Dungeon Keeper 2 was first released in 1999 to critical acclaim. Its developer, Bullfrog, were enjoying the height of their popularity having released the original Dungeon Keeper alongside Theme Hospital just 2 years before, and Populous: The Beginning a year after that. I look back on this time with warm memories and it’s easy to see why. The game is, undoubtedly, a classic of the genre and remains surprisingly playable nearly 25 years later, particularly if you’re willing to cut it some slack.
At its core, it’s a base builder. You play as a dungeon keeper (unsurprisingly), building up your army of creatures to defeat the forces of both good and evil (other, rival keepers). Along the way you do your best to keep your creatures happy whilst balancing two resources – gold (used to build rooms, traps and pay your creatures) and mana (used for casting spells or summoning Horny).
Certain rooms attract different creatures through your portal. A library attracts warlocks who research and upgrade spells, a workshop attracts trolls and the torture chamber attracts mistresses who strap themselves into the machines and have a little too good a time. It’s a pleasure to see these creatures in their elements and there’s a lot of joy to be had just experiencing the dungeon – something only improved by a narrator who delivers sarcastic quips throughout.
Most of the game is viewed from an isometric perspective as you build your dungeon, dig out rock and mine gold. But it’s not long before you gain the ability to possess a creature – dropping the view into 3D and allowing you to control them in first person. All of a sudden, the game becomes an FPS/3D beat-em-up, and here time hasn’t been kind. Whilst base building still feels great, possessing creatures feels pretty terrible – and was likely already dated back in 1999. The graphics are fuzzy and poorly textured (compared to something like Half-Life which launched the year before), the controls are janky (arrow keys, not WASD to move as standard!) and it’s hard to tell what impact your attacks are having, if any.
It’s a strange addition but one that was likely included to help compensate for, what now feels like, pretty basic AI. You can’t tell your creatures what to do directly at any point, like you would be able to do in a RTS. Instead, drop them down somewhere and they’ll make up their own minds. Most of the time this is fine – if they see an enemy they’ll attack, or a dropped imp will likely do the job closest to them. But if you want anything more complex than that, such as moving to attack a sentry turret that is round a corner, then you’ll have to take matters into your own hands. Later on a ‘call to arms’ spell gets added – forcing all of your fighting creatures to beeline towards it. But this in turn causes other problems, with enemy creatures able to just walk straight past the onrushing force and into your dungeon.
Elsewhere, the game includes a happiness mechanic. Creatures have needs (a lair, food, money) and failing to meet those causes unhappiness – eventually leading to them abandoning your lair if their discontent becomes too much. Fine in theory, but information about your creatures is non-existent – there are no need meters, tooltips or anything really to show what need is not being met. Occasionally the narrator will give clues but these are often puzzling rather than helpful (why does this creature not have a lair, there is plenty of space?!).
A lack of information is a common theme. The UI is kept very bare – stripped back for simplicity and to avoid visual clutter. But this goes too far in the wrong direction; minimum room specs and simple descriptions of what rooms, spells or traps do is completely missing. Trial and error, and learning the hard way, is the name of the game here. It’s an odd complaint to have to make given that Bullfrog spent numerous games getting it right, ultimately finding a good balance with Theme Park and Theme Hospital years before.
At its best, Dungeon Keeper 2 doubles as a strategy game, where deliberate choices must be made to succeed. Too many games nowadays allow success through continued play – keep accruing resources and eventually, the win will be yours. Two Point Hospital and, more recently, Evil Genius 2 both fall into this trap, requiring very little strategy to succeed. But of course, the devil has little time for that and the game can even be quite punishing when it wants to be. I found restarting the level the only way to get myself out of a mess of my own making, something I’ve not had to do with modern games in quite some while. Dungeon Keeper 2 certainly doesn’t hold your hand, but it does give clues, via the narrator or briefing screen, that you’d be wise to heed.
One memorable level, pictured above, asked me to circumvent a siege that a hostile third party had in place against my main enemy. Nowadays, the solution would be to take that force on first but Dungeon Keeper 2 is too smart for that. Its best-designed levels are ones where resources are kept tight, where hard choices need to be made and battles picked rather than rushed into. The solution I found here was to skip over the siegers, capture land beyond them and breach my enemy’s walls before teleporting my force directly into their base. This resulted in a frantic sprint to destroy the enemy dungeon heart to complete the level, with the third party taking advantage of my ingenuity and following up with sharp sticks behind me.
Whilst the end goal is always the same (murder a thing), the routes to achieving that vary nicely. Some levels you need to steal from the enemy, others require you to convert the dead into vampires, others have you manage a pre-built base and many ask you to build from scratch and build a force up on your own terms. This does a good job of mixing up the first portion of any given level, where you have to quickly work out how to win (again the restart level button is often your friend).
In some ways, the tightness of each level’s design is both a blessing and a curse. At times it feels like playing a MOBA where two perfectly balanced forces are constantly scrimmaging with each other, with neither making any progress. As in MOBAs, it’s then the small victories and defeats that slowly tip the balance towards one side. When Horny becomes summonable in the late game, this balance remains, and he becomes an essential part of winning rather than some sort of cheat code.
It’s a commendable feat, but one that ultimately makes the later levels feel like an exhausting grind. Once the level’s main gimmick is complete, you’re back to army vs finely balanced rival army, and the game really loses momentum. And it’s these moments where the lack of information (why are my creatures leaving?!) and iffy AI become more than just little niggles. Running through GoG, the game performs well with few noticeable bugs and only one short period where crashes were common. But midway through a very final level, I experienced a bug where Horny (the game’s main difference-maker) became unsummonable. This gave the enemy an unfair, and unaccounted for, upper-hand – leading me to abandon the campaign just before the very end, satisfied I’d seen everything there was to see.
A disappointing end, perhaps, but there was a lot of joy to be had in the journey, even if the final destination remained unreached. Though some elements of the game do look the 25 years they actually are, Dungeon Keeper 2 still has enough good ideas to make it worth a play today. Its level of challenge is refreshing, and if you can get over a few strange design decisions and some clunky design, then there’s a lot still to be had from diving into it.
DK2’s smart, purposeful design ultimately keeps the game relevant in 2022, but a series of small frustrations make the late game hard to endure.