Why Dungeon Keeper has never been beaten

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PC Gamer is blessed with a seasoned 17 year history, and occasionally we reach into our deep archives to retrieve something wonderful about a game we love. Today, a slightly revised look at Dungeon Keeper, Bullfrog's best, vilest management game.

Something went horribly wrong between Dungeon Keeper and Dungeon Keeper 2. The sequel to what’s ostensibly Theme Dungeon (with violence) wasn’t inferior because of level design, or graphics, or even budget. It was the screams.

The screams weren’t right. In DK2, if you grab a warlock with your proto-Black & White floating hand, shake him about a bit, then let him drop, he’d go “aaah.”

WRONG.

In DK, he went “YeeeeeAAAAAAAa aaRRRRRGHhhhhh!” Best game scream ever, in fact.

DK boasts a quite rubbish first-person mode.

DK nails atmosphere, and not just in its screams. Craft a suitably elaborate dungeon, wait for a fine array of beasties to set up home in it, then zoom out and listen. The whiplash of a Dark Mistress euphorically tenderising her own rump, the b-caw! of a Bile Demon gobbling surprised chickens whole, the lonely chink of a depressed imp heaving his pickaxe into solid rock, the eerie whispering from the Scavenger Room... DK was never the prettiest game, but it made up for it – still does – with its awesome soundscape, and that’s also the strongest hint that this was a very deliberate attempt to escape Bullfrog’s acquired reputation for achingly cute, massmarket games.

DK posits you as a conquering antihero tearing a dark streak across the world, and only ever puts you on the back foot for certain set-piece levels. Usually, it gives you the space and time to build up a dungeon to be proud of, unleashing it on witless heroes or enemy Keepers only once you feel ready.

The gradual escalation is masterful – each level completed means more of the idyllic world map razed and corrupted, catching the attention of increasingly powerful lords of the realm as a result. Success comes not from employing lots of creatures, but rather the right creatures, each type lured to your dungeon by a different room combination.

Initially, you’re content trundling around with a couple of level two Spiders and the odd farting Bile Demon in case of emergency. But one day, a level six fairy shows up at your door, firing lightning bolts from her hands. Many monsters die. The survivors are thrown into the training room and forced to become strong, stronger, strongest; or booted out the door in favour of something juicier.

Bile demon wind: deadly to us all.

Nothing else has done victory like DK. Do you kill a defeated man, or capture him? If imprisoned, you either starve him to death, at which point he’ll resurrect as a loyal but weak skeleton, or you send him to the Torture Chamber. If he dies there, he’ll return as a ghost, but if he survives the process he’ll defect to your side. Torture is the only method by which you can recruit from hero ranks, and a samurai or giant is an awesome addition to Team Evil.

If, on the other hand, you slew your foes in combat, drop a few imps into the battlefield and they’ll drag the bodies off to your graveyard. Once enough corpses are buried (and, ideally, urinated on by your hellhounds), you’ve got yourself a vampire, one of the game’s best fighters. ‘Theme Dungeon?’ Pah. How, exactly, is this like raising ice cream prices or building more toilet blocks? There’s so much in here, so much more than has been attempted since.

And there are still deeper layers. The new vampire doesn’t like sharing a room with warlocks. Either build a second Lair somewhere for him to set up his coffin in, or you’ll soon have a whole lot of mage blood on your disembodied hand. But don’t build the lair too close to the training room, or he’ll get narked with all the noise and hand in his notice. If you still can’t keep him happy, you could always drown him as a sacrifice to the gods, and if you’re lucky they’ll reward you with a different beastie. If you’re unlucky, they’ll make all your chickens explode. But if you’re really lucky, they’ll bless you with the Horned Reaper.

Minions! Stop farting, and build some traps!

Ah, Horny. Beautiful, psychotic Horny. A level 10 Reaper is essentially unstoppable. He’s also a miserable son of a Horned bitch. It’s hard enough keeping your day-to-day trolls and dragons happy, but let him miss out on payday, stick him with the wrong bunkmate or slap him around the head and Horny gets angry. Rampage-angry. Then everybody dies. It’s almost worth it, just for the pleasure of seeing the big guy lose his mind, swinging his cute little bitmapped scythe at anything that passes. There’s all of 200 pixels to each character, but the animations for each are incredibly distinct even now. DK’s charm, depth and atmosphere persist, thirteen years on.

Even the smaller battles are a fascinating hybrid of screaming carnage and decision-making. You’re not a helpless observer, but an active participant, feverishly casting spells (researched by a crack team of dragons and vampires) and praying your imps are mining enough gold to pay for all this. And what are you, exactly? You’re a Keeper, and you’re evil. That is all. You only see your hand and your heart – a gigantic gem at the centre of your dungeon. If it dies, you die. Poetic, in a David Gemmell kind of way.

A few years ago, I discovered an original copy of Dungeon Keeper in a local games shop, for 25p. It was still in the shrink wrap. I was desperate to rip it open and pore contentedly over what sounded like a massive manual when I shook the box, but I really couldn’t possibly. For all I know, it’s the last one like it in the world.

Alec Meer