Let’s make no bones about this: EA’s reboot of Dungeon Keeper on mobile devices was a straight up sham. After the furore that that freemium title created, a lot of players were left with the realisation that they’d really like a new, actual, proper game in the series (that obviously didn’t nickel and dime them for every move they make). Good news – Subterranean Games have heard your cries and come to the rescue.
With spiritual successors all the rage at the moment – Cities: Skylines is the SimCity title many have been waiting for for a long while, Pillars of Eternity has been a huge flashback trip for fans of Baldur’s Gate – War for the Overworld is a welcome return to the sort of tongue-in-cheek strategy/sim/management fare of the late nineties – indeed the last time we saw a game in the Dungeon Keeper series (prior to EA’s abortive attempt) was back in 1999.
Given that the last one came out so long ago, it makes sense that there’ll be a lot of people who’ve never had any experience with the franchise. Originally created by a team including Peter Molyneux during what is now considered his golden age, Dungeon Keeper took the traditional narrative standard of good guys vs. bad and turned it on its head. Here, you played as an aspiring demon lord, attempting to build a dread army with which to destroy myriad heavenly foes.
The end result was a kind of RTS/management sim that saw you boring through the earth itself to create your lair, a network of rooms full of the kinds of devices and resources a budding underlord requires to attract more ghoulish minions – a mechanic turned up again years later in Viva Piñata – in addition to setting traps, finding somewhere to stash your growing gold reserves and putting up a fight when challenged by external forces. And this is precisely what you’ll be doing in War for the Underworld.
Like it’s predecessors, the game’s strongest suit is the actual lair building. There are plenty of buildings to construct, all of which play a big role in keeping your dungeon running smoothly and efficiently. Your dungeons often become sprawling, labyrinthine things as you exacavate new areas chasing more gold or space. You place your traps in hallways and door-off places you’d prefer enemies take a bit longer to reach. Often my traps would take so damned long to build I’d find the enemy already on top of me long before they finished, even if I kicked them off early in the setup phase.
Dungeon Keeper’s biggest failing was that it’s combat was never as interesting as the actual building of your lair. It was fiddly to get your troops to go where you wanted them to – partly because you could only “encourage” them to go somewhere rather than actually direct them. That mechanic persists here. You drop a flag to tell them whereabouts you want them and they’ll wander over to have a look. If there’s someone to beat up when they arrive, or they encounter them en route, they’ll get stuck in. However, I’d often find myself telling the troops to get the lead out and head off an enemy force only to have them go another way and miss the invaders entirely.
Subterranean have worked hard to give you a lot of options in terms of combat to separate Overworld from its ancestor. There’s a wide-ranging, non-linear tech tree with items and spells that are extremely specialised though, I found, not overly unique or attention grabbing.
My biggest gripe with War for the Overworld comes from the game’s interface. Certain icons feel like they’ve simply been thrown onto the screen in whatever order they were completed, and the art used to denote them can also be difficult to read. This makes selecting the right one when you’re in a rush a real challenge. This extends all the way back to the game’s initial menus too – when presented with the world map in single player, I wasn’t immediately sure what I was supposed to hit. The right spot is highlighted, sure, but it didn’t jump out right away.
The review code I was provided with – essentially the retail code – was spectacularly buggy, with various crashes that hindered my progress initially. One bug I caught in the third level wouldn’t let me put a trap down and the tutorial was unable to continue because of it. I held off on publishing this review because Subterranean have been releasing an absolute torrent of patches over the last week – I think there was one day out of the last seven that a 150-200mb patch didn’t appear in my Steam downloads – and they’re working. War for the Underworld is already far more stable than it was, much more fun to play and I think this level of diligence is to be commended. The team are working hard everyday to improve the game and it’s experience, and it shows.
War for the Overworld feels a bit more vanilla than the strange genre-fluid creature it began as and that isn’t Subterranean fault – people rarely laugh at a joke the third time you tell it. The thing is, it’s a style of game I’ve been missing for a while now and I live in hope that it will spawn a revival of the strategy/management sim genre. This is solid work from a small team and I think they did a solid job with the tools they had.
Review Score: 6.0 out of 10
Highlights: Charming art; cheeky sense of humour; lair building is so fun
Lowlights: Combat still a bit of chore; menus could still use some work
Developer: Subterranean Games
Publisher: Sold Out/Subterranean Games
Released: April 2 , 2015
Reviewed on PC