How on earth could Dungeon Lords not be a bad game? A huge action/adventure game done on the cheap by an independent studio? I wouldn't have to be an especially cynical person to start playing the game with very low expectations. Which made it all the more surprising when I discovered just what a good game Dungeon Lords actually is.
Dungeon Lords is the newest in a long line of games that attempt to bring all of the fun of playing Dungeons and Dragons with a group of friends to a single person sitting alone in front of their computer. It succeeds at this goal better than most. A combat-intensive, real-time action RPG, Dungeon Lords plays a lot like an ultra-lite and more accessible version of Morrowind. It actually skews a little more towards traditional RPG design than any game I've seen in a while. I found it somehow charming that the layout of all the game's dungeons could be easily rendered on graph paper.
Perhaps the game's strongest feature is its innovative and simple character-advancement system. Players still slaughter monsters to feed on their sweet, sweet experience, but instead of toiling towards some arbitrary level advance, every point earned can be spent immediately to increase the character's skill and attribute levels. These points can be spread out as evenly as the player likes, allowing them to create as balanced or specialized a character as they want—restricted only by the fact that they can obtain a maximum of five difference "class specializations," such as Fighter, BattleMage, or Ninja Lord. Add to this fact that each of these specializations must be obtained through a series of guild-specific quests, and there's plenty in the game to encourage a second trip through once it's been completed.
Since the vast majority of the game is spent fighting, it's good that the game's fighting engine is as entertaining as it is. While the game may have superficial action elements, such as being able to dodge arrows and spells, for the most part the combat is entirely statistics based, with the player clicking furiously and invisible calculations determining whether the sword connects or not. This isn't nearly as tedious as it sounds, though, as all of the game's characters have enough attack and pain animations to make the combat look entertaining, no matter how basic the controls may be.
Also worth mention are the quality of monsters that need to be fought. They range from the classics like skeletons and giant spiders to a surprisingly wide variety of giant demons. Yes, a number of the monsters are just color switches (or sometimes name switches) of one another, but those are spread out widely enough that the repetition doesn't get too overwhelming, even if the volume of enemies often does. Throughout the course of the game I found myself frequently surprised by new enemy models, right up until the very end, in an encounter with a startlingly well-designed creature.
Unfortunately, the game just isn't big enough for players to really feel like they're inhabiting a fantasy world in the way the developers hoped. Oh, there's enough of a land mass that it can get tedious to have to walk just about everywhere in the game, but there's not a whole lot to do. There are only three cities, and two of them are just a series of huts dropped in a field with a total of three or four people to talk to. The worst part of it is that there aren't any persons, quests, or monsters that aren't related to the game's plot in one way or another. There's no real incentive to explore in the game, because there isn't anything to find that won't come up in one of the core missions. Other than a few chests scattered randomly around the landscape, there isn't ever a reason to stray off of the clear, marked paths that lead from one important area to the next.
There are also quite a few play balance issues and large-scale bugs that haven't been fixed (and the game is already two patches post-release). The magic, while powerful, just isn't powerful enough that a player can get all the way through the game without figuring out how to swing a sword and hide behind a shield. A few skills that are mentioned in both the manual and the game haven't actually been implemented yet, and a few have been over-implemented. Here's an example: Every character must learn the thief skills identify and disarm, because every single chest in the game has a deadly trap attached to it. Playing the little mini-game that disarms the chest starts out fun, but quickly becomes tedious because of a very poor design decision: If the character's disarm skill far outstrips the chest's level of difficulty, instead of just opening automatically, the disarming process takes place in slow-motion. This makes it nearly impossible to screw up, but unfortunately, it also makes a 10-second process stretch out to nearly a minute per chest, which, given that every single one of the game's roughly eight million chests need to be disarmed. By comparison, characters can also learn to pick locks, but since there are a grand total of three locked doors in the entire game, I wouldn't advise wasting the points.
There are a few even more egregious bugs and lockup issues, bad enough that I found myself saving every few minutes just in case a magically locked door decided not to open once I'd killed the ogre, even though it had done so the last time I was there. Most of the game's problems stem from the fact that the game just isn't finished yet, which makes its rushed release something of a mystery. It's not like these are problems that could be missed in play-testing. When I go to check my inventory screen, all the characters stop moving, but the game's clock ticks right along. Fireballs slam into their now-immobile targets, spell effects gradually wear off, downed people climb to their feet. It's one of the biggest problems I've ever seen make it into a game. Well, that and the designers' rather odd choice to put so many jumping puzzles in a game with such basic controls.
Despite all these problems, I really found myself enjoying my time playing Dungeon Lords. Maybe those six months of my childhood spent playing Gateway to Apshai indoctrinated me to the point where I'll overlook any niggling gameplay problems if it means there's a new dungeon to crawl through. Even with my biases set aside, though, Dungeon Lords provides solid, if glitchy, Action-RPG experience. Besides, it's hard to dislike any game that features walking trees who attack by tearing branches out of their own heads and hurling them like spears.