Throwback Thursday: War for the Overworld, a spiritual successor to Dungeon Keeper

Last year I wrote about the rise and fall of the Dungeon Keeper franchise and how its transition to mobile disappointed me as someone who fell in love with the games on PC. It wasn’t until the end of last year that I discovered a spiritual successor to Dungeon Keeper had been released in 2015. Best of all, the developers lifted the subtitle for the canceled Dungeon Keeper 3 and called their game War for the Overworld. I was skeptical, but any chance of experiencing a modern Dungeon Keeper was worth risking some money.

A Long Labor of Love

In 2009, around the time that Dungeon Keeper 3 was in its death throes, an indie game developer called Subterranean Games was busy creating a fan-made sequel. Subterranean Games would later leave the Dungeon Keeper IP altogether and change their name to Brightrock Games. At the end of 2012, Brightrock launched a Kickstarter which ran through the new year, raising roughly £225,000 and meeting their first flex goal for their campaign: securing Richard Ridings as narrator for the game. Ridings also provided the inimitable voice for the Mentor in the Dungeon Keeper series.

The Gameplay Remains the Same

If you didn’t know it was a different game, then it would be easy to mistake War for the Overworld as Dungeon Keeper. That’s how similar the games look, feel, and play. At its core, WftO is a subterranean base building and management RTS. Instead of constructing buildings, the player builds the different rooms of a dungeon which have their own unique abilities, like feeding units, giving them a place to heal, providing training, allowing progression up the tech tree (or down the Veins of Evil, as the game calls it), and more. Each room attracts a specific type of unit, like the Gnarling, which is a light melee unit, or the Bafu, which is a badass flying unit (no, really!).

Like Dungeon Keeper before it, WftO differs from most real-time strategies in that the player generally has less control over the units, but sometimes more control than in any other game. Usually, the player can only make strong suggestions to units and hope they do what is expected. So, when enemies breach the dungeon, the player can pick up a unit and drop them close to the enemy, hoping a fight ensues. But the chosen unit can run away if it’s scared or simply doesn’t want to fight. In those cases, the player can cast a spell and take complete control of the unit, experiencing the world through that unit’s eyes and turning the game into a limited FPS.

Maps offer various terrain that players have to consider when base-building. For example, units will not traverse lava of their own freewill, so the player has to build a stone bridge to get across. Additionally, since the player usually has to dig paths through the dirt to reveal more of the map, secret rooms can be discovered, defensive choke points can be created, and kill zones can be taken advantage of.

Finally, the player also has access to magic, which can be cast in different situations. An air blast can be cast on the player’s controlled space to shove enemies away, but the same spell can’t be used on the enemy’s turf. Each spell use costs mana, which is a shared resource with traps, workers, and constructs. So, the player has to decide on what to focus on at any given time.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Any fan of Dungeon Keeper will feel at home with WftO. As an added boon, there are a handful of refinements that the developers added to help make base management a little easier. For example, different banners are available to give different unit specific orders instead of just rallying everyone to one location. Imps, er, I mean workers can be blocked from taking certain routes by using the IMPasse banner. This is a great quality-of-life improvement for any player who hates having to micromanage every worker to keep them from killing themselves. Assigning units to a peace banner will also exclude them from going to battle when the player drops a rally banner. For a type of game that has always been a clunky RTS, smart control options are welcome additions.

Where the game falters are in its overall charm and fit and finish. Dungeon Keeper was never that great of an RTS. What it had going for it was the cuteness of the game world and the subtle humor that filled every nook and cranny. In WftO, there’s something inexplicable that’s missing that makes the game feel too serious. Perhaps it’s the unit designs or not enough unique lines for Richard Ridings, but the game simply doesn’t capture the carefree aspect of its spiritual successor.

To make matters worse, the gameplay in the campaign isn’t balanced very well. On most maps, the player has to defeat the enemy as quick as possible or else be overrun. So, what should have been a relatively stress-free, slower-paced, and tactical RTS experience quickly becomes a test of memorization and timing.

Finally, the game is still prone to bugs, even two years after its release. Load screens hang interminably, required NPCs don’t spawn or disappear arbitrarily, and the game will sometimes crash to desktop. Fortunately, the developers still support the game and actively address these issues, communicating progress on their forums.

A Continuing Labor of Love

War for the Overworld has had a few DLCs released over the past two years which added new levels, a new game type, and a bevy of quality-of-life improvements. And while the game failed to win the “Labor of Love” award on Steam, the developers definitely deserve recognition for their hard work which continues through this year. They are targeting end of Q1 2018 for their last DLC for this game. I, for one, am excited for the final addition.

Kudos to Brightrock Games for sticking with this game for so long. Yes, War for the Overworld feels like a small game relative to Dungeon Keeper. And, yes, the game does rely on achievements to create replay value. But the one thing WtfO does uniquely well is provide closure to a chapter in my gaming life that I thought would never be resolved. For that, I’m grateful that this game exists.

If you were ever a fan of Dungeon Keeper, then you should become a fan of War for the Overworld. It’s an incredible reminder of when lightning was caught in a bottle. And that same lightning was almost caught again here.