Dungeons is a strategy / RPG hybrid from Realmforge Studios (developer) and the Kalypso Media Group (publisher). In it, you recruit monsters, excavate dungeons, and defeat do-gooder heroes. If that sounds familiar, then it's probably because Dungeons was heavily influenced by the strategy game Dungeon Keeper, which was released by Peter Molyneux and Bullfrog Productions back in 1997. However, other than some superficial similarities, the two games aren't much alike, and those hoping for Dungeon Keeper 3 are likely to come away disappointed.
As Dungeons opens up, you're kicked off your underworld throne by your (now) ex-girlfriend Calypso. You then have to fight your way through the game's 17 missions (including a tutorial mission) to set everything to rights. During these missions, there are five things that you have to concentrate on:
You have to build "gimmicks," including creature pentagrams (that summon creatures every so often, and also spread your influence), prestige objects (that increase the prestige of your dungeon, so you can build more sophisticated objects), traps (to damage heroes and rival dungeon lords), and hero goodies, including treasure chests and armor stands (so you can make invading heroes happy before defeating them).
You have to spread your influence over the dungeon. This allows you to take control of objects in the dungeon, including creature lairs and your rivals' lands (in the few missions where you have to deal with rival dungeon lords). Creature lairs are important because they allow you to summon new creatures at your pentagrams, and they also increase your population limit so you can have more creatures at your disposal. Your dungeon keeper is also a character in the game (complete with attribute values and skills), and he only regenerates health when he's in your area of influence.
You have to build up your economy. The two resources in the game are gold and soul energy. Gold is gained from from defeated heroes, and it is also mined from gold veins in unexplored parts of the dungeon. Soul energy is produced by heroes when their needs are met (such as when they pick up gold or equipment, or when they cause or heal damage), and you gain it when you defeat heroes and stick them in jail. That means you have to be careful with heroes, and only defeat them once they've had some success -- but not wait too long or else they'll leave the dungeon and take their resources with them.
You have to build up your dungeon. Unlike Dungeon Keeper, which had over a dozen types of rooms to keep track of, Dungeons is much more simplified, and you only need to build libraries (so heroes can meet their knowledge needs), armories (so heroes can pick up new equipment), and prisons (so you can drain soul energy from heroes). Building rooms in Dungeons works in roughly the same manner as in Dungeon Keeper: the dungeon is made up of a large grid, and you just click on the blocks of dirt that you want your goblins to dig out. There aren't any doors or reinforced walls or anything like that, and treasure chests can be placed anywhere.
You have to protect your dungeon heart. If your dungeon keeper character dies in combat, then your dungeon heart takes some damage, but otherwise it's just a matter of protecting your heart from invading heroes. To help you out, you can summon a special guardian creature to watch over the heart (this costs you soul energy), and if your heart takes damage, then you can heal it over time (this costs you gold). If your dungeon heart dies, then you automatically lose the current mission.
This might sound like a lot of things to keep track of, but the objectives are pretty straightforward (once you've played a couple of missions to figure out how everything works). Heroes walk around and meet their needs on their own, and they don't pose much of a threat unless a few of them wander into the same place at the same time, or a special champion hero shows up, and so it's just a matter of keeping watch over your dungeon and then using your dungeon keeper to finish off heroes once they've generated enough soul energy.
Where the difficulty in the game lies is in the "challenges" added to the missions. These involve things like escorting creatures to safety, or defeating waves of heroes, or performing menial tasks for your current dungeon boss (like watering flowers or donating resources). For completing some challenges, you gain attribute points or skill points for your dungeon keeper (which carry over throughout the campaign), and with others you earn a spell scroll (so your dungeon keeper can still cast spells even if he isn't specced that way).
I found Dungeons to be relatively easy to play on the default difficulty setting. There are a couple of challenging missions where you have to deal with a lot of heroes, but for the others your dungeon keeper gets so powerful that he can complete most of the challenges on his own. There are also some oddities that make the game easier than it should be. For example, I don't think rival dungeon lords are allowed to dig or build gimmicks, and so you can always defeat them through attrition if necessary. Rival dungeon lords also aren't very smart. They always take the same route to do things, and so if you place a few traps in their way, then they happily kill themselves over and over, and you don't have to worry about them.
Fortunately, the missions are varied, and they're also humorous, and so they remain entertaining even when they're easy to complete. For example, in one mission, along with making heroes happy, you have to load slimes into a slime cannon so you can barrage the castle at Sweetcliffe. Meanwhile, as you accomplish your goals, your "sidekick" character, who narrates each mission and also informs you about what's going on, obsesses about lime jello, and his lines are always a hoot. The actor for the sidekick character (unfortunately unnamed in the manual) does a consistently excellent job with his lines, and his performance goes a long way towards making the game fun to play.
Overall, I had mixed feelings about Dungeons. It was interesting to see the flip side of the action RPG genre, and I enjoyed the game's humor, but otherwise there just wasn't enough going on (with only three types of rooms and lots of interchangeable creatures and objects) to make it an exciting strategy title. I'm guessing that fans of Dungeon Keeper won't be happy that the game is so simplified (not to mention that the focus is on heroes rather than creatures), and for everybody else, while the game might be a fun enough change of pace, I'd recommend that you wait for the price to drop. Dungeons seems like a $20-30 game to me rather than a $40 game (which is where it is currently priced), and I'm guessing that you won't have to wait very long for it to go on sale.