Review: War for the Overworld

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War for the Overworld is yet another kickstarter-funded spiritual successor to a classic but largely long-dead franchise, in it’s case the Dungeon Keeper series. In it you take on the role of an ‘underlord’, a malevolent god-like entity who runs a dungeon of creatures of varying types and sizes, and has to manage their wellbeing whilst striving towards smiting one foe or another as you conquer map after map on your quest for total domination.

So how does the game fare?

Largely well, though I don’t think it really knocks it out the park and the game does have a fair few issues it is pretty fun to play and honestly given the dearth of similar games in recent years I’m just thankful we have even one new example of this type of game. I’ll explain a little more about the game though, and what it does and doesn’t do so well.

So graphically the game does look pretty nice, I think it runs on the unity engine so we’re not talking about graphics that will set any new benchmarks here but everything looks very presentable. The creature models are all easily recognisable and quite detailed, and each room in your dungeon has a distinct feel to it, and on top of this each different dungeon lord has a distinct visual style and look to their domain. I did find pretty much all of the imperial units indistinguishable from one another though – aside from the dwarfs that is; none of them really stood out that well and apart from smashing them with my troops they were largely ignored by me because of this.

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The core gameplay is pretty solid, and about on par with the games War for the Overworld inherits it’s mechanics from: you dig out a small kingdom, providing space for minions to live in and rooms to attract them; then provide the facilities to train those creatures up to face your foes, before (usually) they come knocking at your door. For the most part it works pretty well, you have a huge range of spells, incantations, traps, and varying types of creature to develop and throw at your foes, which can be pretty fun at times; I did feel as though it became something of a crowded melee at times though, and the list of options a bit overwhelming.

Challenge-wise I wouldn’t say it was that difficult really, I think I had to restart maybe one or two maps because of fail states. At least initially you do have to go exploring a little for resources in the maps, later on though you’re often given a golden shrine or nearby veins of gold to dig into from the get go, and later still you’re given access to spells that help generate gold and even a ritual that reveals all gold (and shrines) on the map in one go… which is particularly useful.

Generally this easy-going approach seems to be reflected in the way the developer has handled pretty much every aspect of the gameplay, with much of everything streamlined – though occasionally you will have to dump creatures in the training room, most of them will automatically head there anyway (provided there’s space) and there always seems to be someone in the foundry ready to work. On the one hand this is nice because it means you don’t have to constantly be picking minions up and bullying them into doing one task or another they don’t really seem to want to do, but on the other it also eliminates a pretty fun layer of micromanagement that Dungeon Keeper encouraged you to indulge in to be a successful dungeon lord.

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While there’s not really much I can note in terms of the sound quality itself – I had no problems with the audio, the creatures were mostly quiet, and melees had largely predictable sounds associated with them, I do want to comment on the quality of the voice-overs and dialogue though. These were really, really, good; there’s some humour to the dialogue itself but it’s the quality of the acting that really impressed me.

All the voice-actors seem to be very much invested in their roles, portraying very believably voiced rival underlords or imperial lackeys of one sort or another – and that’s without even mentioning Richard Ridings, who basically steals the show for me, his performance as your mentor is just amazing. I think in the original Dungeon Keeper games he was a bit more low key but here he just seems to have been let off the leash and allowed to boom down the microphone for hours, and it’s awesome. Really one of my favourite parts of the game.

I do have some problems with the game though, as noted before you have a lot of different options to choose from – from magical spells, rituals, potions, as well as regular minions, magic artefacts and the possibility of torturing and converting enemies to your cause (if you want.) And while I feel terrible for complaining about it at times it honestly just feels like too much. It’s almost as if you have too many possible options to make the game genuinely challenging and satisfying to play.

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Given how much the developers wanted to carry over from the original Dungeon Keeper games but add to at the same time it’s not surprising the game struggles under the weight of it’s own options; and actually I thought this was the point of having the ‘Veins of Evil’ system in the game. A system by which you could unlock different paths along a skill tree as you earned upgrades for it – allowing you a different set of traps, spells, and potions to use dependent on whether you chose to play more focused on attack, defence or support.

I expected you’d choose a path and then your gameplay experience would then be shaped by that early choice, giving you only limited access to the other veins (if you wanted any) after that point. The reverse seems to be true though, and it’s pretty much a free-for-all in terms of what you can do.

Often your strategy in the original Dungeon Keeper was dictated by the limited range of powers and minions you had at your disposal on each level, with different levels posing different challenges; but here in War for the Overworld you’re given such a huge range of abilities that you can do pretty much whatever without much strategy being needed, which I don’t think really helps make the game any more fun. I think I used maybe a quarter of the spells or rituals available to you, and used a potion once? And it’s not like the other abilities were useless mind you, it’s just I already had all I needed to win the levels so everything else was largely redundant.

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Along similar lines the game doesn’t really challenge you too much when it comes to creature management, as I said before you don’t really have to micromanage your creatures at all – aside from the odd unique creature that probably isn’t worth the bother, your creatures train themselves up pretty quickly, research all the spells you need, and make pretty much everything in seconds in the foundry.

Which might make you think you have time to just sit back and wonder about how to make your dungeon look especially fabulous – but you don’t. Often the enemy will just come crashing through your walls before you’ve had much of a chance to do anything really.

And this is another area where I think the game doesn’t do so well: Time management. Granted I don’t think there are more than one or two levels with actual specific time limits to them, but at least a few of the levels have parties that spawn after a certain amount of time has elapsed and these spawn times just seemed off to me. I remember in at least one map I barely had enough time to carve out my dungeon before I was forced on the attack, and that did not sit comfortably with me.

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In some instances this was because I had an objective to complete quickly (too quickly), and in others it was more that the enemy spawned in too quickly and there was almost no way to realistically keep the bloody buggers out once they were tunnelling their way towards you. I actually remember Dungeon Keeper 2 had a similar problem: because in DK1 once you’d fortified a wall no one could dig through it except you, DK2 (much like War for the Overworld does) allowed anyone to dig through a wall, just at a slightly slower rate if the wall had been fortified before hand.

In both the later games this was done for a specific reason – to keep players from bottling themselves up forever until they’re ready to venture out. The problem is though, as soon as the enemy starts heading towards you, without some sort of wall that can stop them for an extended period it removes all breathing space for the player and doesn’t give you much time to really strategise or plan anything in response to an attack – a big problem I had with War for the Overworld; I mostly just played by turning every engagement into a giant melee, with barely any thought on how to play past surviving.

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I’ll give credit to Subterranean Games though, they do seemed to have softened this up a little compared to Dungeon Keeper 2, and you do seem to have some ability to fortify against intrusion as the enemy reaches your walls, but it doesn’t seem to work for long – or at all against dwarfs, who have the uncanny ability to smash right through your fortified stoneworks regardless of what you do.

Overall I did enjoy War for the Overworld, I don’t think it really hits the same high notes that the original Dungeon Keeper did back in the day with it’s mix of dark humour, strategy and creature micro-management but it does do a better job of creating a more structured game out of that same formula. In many respects it feels like an improved Dungeon Keeper 2 – and actually suffers from many of the same problems it did. It captures the basic formula of the original, some of the humour, looks a lot more attractive than it, but somehow misses out on that little spark that made the original such a classic and come together so well.

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If you’re a Dungeon Keeper fan then I’d say it’s definitely something worth checking out, it’s not exactly like it’s the type of game you see every day and it is fun to play; but all the same expect to come across the odd bug here and there and experience a game that though fun will probably leave you wanting to boot up your old copy of DK1 more than anything.

7/10

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