The Dungeon Keeper franchise can feel like a relic from a bygone era. While titles like War for the Overworld and Evil Genius 2 have carried its spirit of evil middle management into the modern era, developer Realmforge Studios has combined aspects of the underworld management sim and blended them with real-time strategy elements for the fourth entry in its Dungeons franchise, which came out in November 2023 and is now on Xbox Game Pass.
Dungeons 4 follows a campaign composed of 20 missions that typically begin in your underground lair, as you put together the necessary infrastructure to house your minions and defend against unwanted intruders. However, once you’ve firmly rooted yourself underground and assembled an army, you can head topside to pillage resources, kill some would-be heroes, and generally engage in activity that would earn you more than a few points of bad karma, effectively shifting the gameplay from a management sim to an RTS.
The gameplay in Dungeons 4 can feel similar to Dungeon Keeper while you wait for enemies to shuffle to your doorstep and fall into your clever maw of traps. However, each map in Dungeons 4 is effectively two maps layered on top of each other, divided into underworld and overworld, which are linked by a series of portals that conveniently become choke points to attack or defend. This encourages you to adopt a more aggressive play style by locking away key resources on your enemies’ turf, and feels like a natural evolution of the management-heavy Keeper.
Dungeon Keeper offered you indirect control over your minions — you could drop them near enemies, or direct them toward a certain point on the map — this made them unpredictable, and occasionally frustrating, as they wouldn’t always do what you needed them to. Dungeons 4 fixes this by simply giving you direct control over your minions via a familiar RTS-like interface while on the overworld map. You can right-click on enemies to attack them, assign command groups, and manage ability cooldowns — RTS staples that help make the game feel more responsive. Dungeons 4 also gives you more control over how you recruit your minions, allowing you to purchase them at will — provided you have the requisite rooms and resources. This is an upgrade from Dungeon Keeper, which had replacements clock in at somewhat random intervals, which could often leave you in a bind if your dungeon was already under attack.
Despite my nostalgia for the classic Dungeon Keeper minions, like the bile demon and hellhound, many of the game’s monsters could suffer from feeling a bit too similar, functionally or aesthetically. While the cast of Dungeons 4 is a bit smaller than its inspiration, each minion feels visually distinct and plays an important role in how your dungeon operates, whether as a combatant or a worker.
Your minions are divided into separate trees that you spec into using evilness, a resource granted to you by killing good guys and defiling the overworld. In addition to offering a distinct color palette and unique minions, each branch relies on specific resources and rooms you’ll need to supply in order to take full advantage of their abilities. For instance, undead units don’t need to eat and can automatically respawn at your base, but they’re expensive to recruit and need a regular supply of corpses to heal.
Personally, my favorite faction is the demons, which are capable of respawning back in your lair if you have enough resources. They also give you access to an expanded catalog of incredibly powerful spells, and each unit, regardless of its power, costs 666 gold to recruit. Can I get a hell yeah?
Beyond deciding which minions you want to summon, success in any mission involves little more than assembling a well-rounded ball of units to steamroll across the map. However, killing mobs of enemies and watching lush green hills transform into a blood-red hellscape is always satisfying.
Dungeons 4 delights in being evil, but only in the most cartoonish sense. Sure, you’re turning villagers into paste and salting the earth, but the exaggerated proportions of your units, along with a healthy dose of dry humor (complete with a dedicated “evil laugh” button) manage to keep things from weighing too heavily on your conscience.
Replacing Dungeon Keeper in the darkest pit of my heart would take a game more impressive than Dungeons 4, and while it isn’t a perfect title by any stretch, Realmforge has done a fantastic job of reiterating the genre for the modern era with streamlined gameplay and a strong understanding of what made the Dungeon Keeper franchise fun. If you’d like to give Dungeons 4 a try, the game is currently available through Xbox Game Pass.