If there’s one thing that Kickstarter and the general trend of crowdfunding has achieved, it’s the revival of a great number of ailing and oft forgotten genres of video game. War for the Overworld is one such project, created by fans of the classic Dungeon Keeper series to try and revitalise that style of gameplay once more (and not be an awful F2P mobile game).
Subterranean are a small 15 strong team, dotted around the world in an unconventional manner for game development. Lead Designer Josh Bishop explained, “The initial team met on a fan site called Keeper Klan – a Dungeon Keeper fan site – and for sort of five or six years, there was this, ‘Hey, we should make a new Dungeon Keeper game.’ but it was just a collection of random people who mostly had no idea what they were doing.
“Eventually in 2012, a core team of people emerged for that who did know what they were doing, and we decided we were going to take it seriously. That’s when Kickstarter was starting to become a thing and we thought, OK, we’ll go and make a little prototype, we’ll switch over to Unity because that seems to be the thing now, and we started making it and were relatively happy with how it was going. We went to Kickstarter at the end of 2012 and that went very well, and we’ve been going ever since then, basically.”
The set up will be familiar to anyone that even has a passing knowledge of the Dungeon Keeper games. You play as a freshly awoken Underlord, dropped into a world that is ruled by the forces of good and all things heroic. You don’t actually have a corporeal form within the game, though, so your will is enacted by the various minions under your control, who you boss around to dig through the ground and expand your dungeon, eventually coming into contact and trying to defeat your enemies.
Branching out from your Gateway portal, you’ll quickly need to build a barracks for minions to train for battle, a lair for them to sleep in, and a slaughter pen and tavern to feed in. But it’s soon on to slightly more advanced rooms like the foundry to provide parts for your defences and an archive in which you can research new sins.
Of course, the goal is to defend your base until such a point that you can overwhelm the heroes that are standing in your way. With enemies in sight, whether on the offensive or defensive, you can muster all of your minions to one point to try and defeat them by placing a rally flag. But this is really only good for a stopgap defence or the launching of a final push into enemy territory.
The defences are really key to securing your base, especially when there are multiple routes to cover, and placing a few Blade Lotus spike traps and a Ballista or two will go a long way to staving off any attack, alongside some judicious use of a lightning spell or two. But beware that if those lines of defence are broken, the attacking good guys can quickly run rampant in your dungeon.
The early levels do a rather good job of easing you into things, with Richard Ridings’ voice acting – which will be familiar to Dungeon Keeper fans – leading the way through the basics. Quite quickly, the training wheels start to come off, and my carefree, slapdash attitude to building my base saw me caught off guard. This is a game where micromanaging will reap its rewards, from optimising your base layout so that it is full of choke points to slapping minions to make them work harder, or just learning how best to use the beasts, who can be sent on the attack independently of your regular minions.
Each room is attended to by a particular type of minion, from Gnarlings training in the barracks to Cultists researching in the archives, but as more are revealed, it’s clear to see that the team have had a lot of fun coming up with the character models for the minions and beasts. The initial few minions are as you might expect,but then there are bizarre floating fleshy things with lots of eyeballs called the Oculus, and a special mention has to go for the hammer-headed Chunder who works in the Foundry, smacking its head onto the anvils to create your traps.
“We needed an early game unit that’s a little bit tank-y and can work in the foundry, so it needs a hammer of some kind,” explained Josh. “Something that people really liked from the original Dungeon Keepers was a unit called the Bile Demon, which farts everywhere, basically. So we tried to combine all of these elements into a unit which had that mechanic and also was able to work in the Foundry with a hammer and didn’t feel too powerful.
“So, we told that to our concept artist, and this happened!”
Although this is a game that’s very much beholden to Dungeon Keeper, Subterranean haven’t shied away from looking to improve upon the formula. The biggest fans of a game can often be its strongest critics, and especially when a decade has passed by, gaming has a constant theme of evolution.
As Josh said, “We’ve taken some, not direct inspiration, but theoretical inspiration from stuff like Starcraft and Command & Conquer, with how they’ve approached multiplayer that allows there to be nice choice and nice pacing. That’s something that Dungeon Keeper 1 and 2 really lacked; you didn’t choose to unlock things, nor did you have it paced out, it was like, ‘Here you go, here’s all the stuff. Do things.’
“So one of the biggest core changes that we’ve made is that we’ve added a tech tree in – the Veins of Evil – where basically everything is in the tech tree and as you progress through, you can research sins and spend the sins on anything you want.”
Though the game is finally nearing release, over two years since its successful crowdfunding campaign, there are still some last minute points of fit and finish to sort out. The hand-like cursor, for example, interacts in a slightly strange way with the 3D world around it – “It’s quite janky right now and we’re going to be replacing it with a 3D model”, admits Josh – while there are also things like the rallying flag for combat and how you dismiss it to send your minions back to work which could be made clearer as the UI is polished in general.
With the game set to emerge from Early Access to a full release on April 2nd, there’s not too much time left, but looking past these hopefully quite simple flaws to fix, Subterranean look like they’re onto something. This is really a game made by fans for fans, and that passion and knowledge runs throughout.