As Dungeons 4 begins, the forces of good have almost been eradicated by the Absolute Evil. With one measly village putting up a final, desperate defense, it’s up to the now-general Dark Elf Thalya to finish the job.
Soon enough, things take a turn for the worse (at least if you’re rooting for the bad guys), kickstarting a 20-mission campaign that has us building dungeons and killing lots of would-be heroes.
Much like its predecessors, the latest entry in the series sees you splitting your attention between an underground map and the overworld. The former is where you build and expand your dungeon, gather resources, and grow your army of evil creatures.
Once you’ve gained enough followers, you can direct them to conquer the overworld, where they can gleefully hack and slash through the forces of good, burn down their base, and make everything around them fittingly darker.
When venturing on the surface, Dungeons 4 controls in a similar fashion to a traditional real-time strategy game. You select individual units or assign them to groups, directly ordering them to move and attack targets. Once they level up, they gain abilities, most of which are passive.
Units also fulfill different roles. Orcs are frontline fighters while Nagas attack at range but also heal friendly units, ensuring they stay in the fight for longer. The Demon faction also boasts some fairly powerful ranged fighters, and you can mix and match units as you see fit.
During my time with some of the game’s early missions, I didn’t feel the need to intensely micromanage my troops, with the overworld feeling like a more casual take on real-time strategy. That being said, the combat sound effects were a bit underwhelming, and figuring out which unit did what as my blob clashed with the enemy blob was easier said than done.
I did play a preview build, so I cannot say how hectic the later missions are but, even so, this more relaxed pace complements the more involved gameplay below ground.
It’s satisfying to push back a wave of invading heroes back to the surface only to have your minions then pay them a visit and give them a taste of their own medicine, but without the part where your attack fails miserably. Admittedly, your units aren’t navigating corridors laden with deadly traps on the overworld.
Below ground, Dungeons 4 is, unsurprisingly, a dungeon builder, focusing more on getting your base up and making sure your Dungeon Heart remains intact.
Select multiple tiles of dirt and your little snots will rush to them and swiftly clear them up. If they lag behind, you can manually pick them up with your godlike hand and give them a good old slap to “encourage” them to perform tasks faster.
Then, you can select areas to convert into rooms like the Treasury, which stores gold and increases the rate at which gold veins are harvested, or the Workshop, where toolboxes needed for traps are created.
You unlock new buildings by spending gold and Evilness – a resource gained by completing objectives and slaying heroes – on research, which is split into 4 trees.
Where the Dungeon tree unlocks general use buildings, traps, doors, and upgrades for Snots, the Horde, Demons, and Undead trees allow you to recruit units from their respective factions and support them with dedicated buildings.
Your minions have needs that you have to fulfill in order to keep them fighting properly. They also expect to be paid. As an example, Horde creatures – which include Orcs and Nagas – need a Hideout to rest. They cannot be resurrected until late in the game, but are cheaper than the other types of creatures and level up faster.
Demons, on the other hand, conveniently respawn at a Vortex building, should they fall in battle or accidentally get dropped into lava when you’re desperately trying to make sure that pesky Dwarves don’t steal your gold.
Your precious stockpiles of gold, mana, and turkeys (or Gobblers) can be protected from both enemies and friendly units (who you’d rather not waste time inside) using doors, which also increase their efficiency.
Traps are an even better means of protecting riches and workers, and they can be placed around your dungeon and its surroundings. Different types of traps require different tunnel widths, so you’ll need to plan how you dig, at least when it comes to the routes enemies use for incursions.
If heroes always attack from the overworld, Dwarves can dig through dirt as well as you can. That’s the second time I’ve mentioned them and, yes, your underground adventures are a bit more dangerous in Dungeons 4 thanks to this sturdy new faction.
Not only can they build their own base and dig their way into your dungeon, but they won’t hesitate to target your resource stockpiles. To get rid of them, you’ll have to destroy their base’s central building, the Main Hall, which often involves killing plenty of defenders.
But Dwarves aren’t the only new addition in Dungeons 4. During my preview session, the developer also mentioned lakes that slow down your units, alongside new creatures and rooms. On top of that, the unit cap has been raised to 40.
New traps like The Pusher – that appropriately pushes enemies into hazards – and the Beer-non –a cannon that shoots barrels of explosive beer at enemies – offer new methods of keeping heroes out of your dungeons and in the afterlife.
On the overworld, the forces of good can use construction crews to rebuild destroyed structures. Creatures like the Hypno Bullfrog act as challenging encounters that grant a lot of Evilness when bested, although their strong attacks might see fewer of your units surviving.
Dungeons 4 also encourages replayability by giving Thalya a loadout of up to 3 skills that she can equip before each mission. They can increase the hit points of Horde creatures, or make heroes defeated by traps generate extra Evilness.
The Master of All skill increases the damage you deal for each level of faction research, encouraging you to field units from all three factions.
The developer tells me that new players like myself should have no trouble jumping straight into Dungeons 4, and from what I’ve seen so far, that is very much the case.
Although it is narratively linked to its predecessor, understanding Thalya’s motivations is fairly straightforward even without knowing much about her past (although you may get more out of the story if you have seen her grow as a character).
Gameplaywise, the three available difficulty settings should also cater to both newcomers and series veterans.
Furthermore, if you’re having trouble keeping track of the event bar on the upper side of the screen and juggling between the underground and overworld, co-op remains an option, having two players managing one dungeon. Better yet, if you get a fellow evildoer to help you with a campaign mission, you both get progress, the developer notes.
On normal difficulty, Dungeons 4’s early campaign missions were fairly breezy. Building up dungeons and bringing some light and color into the darkness of the underground felt fun and relaxing.
The game also openly (and successfully, I’d say) embraces parody. Its frequent 4th wall breaks might not be for everyone, but made each cutscene feel like a reward I looked forward to, despite the fairly predictable plot.
We’ll see if Dungeons 4 manages to make being evil a compelling prospect when it launches on November 9, 2023.
Most Anticipated Feature: Unlocking all the new creatures and traps.