Dungeon Keeper 2: Day 2

A Dungeon Keeper 2 screenshot

Day 2 has been about overcoming the clunk and reminding myself how little old games held your hand. Dungeon Keeper 2 is no exception.

I’ve now been introduced to the possession mechanic – cast a spell on one of your minions and the view changes from an isometric view of your dungeon to a first person one whereby you control your little creature. From there you can move them round the realm, attack enemies with a range of abilities and even recruit other creatures to tag along on your wild adventure.

On first casting this I was, for a split second, unable to move – hammering WASD with little effect. It was then I remember 90s games and their penchant for assigning movement to the arrow keys, something that can’t ever have been good design. Left hand on the arrow keys, right hand on the mouse, and then the game had the audacity to ask me to press the number 7 key to group up with others. Well it didn’t quite ask – I had to go into the key bindings menu to be told that was the assigned key, no in-game indicator of the control scheme is ever given.

I don’t know why I remember this, but I recall a conversation with Dave 20+ years ago when I told him that I was going to manually reconfigure movement to the arrow keys in Half-Life (which had correctly bound them to WASD as default) as it “is more natural”. I can only imagine how little time that remained in place before I reverted back and regained full access to the rest of my keyboard, but being reminded that games used to default to this control scheme brought a brief and wry smile to my face.

Even now, I have nothing but fondness for Bulfrog games – they are some of my all-time favourites. But replaying Dungeon Keeper 2 so far has been like realising your parents are fallible, finally seeing their strange decisions in a way that you wouldn’t before.

A warlock, hanging with the chicks
A warlock, hanging with the chicks

The biggest of these must be their decision to build in an incredibly clunky 3D mode, with beyond terrible first-person combat, into an otherwise well-presented and controlled game. It’s not enjoyable, there is no weight to your attacks or feedback that they are even landing (and being a product of its time is no excuse, given Half-Life came out just the year before). Worse still, using possession, and hence this 3D mode, seem to be borderline essential in order to overpower sentry turrets that will otherwise obliterate your imps, and, in one level, get past a series of traps that skeletons (who fear nothing) can attack, but other creatures won’t.

Even little choices, like their item costings – just 1,000 gold for a sentry turret, for example. In every level I’ve played so far I’ve had more money than I know what to do with, which allows for the procurement of rock-solid defensive setups such as this, in any part of the map I think might eventually be fought over.

Lots of sentry turrets in Dungeon Keeper 2
And this really isn’t the worst I’ve done (note the 51k gold to spend)

But in amongst these gripes is a game that holds up remarkably well. Base building is easy and feels great (particularly as I’ve started learning minimum room dimensions), and mining gold will never not feel satisfying (“there’s a bit!”).

It’s also forcing me to think for myself for a change. There’s no markers provided on to where to go or where to mine – you’ll have to keep exploring until you find it. You have to solve problems with your lair yourself – such as why aren’t the imps claiming that land just across the water (build a bridge you idiot). The control scheme is never given to you (it’s taken me 2 hours to realise I can manipulate the zoom and rotation on the camera, something that would have been over-explained in tutorial 101 in modern games). But it’s made me nostalgic for the time when games would come with a manual that you’d be asked to study before you played (often on the train/bus back from buying the thing in the first place).

It also now feels well-paced, with a gentle but progressive difficulty curve; I don’t think I was ever at genuine risk of failing, but there were moments where I was certainly concerned about the oncoming enemy. New spells and rooms are being introduced on every level, along with new creatures to join the team. And there’s clearly room for me to grow as a dungeon keeper – I’ve not yet cracked the top 2 on the leaderboard on any given level.

Onwards, Keeper.

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