2023 has been a notable year when it comes to new RTS releases, and it’s not done yet. Early November brings us Dungeons 4, the latest installment in the now long-running Dungeons series, which started in 2011 and has slowly evolved over the years.
The Dungeon Keeper-like saga from Realmforge Studios and Kalypso Media has been doing perfectly fine without radically changing a formula that no one else is doing at the moment aside from maybe the relatively recent War for the Overworld or Evil Genius 2 (the latter pays tribute to the spy movie genre instead of classical fantasy). The premise is simple: Build an underground evil lair and conquer the overworld. Do the four games released so far retread the same story? Not really, as there’s a small narrative progression gluing the whole thing together and justifying new installments.
A well-organized dungeon.
Dungeons 4 kicks off with a seemingly final battle that isn’t very definitive, as things go slightly south for the home team. The Absolute Evil and his minions have taken over the land and few heroes remain fighting against their regime, but Thalya’s (the Evil’s most trusted servant) brother manages to hold the fort (many of them, actually) in spite of not being too brilliant. In fact, none of the major characters are too intelligent, and that’s part of the joke.
This is a game filled to the brim with comedy, pop culture references, and meta bits that are sprinkled throughout the scripts. And there’s a lot of chatter as you build up the dark empire and try to snuff out the remaining light in the world. You can thankfully adjust the amount of dialogues (from the narrator as well as the characters) which aren’t essential, since they can get distracting and annoying quite often despite the mostly charming writing.
Most of the key objectives have to be completed in the overworld.
The gameplay loop and structure are relatively simple. Most of your time will be spent progressing through the story-driven campaign, which is neither short nor terribly long and regularly adds new gimmicks and unique situations to the mix to firmly keep things interesting. It does, however, struggle a bit with the common repetitiveness that comes with most modern managements sims. You’ll often find yourself waiting for a certain amount of resources to be farmed or for your armies in the overworld to make their way through twisted paths that feel like an artificial way to make the levels longer than they need to be.
The actual base-building and combat systems are very robust, as they’ve been perfected over four games now, and both the new additions and the streamlining done help make the ensemble addicting. While playing one or two missions per day will save most players from feeling burned out by the grindier bits, it’s hard not to feel the urge to jump back into the game to better optimize how your bases are connected and how the goblin-like Snots perform all the crucial tasks while the dark armies defend the dungeon and complete objectives elsewhere.
There are dangers beneath the surface too, even for a villainous overlord.
Snots are critical to expanding the dungeons and keeping the system afloat, as they do pretty much everything that doesn’t require fighting. Several “tech” trees are available, and in many cases, certain units and buildings are a must to successfully reach the end of the mission. Like in most management sims and RTS titles, Dungeons 4 ultimately boils down to a balancing act as objectives become more complicated and the enemies put more pressure on Thalya and the Absolute Evil.
There are, however, plenty of ways to “cheese” the game, and we’re almost certain the devs want players to find their own ways to break game, whether that involves rushing to find the endless diamond deposits, spamming certain trap combos near the dungeon’s entrances, or abusing the incredibly useful F2 key (trust us). This doesn’t mean all of it is a walk in the park, as the scenarios quickly get more complex and require players to multitask effectively. But it’s a smooth ride for the most part if you know what you’re doing, and the intuitive and clean interface and controls play a part in that.
Beyond the Campaign mode, Dungeons 4 can also be enjoyed in co-op and with a flexible Skirmish mode that offers different scenarios based on the campaign’s and accepts modifiers which are unlocked as you progress through the story. The basics remain the same, but the most dedicated players will find plenty to enjoy here as they keep tinkering with dungeon builds and the most fun systems (there’s a sandbox too).
The plot is a largely wacky affair.
Performance on the PC version of the game seems close to perfect; we experienced zero crashes or stuttering, and the framerate never tanked even as things got busy and heavier for the CPU. The fact Dungeons 4’s tech is obviously a bit dated helps for sure; it’s not like its colourful and easy-to-read art style (reminiscent of Warcraft III’s) – nor the tight systems – require it to be fancier and needlessly modern. This, of course, means some fans and casual players might find the game too continuist and “safe”, but there was a clear vision for it that clearly was achieved without much hassle.
At the end of the day, the enjoyment which RTS and management sim players will get out of Dungeons 4 depends on their expectations for the fourquel of a game series which has slowly upgraded and modified itself over time while trying to preserve a delicate balance that has worked well over the years. That said, it also has plenty of room to grow into something bigger and more memorable.
DUNGEONS 4 VERDICT
Dungeons 4 doesn’t raise the bar for the dungeon-building subgenre, but it’s a delightful fantasy romp that harkens back to less complicated times, and that’s quite valuable on its own.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Pushing the dungeon-exploring heroes into pits of lava as soon as they enter the underground.
Accessible and uncomplicated to pick up and play
Build variety and a roster of interesting units
Clean and vibrant art style
It packs exactly the right amount of content
Most of the comedy and pop culture references work
Erratic ally and enemy AI is still a thing
Some campaign levels can feel grindy because of the level design
It doesn’t take big swings to spice up the formula