least good, great, or awesome.  I would right now honestly put this game at the top of my honorable mention list.  It's hands-down better than Gothic 2.  It's tough to say that, but that game doesn't really have anything on this when I begin to think about it.  However, I'm not quite ready for it to supplant any of my top 5.

Now if you're going to play the CE, you will probably want to modify the game to work on a widescreen monitor.  Follow these instructions (Thanks PitBrat at GameBanshee).

D.W Bradley deserves kudos for this amazing RPG, I believe it's by far, the best game he's ever made.  It's old-school meets new-school and, to this day, there has been nothing released quite like it.

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