Genre experts long thought that the dungeon management sim was extinct, its once-lush environment turned to ash and disappointment by the worst excesses of corporate free-to-play pollution. Luckily for fans, it turns out that might not actually be the case. War for the Overworld, Subterranean Games’ Kickstarted homage to cult hits like Dungeon Keeper and Evil Genius, is on the way out of early access later this year, and I recently got my greasy mitts on it.
If you ever played either of Bullfrog’s games you’ll be right at home here. Dungeon Keeper voice actor Richard Ridings is even there to give you a few introductory tips as you begin your career as a risen Underlord, long-forgotten by the world and keen to re-establish his position as the guy everyone should be extremely frightened of. Quick refresher of the basics; you’re essentially a formless but still potent Sauron-style villain, utilising an army of minions to both carve out a dungeon fortress and fend off meddlesome hero types looking to make their name by fighting their way through to your vulnerable power nexus, destroying it and banishing your soul from the physical world for good.
The first few missions plonk you in a relatively simple scenario – build these rooms and deal with these enemies over here – and steadily introduce you to the basic mechanics. Your dungeon starts out with a spawning portal, which spews forth new minions and troops. Building new rooms will unlock new unit types, so for your basic grunts you’ll need to have a barracks where they can train, while the cultists, who can de-buff enemies, require an archive in which to research their dark magic. If you come into contact with the enemy, you can put down a rally flag to send all your troops scrambling over to the chosen spot. Apart from chucking out the odd spell, that’s pretty much all you can do in combat, which remains largely hands off in the spirit of the Dungeon Keeper franchise.
Once you’ve invited a few underlings into your domain, you’ll need to make sure they’ve got the services they need. Taverns and Slaughterhouses will provide them with food and leisure, while buildings like the Foundry will give you access to new traps and items. I actually didn’t get a look at too many of the traps in War for the Overworld, which is a shame because let’s be honest they’re always the best things about these games, but the devs promise me there are lots of fun, inhumane toys to try out. Like a floorpad that drains the soul from anyone who steps on it. Nice.
You’ll unlock all the new goodies via a tech tree, which splits up your research options into three branches; magic, traps and spells. From what I’ve seen so far the early missions hand out new toys relatively sparsely, but there’s a decent amount of options on each branch, so it seems likely that in later missions you’ll have a certain amount of freedom in how you craft your Underlord and approach your objectives.
Speaking of magic, it seemed a little overpowered to me. You’ve got a bunch of different spells to cast, from healing and support to utility and pure damage. I started off with a heal spell that restored an individual minion, and a lightning blast that I could only use within the boundaries of my realm. I spammed that lightning spell like Emperor Palpatine himself, blasting enemy troops into pieces as soon as they set foot anywhere near my core dungeon. Mana seemed to restore incredibly quickly, so it felt like a bit of a cheap win button. Especially as my minions began expanding my realm further and further into enemy territory, increasing my casting range. Admittedly this was quite early in the campaign, so hopefully things balance out a little as you dig further into the story.
Built on the Unity engine by a 15 person team, War for the Overworld maybe lacks the ultra-sharp polish of more expensively assembled games, but clearly lots of invention and love has been poured into it. Most of the critters, like the squat, toad-like demon chaps who work the forges and the sinister cloaked cultists, are charmingly gross creations, and once you’ve carved out a little underground empire it’s nice to simply scoot around the map admiring your handiwork and watching your underlings go about their business.
There’s the odd issue that crops up; a couple of times my clawed hand cursor stopped responding, leaving me unable to click on my minions, and the UI could do with a little bit of polish, but on the whole the game plays nice and smoothly. It nails that darkly satisfying feeling of being the mastermind pulling the strings behind the scenes, offering just the right amount of micromanagement without too much unnecessary fiddliness. There are a few outstanding issues to fix in terms of presentation and balance, but overall it’s impressive how solid the game feels considering that this is the first job in the industry for most of Subterranean’s development team. Skirmish and sandbox modes as well as competitive multiplayer should provide plenty of replay value when War for the Overworld launches on April 2.
Most Anticipated Feature: Seeing more of the various spells, rooms and traps on offer via the skill tree. I barely scratched the surface.