Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: KING Art
Fantasy happens to be my book genre of choice and yet over the years I’ve somehow not read The Dwarves by Markus Heitz, something which this game, based upon the book, prompted me to fix. As much as I love the genre it’s fair to say that at times it can feel like one of the most stubborn when it comes to change, so engrained are the ideas of Elves, Dwarves, Dragons and Orcs. But as The Dwarves shows you can still tell a story worth telling even when you don’t stray very far from fantasy convention.
In The Dwarves you’re cast as Tungdril, an orphaned dwarf who was taken in by a human mage by the name of Lot–Ionan. Having become a great smith and a very adept scholar in his own right Tungdril is eventually entrusted to deliver some important items to a friend of Lot-Ionan hundreds of miles away, a journey that will give Tungdril is first real look at the outside world and a chance at finally meeting some of his own kind. Naturally, however, things go wrong and Tungdrill ends up involved in a quest to save everyone from the invading Perished Lands while also dealing with some Dwarven politics.
The Dwarves sells itself as a role-playing game with tactical combat, and I admit that this description may have given me the wrong expectations going in. It may give you the wrong idea, too. If you go into a roleplaying game with plans to level up your character, spend far too long equipping your party with matching outfits and fiddling with stats then The Dwarves may not be for you. There’s a substantial roster of fourteen characters, but you can’t change their weapons, give them new armor or improve their stats. As for the skill trees you can pick between two skills every couple of levels and by time you’ll hit the level cap you’ll only have five skills, many of which are the same across the group. Customization is pretty much a no go, then.
Thankfully the cast are a likable bunch of misfits who are only sometimes let down by poor dialog or iffy writing. Lead character Tungdril in particular is a charming chap, and watching his interactions with the other people in the group is enjoyable stuff. At about 8-10 hours, though, it feels safe to say that the crew don’t get the time they really deserve to have their personalities developed. Amidst the mountains of combat I found myself wishing for more time to just talk to them, and learn about them. Ah well.
You’ll be traversing an overworld of sorts, represented by a playing piece that you shift from location to location as you head toward the next mission or stop to take on a side-quest. Each move you make on this overworld takes a day of in-game time, while any provisions you have will heal lingering wounds. Nothing much actually happens in this overworld, though, aside from the occasional random battle or some admittedly well-written and narrated piece of conversation or something else. Most of the time you’re just moving around, patiently waiting to get to the next part of the story. It’s such a huge world, too, yet mostly devoid of anything to find or do. It feels so tacked on, like the developers planned on making a much bigger game with more side-quests and locations to discover but simply ran out of money before they could do it. Still, it’s not all bad, there’s a couple of fun little quests to go on, even including a couple of light puzzles.
Continuing the idea that there was a lot more the developers wanted to do with the game are a few brief sections where you get to roam around a real-time map without having to kill anything. These areas are very small, though, and contain just a few interactions each, making them feel almost completely redundant. Instead of being a chance to do some world-building they are disappointingly limited sections.
As you progress you’ll be able to effect minor change to the world. Given the fact that the entire game is based upon a book it’s unsurprising that you can’t alter the story in any truly meaningful way, but it’s nice to be able to alter little things as you go.
When it comes to combat The Dwarves favors huge swarms of enemies that come bumbling in and attempt to overwhelm with sheer numbers. Standing against them is your small group of just four heroes who are capable of swiping aside half-a-dozen or more foes in a single move. The Dwarves claims to be tactical and to reinforce this concept it proudly waves around its ability to pause time with the spacebar in order to dole out orders to your little group. The problem is that tactics quickly go out of the way due to the sheer number of foes trying to rip your face off, so all the pause button does is give you a chance to activate special abilities governed by action points before waiting for them to become usable again. The rest of the time will be spent trying to keep characters together, and attempting to avoid killing yourself thanks to friendly fire being a huge problem in a game that likes to give you big, sweeping attacks. It’s a mess, basically. A big, whopping mess. You may enter a fight with some semblance of a plan, but that plan will quickly fall away in favor of spamming special moves. A major part of that is because your team’s standard attacks are about as effectual as a fly attempting to assault a pissed off lion. The closest you’ll get to actual tactical thinking is whether to send a hero off to combat a few archers giving you grief.
There are other problems with the combat, too. Too many of the substantial character roster share moves which makes the already limited leveling up choices feel even more limited, and there’s no way to queue up commands or set any default behaviors, so you have to micromanage the entire battle. A lack of ways to heal mean you’ll spend your time chugging rare health potions or attempting to keep a hero out of combat so their health can regenerate, but as soon as you swap over to someone else the A.I. will take over and unhelpfully charge your vulnerable character straight back into the fray, potentially getting them killed and losing you the battle. Yes, it’s game over as soon as one character dies. Your party are also prone to doing absolutely nothing when given an order, and to terrible pathing which sends them scurrying into trouble or getting stuck on each other. Even when they do listen there’s a notable delay between them getting an order and actually executing it. The limited camera doesn’t help, either, refusing to give you a good overview of the battlefield. If you want to see how a hero is doing off-screen you have to select them using the portraits at the side of the screen or by using the hotkeys – you can’t simply move the camera freely around the combat area, which is endlessly annoying.
Yet credit must be given where it’s due: the combat isn’t bad, just not very tactical, and there is an enjoyable emphasis on using the environment to tip the scales in your favor. There are plenty of sheer drops where a well-placed swing can send a pile of enemies straight over the edge to their deaths, plus some lovely fire that can be used to flambe some poor suckers. There’s even a battle where you can wreck supports to bring down chunks of ceiling. Furthermore the developers do provide a few different scenarios, so some times you’re just hitting things in the face, and other times you might just have to get your time out of dodge or have to take down a specific target.
Still, it’s fair to say that the combat was generally the most tiresome aspect of The Dwarves. The lack of enemy variety means you’ll be battling the same goblins over and over and over again with the occasional Alfar boss chucked in for good measure, and so while the scenery might change there’s an overriding feeling of repetition. Each fight blurs into the next. I can’t honestly pick out more than one or two moments from the numerous fights I was engaged in . They all feel the same.
And damn, is the game guilty of difficulty spikes or what! Battles tend to go from incredibly hard, to tricky, to fine and then all the way down to extremely easy without ever finding a good curve.
Moving on to the graphics and audio The Dwarves continues to be a pick ‘n’ mix of quality. The art-style is really quite nice, but the technical expertise and budget needed to do it justice aren’t really there. There’s a reasonable amount of detail in the environments and character models, but stiff animations really hurt it, especially during combat where strikes lack any sort of impact. Your heroes have the ability to push enemies out of the way, but that results in them sliding across the ground. It looks a bit daft. In other words it looks like exactly what it is: a mid-tier game without the huge budget that triple-A titles have. As for the audio the voicework is generally quite good with a few performances that go into caricature territory but are still enjoyable. There’s some good music by Blind Guardians, although the combat soundtrack will grate after just a couple of battles.
There’s also some general polish issues, too. I never ran into anything serious, but to do be prepared to see things like a hero continuously spouting blood, an enemy becoming frozen in place and invincible and in one instance after leveling up some characters the new skills didn’t appear.
The Dwarves problems are frustrating not just because they are annoying in themselves, but because they’re getting in the way of a highly enjoyable story. I picked up and read my way through the first Dwarves book and thereby confirm that some substantial trimming has been done to fit everything into a slightly short 6-8 hour experience. But they’ve done a good job of bringing it all together and telling a good story. Despite having dwarves at the forefront, something we don’t often see, it’s fair to say that this is still a fairly stereotypical fantasy tale in many regards, and yet it’s also a rather engaging yarn and an interesting world.
The truth is I probably like The Dwarves more than I should. Examining its gameplay there’s not much going for it. The combat is enjoyable for the first two or three times but begins to drag after that, there’s no character customization or progression and nothing to do outside of killing stuff. Throughout the entire thing it felt like the developers wanted to do more, but couldn’t. But the story helps save the game. Even though I knew the outcome I kept going to see it played out on-screen. If you’re after a solid fantasy story and don’t mind some mindless hack and slash combat or the lack of character customization then it may be worth picking up, although I’d argue that waiting for a sale is the smart thing to do.a