There are many games involving playing a hero (or group of heroes) and invading a dungeon, but a scant few games turn things around and instead have you control the dungeon, fighting off invading heroes. The reason this genre has so few contenders comes from the first game to address the topic in a serious title: Dungeon Keeper. Dungeon Keeper took the gaming world by storm when it first appeared on store shelves, but weak gameplay made its success short-lived; disastrous sequels killed the franchise and, to a large extent, the genre. Just as the enormous success of World of Warcraft spawns many, many, many (mostly weak) imitators in the MMO genre, the failure of Dungeon Keeper preemptively killed off many games that would have attempted to capitalize on its success.
Still, games of this type still get made from time to time, and Dungeons is the latest to try to put some life into the genre, adding many more RPG elements than usual, albeit poorly. The campaign game immediately puts you in a darkly light-hearted story: you are a Dungeon Master, part of a group of such masters that control dungeons throughout the world, and you’ve been betrayed by your succubus girlfriend, knocking you down to the lowest ranking in the group.
The first few missions serve as tutorial, as you learn the basics of running a dungeon. While you can put up pentagrams that spawn monsters, all monsters do is fight, which doesn’t help you much. Your primary noncombatant servants are goblins, which do the digging and replenishing of the gold piles in the dungeon, filling them up as adventurers loot and plunder their way through your domain.
A dungeon is not simply a collection of tunnels and rooms, and a good Dungeon Master stocks his rooms with either equipment or bookcases, and even decorates his dungeons with “prestige” items like glowing skulls and sarcophagi. There is a vast number of prestige items, and the more in the dungeon, the more powerful the Dungeon Master becomes. I suppose decorating a dungeon nicely is something of a side goal for the game; the pause button (and only the pause button) will stop the game and let you position your dungeon doodads as aesthetically as you please. Alternatively, you can hollow out an area and set up a furniture warehouse of sorts; the effect is the same.
You deliberately want adventurers in your dungeon. As they satisfy their needs to fight, loot, and explore rooms, they get happy. If they get completely satisfied, they’ll leave the dungeon, but you’re better off if your Dungeon Master shows up to kill/defeat them personally (at least if he has enough prestige to defeat the heroes), putting them in jail cells in your dungeon. As they sit in the cell and rot, they give off soul energy depending on how happy they were when captured, and it is this energy that is used (in addition to gold) as currency, allowing you to build still more things for your dungeon. If adventurer needs aren’t met, they’ll get angry, and proceed down to the heart of your dungeon, a central room that, well, contains a giant heart. If they destroy it, a time-consuming endeavor, you lose the game. If your Dungeon Master is killed in combat, he’ll reappear at the heart with no harm done beyond the heart taking some extra damage.
Those are the basic ideas of dungeon management, but the story part of the game usually makes things more complicated. Each map comes with a variety of missions, only the top few of which are necessary for victory. You’ll find yourself digging convoluted tunnels to reach special rooms, or sending your Dungeon Master out of the dungeon repeatedly in order to accomplish obscure tasks (luckily, there’s a Return to Heart spell that lets you come back in times of emergency).
"…your Dungeon Master will almost certainly become a melee killing machine, and this is where the game loses steam."
As you complete tasks in the campaign (or spend soul energy in the scenario maps), your character gains skill and attribute points. Attributes are what you expect: strength helps with melee fighting, dexterity with accuracy and defense, constitution with health, and intelligence with spells. There are several skill trees, but most of them are rather weak; as there’s no way to un-select a skill (hard to believe they still make games like this…), your best bet is to hit that pause button again and consider carefully before choosing skills. While there are a few spell skills, your Dungeon Master will almost certainly become a melee killing machine, and this is where the game loses steam.
Monsters killing heroes is actually a bad thing, as you lose their soul energy. This means that to play well, you’ll need to kill and capture every hero personally. This isn’t a bad thing unless combat is weak, and, unfortunately, combat is very weak. All you do is click on the hero you want to kill, and the Master walks on over and commences to doing so. You can use a few spells, but spell-casting in combat is a slow process, and you get pounded on while doing it. If the heroes are weaker than you, it’s dull systematic slaughter. If they’re stronger, it’s a frustrating process of attack/die/respawn, until you finally get lucky. There just isn’t any room for strategy in the combat.
Tacked onto the combat issue is the problem that other than your character, you don’t really develop. After you finish each mission, building a wonderful dungeon with a variety of monsters and decorated in a suitably creepy way, you then start over on a new mission, building everything up from scratch all over again. This serves to reinforce how limited the gameplay is, as you find yourself doing the same stuff repeatedly.
Maybe it’s possible this genre simply can’t overcome the problem of making gameplay as a master of a dungeon interesting, but it’s certain that Dungeons doesn’t even come close. The graphics are nice, a well-built dungeon is a sight to behold, and there’s a little bit of fun here, but ultimately you’ll master everything you need to know in short order and be done with this game soon afterward.