Last time I discussed what made a good dungeon. That got me to thinking about specific examples and what I would choose as the single best dungeon of all time. That, of course, would be an incredibly difficult choice to make, so since this blog is primarily about CRPGs, I thought I'd restrict it to just those.
Then I realized that would still be difficult, as I hadn't bothered playing Dragon Age yet and the Ultima series is so long ago I can't remember it in detail. Then I'm sure some would argue for "dungeons" out of games like KotOR or Mass Effect. Therefore, I'll restrict this list to what I'll call recent D&D-based games. This includes the BG series, the IWD series, the NWN franchise, ToEE, and PS:T.
Even so, this list will likely not be without controversy, as I'm reasonably sure I have a few opinions that are not necessarily widely shared. Nevertheless and without further ado, here's the first half of my personal top-10 list.
No. 10: The Severed Hand (IWD2)
The IWD1 version of this dungeon isn't too far off this list, but the IWD2 version does enough right to make it. No individual level is all that big, but the main tower has four full levels and then four smaller towers that each have three or four levels above the main tower. There is no end of things to do, as the dungeon is an active citadel/fortress for the bad guys. You can free some slaves, solve a bit of food theft, and do a number of minor quests more reminiscent of a town than a proper dungeon. When the fighting starts, the variety of enemies is a bit restricted to demons and devils, but there are a fair number of golems, elementals, and humanoids to give a little variety. The dungeon is light on traps and devoid of secret doors, but the atmosphere manages to stay tense throughout as you are always aware that every living being in the place can turn on you in a moment if they ever discover you're an imposter. This is the enemy's stronghold, after all. Oh, and about that enemy? The dungeon bosses, the demon-siblings Isair and Madae, also happen to be the game bosses. They aren't the greatest bosses as games go, but for dungeon bosses, they’re pretty cool.
No. 9: The Skein (MotB)
The Skein beneath Coveya Kurg'anis has a number of slight problems, but it does one thing better than anything else on the list: atmosphere. The endless cackling of an insane hag alone would make it a strong contender for best atmosphere, but the mood-setting portion of the area design (lighting, flooded lower levels, shadow door entrances) put it over the top. The puzzles, such as reactivating the machine to deactivate the air elemental guardians, are well-designed and the selection of enemies isn't bad, although it also isn't great. I'm not wild about the layout of the Skein - too many corridors - and it's a little small with only one true level and a few encounters on the exterior and an upper level. Finally, the boss "fight" in the lower level is weak, although the hag's revelation that she's Gann's mother is a neat twist that gives her some characterization. It is true that the real bosses of the dungeon are the floating hags above, but most players will simply talk to them. In short, despite its incredible atmosphere, it doesn't do enough right to contend for the overall crown, but it's still an enjoyable romp.
No. 8: Drearing’s Deep Cult Compound (HotU)
I’m going to do my best to overlook the fact that NWN1’s graphics have aged worse than even the Infinity games because its second expansion pack produced the greatest dungeon in the official NWN franchise and one of the best ever. Drearing’s Deep was a perfectly depressing city where the inhabitants lived in fear until the day their number was called for them to be sacrificed to the cult’s god, Vix’thra. It’s a perfect recipe for a hero, and the cult compound turned out to have more than a few surprises. It had an awesome non-combat encounter at the dark altar on the upper levels where you could “Bless” your weapon into becoming one of utter evil. The idea that you needed a rope to be able to descend down the pits into the lower levels was cool. That you actually needed to stake a vampire once you killed it to keep it dead was new to the NWN-franchise (although BG2 had beaten them to it). The weak points of this dungeon were its comparatively-small size and its overreliance on undead for adversaries, including the level boss, the high priest Soldaris who you actually have to beat twice. Oh, but wait, while he may be the level-boss, he isn’t really the dungeon boss. That’s left to the so-called “god,” Vix’thra. If a dragon is a cool end-boss, then an undead dragon is even cooler. And this battle with a dracolich is one for the ages.
No. 7: Goblin Fortress/Warrens (IWD2)
This entry is something of an enigma to me. The above-ground portions are first-rate whereas the below-ground portions leave me a little - though not completely - cold. The size is a little large but almost perfect, and most of the dungeon is well-laid-out. The exception is the upper level of the warrens, which is essentially a big, long, snaking corridor. While not completely annoying, this level could certainly be scrapped. The range of enemies is larger than might be supposed given that it is a goblin fortress, with trolls and a demon featured alongside the expected goblins, orcs, orogs, and so forth, but the vast majority of enemies are still humanoids of some type. The set piece battle in the fortress courtyard is a gem that lends itself to a variety of party tactics, and the fortress interior leads nicely to the end-boss tussle with a giant bugbear named Guthma. And while a simple bugbear may seem to be the lamest boss of all the dungeons on this list, he poses a suitable challenge for the party level and there are just enough hints of his personality and motivation written into the narrative to make him a believable character in his own right. There are a ton of orcs and goblins stuffed into these warrens, but in this case, it makes sense according to the dungeon's back-story (the enemy is amassing troops for an assault on the Ten Towns), so I can overlook it. There aren't too many traps and no secret doors at all (at least according to my memory), and although there are some non-violent ways to bypass certain battles, there are no truly non-battle encounters.
No. 6: Watcher’s Keep (BG2: ToB)
The behemoth dungeon that came with BGII's expansion pack, Throne of Bhaal, is almost certainly considered by many to be the quintessential dungeon in CRPGs - or at least D&D-based CRPGs - but I can't go that far. First the positives. The back-story for the dungeon is terrific, and the atmosphere is first-rate. The first floor is probably one of the best individual floors of any dungeon anywhere, the fourth floor isn't too far down the list, and the number of different enemies and different types of challenges is staggering. And, of course, Watcher's Keep boasts the best end boss, bar none (assuming you've got the cajones to take him on). So what's the problem? First, at five levels, the dungeon is a bit too big, but the most egregious problem is the third level, a "puzzle" that demands the player choose the correct sequence of exits from each subsequent screen to get through the supposed "maze." Amazingly, simply removing the third level from the dungeon would solve both of these problems, almost certainly leading to the top ranking. As it is, even given that 20% of the dungeon is total garbage, it's still good enough to land at a very respectable #6.
Stay tuned for Nos. 1 through 5!