When I was maybe thirteen or fourteen years old, Dungeon Keeper and its sequel (to a lesser extent) were two of my absolute favourite games. Since then, few games have managed to capture the same sentiment as the cheeky, Peter Molyneux led classic, but of all of those that have tried, there’s no doubt that Dungeons 4 comes closest.
As a very direct (as in, immediate in story terms) sequel to Dungeons 3, Dungeons 4 is very similar to its predecessor, and as it turns out, to the Dungeon Keeper games that inspired it. The similarities between this series and Bullfrog’s classic games are so obvious that it’s impossible not to discuss them — from the floating “hand of evil” that the player controls, to the tunnelling for gold, laying traps, and even the beating heart of the dungeon — there are more “borrowed” treasures here than there are in the British Museum.
That said, Dungeon Keeper was an incredible, genre-defining game that, as I said before, has never been replicated elsewhere, so why not imitate greatness? And to be fair, in this fourth iteration, Dungeons 4 not only delivers solid dungeon-keeping fun over a huge campaign of twenty missions, but it also builds on the basic formula with some very interesting and varied ideas.
The Dungeons series has always done one thing that is all its own, and that is the inclusion of both overworld and underground maps for every level. This means that whilst the player is expanding their dungeon underground, they must also make regular forays up to the overworld to earn evil (a secondary resource alongside gold) and for various objective-based reasons.
It is this interplay between the two worlds that really differentiates Dungeons 4, and I have to say, the developers have leaned into this concept big time. Whilst the maps (both overworld and especially underground) look fairly similar in terms of visuals, they offer huge variation in terms of how a level will be approached.
Underground (and bearing in mind that you can’t see what hides in the blackness of any area which has not been explored) you will find some straightforward maps with easy-to-locate gold and few enemies, whilst on other maps, you may have four or five entrances (to the overworld) to defend, multiple dwarven strongholds and large areas of water or lava that you cannot easily fortify.
In the overworld, the structure of maps is more about creating a puzzle for the player to solve. Often there is a snaking, maze-like structure to the hedgerows and chasms (that cannot be navigated), which forces the player to slowly work their way across the map. Often, new entrances to the dungeon can be found in the overworld to open new areas beneath, whilst also acting almost like shortcuts do in Dark Souls — meaning that your next venture up above can start from there.
Missions themselves are another strong suit for Dungeons 4, with an unusual amount of variety on offer across that long campaign. One highlight has the dungeon keeper searching below ground for an artefact to make their creatures immune to damage from storms that rage above — or tasks them with making progress in between. Another introduces Gorgu, a cute little green chap with an endless appetite (for heroes), and almost endless waves of enemies that throw themselves into the dungeon almost like those in a tower defence game.
If the plagiarism on display in Dungeons 4 was not obvious enough already, I should mention that the game has a sense of humour running throughout that repeatedly mocks popular culture in almost every form. From popular movies, TV series and books, to other games and even Dungeons 4 itself, nothing is safe from the bad jokes of the narrator — a constant companion to the player who brings life and the occasional laugh to the experience from start to finish.
But despite the silly (often very silly) humour, Dungeons 4 is a really good game with lots of depth. Besides the excellent campaign structure that I’ve already mentioned, the systems within Dungeons 4 are all very well-developed. The player can recruit creatures from three areas (orcish horde, demons and undead) and each area has its own research tree that introduces new rooms and features.
The orcs enjoy fighting in the training arena and introduce the brewing of both potions and beer, whilst the demons bring magic and ways to use mana. The undead include powerful skeletal warriors and vampire queens, and unsurprisingly when either undead or demons die, they return to life shortly after. Resurrection is a mid-late game ability for orcs too, and it’s rare that a mission allows the player to explore the whole tree for every faction — in most cases you’ll want to choose one or two and then go deep in terms of powering them up.
Exploring and protecting your dungeon is also a very enjoyable experience. I like to excavate a zig-zag pattern leading away from each entrance to my dungeon to slow heroes down, and I then fill them with (expensive) traps as the game goes on. I maintain a tight, compact dungeon with branches leading out to the rare gold veins and ultra-rare gemstone blocks that litter most maps. You might choose to play much more expansively — there’s no right or wrong.
If Dungeons 4 falls down at all, it is probably in the micromanagement and fiddliness that comes with any complex strategy game played on console. The creature controls are different between the overworld and underground, and fine control (such as selecting a single creature) is not really Dungeons 4’s bag. Thankfully, whilst the array of radial wheels and use of both bumpers often annoyed me, it never became a major issue. I did lose the odd group of creatures due to my inability to get from the underground to the overworld quickly enough, but in general Dungeons 4 deals with its own complexity quite well.
If you want a Dungeon Keeper replacement in 2023, then you have little choice but to dive into Dungeons 4, and that’s OK because it’s quite excellent from start to finish. In addition to a long campaign there are also multiplayer and cooperative modes and a skirmish option, as well as unlockable perks and achievements for each mission. Without doubt, Dungeons 4 is one of the best strategy games on console today, and despite some rough edges, I don’t think any game like this has been so much fun.