The Dwarves Review — I Like ‘Em
I like to drink beer. Dwarves like to drink beer. I appreciate a good beard. Dwarves appreciate a good beard. I like to kill Orc scum. Dwarves like to kill Orc scum. Dwarves and I are a match made in heaven — but sadly my pure, potent love for Dwarves wasn’t enough to make me love this video game about them.
As you could probably gather from the first paragraph, I have a rather mammoth sized place in my hearts for Dwarves. And so when I heard first heard about The Dwarves from KING Art Games, it became one of my most anticipated games for 2016, despite knowing the game was more of a budget RPG compared to RPG greats in the last few years — like The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. When I found out the game boasted tactical real-time battles, I was even more jazzed.
Fast-forward to the moment of writing this, and I must say while the game consists of many great ideas and mechanics, the execution is ultimately lackluster almost across the entire board. It’s clear a lot of love went into this game, but not enough polish.
The game starts off by plopping you straight into one of the worst tutorials — if you could call it that — that I have come across in quite some time. I didn’t properly learn how to play the game until virtually half-way through, because most things are never explained to you — you just kinda figure them out. For instance, I didn’t know you get critical hits when you attack stunned enemies until I was almost done with the game. How did I come across this tidbit? Through the game’s loading screens — which are far too long — where at the bottom of the screen it gives you tips.
The Dwarves is a tactical role-playing game — probably, my favorite genre — featuring some interesting ideas in regards to combat, that are unfortunately not well executed. The combat consists of real-time battles, where players control a party of playable heroes (up to four) against hordes and hordes of orcs, ogres, and other malevolent creatures.
Heroes automatically attack when close to enemies, and whenever you want to you can pause the battle, and switch from character to character to order commands or to issue said character to use a special ability. Each character can have up to four of these special abilities that come in form of devastating attacks to things like buffs that raise said character’s defense for a short period. Classic RPG stuff.
In fact, the combat in many ways reminded me of Dragon Age Origins — just far less deep, less polished, and with even more performance issues (somehow). The pause feature in combat is a nice touch, but ultimately only serves one purpose: to reissue special move commands. The camera when paused isn’t broken per say, but is just rather useless.
You have little mobility to move around, zoom in and out on the map, to see the battle from a different view, or to properly adjust your characters with it — and so again, it becomes useless rather than a tool for strategy. And in a game with a “few against many” concept: this is problem. If you can’t strategize within this concept the game soon becomes a cluster of button-smashing, rinse and repeating, and micromanaging.
More often than not, combat gets so disorderly that you have to pause every two seconds just to get your ducks in a row and figure out what the hell is even going on. And this wouldn’t be such a problem if I was pausing constantly with a strategic gameplan under my belt. But I rarely ever had one. More often than not I had to pause to simply micromanage each character.
Because the game doesn’t have a lock on button, you can’t issue a character to lock onto a high priority target, or to punch a hole through a certain part of the enemy line. No, your character just attacks whatever enemy is closet at the time, which in a sea of chaotic hordes can become super messy, super quickly. The result is a system that requires you to constantly babysit each character, and that doesn’t allow you deploy any real strategy.
The Dwarves contains multiple different battles types, such as: defeat all enemies, defeat the boss, reach an objective point, protect an NPC, and many more. Bar the first mentioned type (which is the the most common) all of the above mentioned grievances become even worse, inherently because they require more precise controls and strategy. And so the result was the utilization of pure, brute force to power my way through.
For example, in the “reach an objective point” battles the goal is to reach a certain part of the map to end the battle. The only thing in your way is not just one or two waves of monsters, but endless waves. And so after a bajillion deaths I gave up, and decided to just run through the level with one character while spamming triangle (the button to get the other characters to follow you), and ran to the objective point without fighting anything. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but on the harder levels, it seemed like the only viable option.
When I first saw this game, it was the combat I was most excited about. Now that I’m done with, I can say it’s by far my least favorite part. It’s serviceable — sure — but there is hardly a pinch of strategy in it. It had felt like KING Art turned my beloved Dwarves into axe strapped headless chickens.
Dumbing down the combat even further is the game’s RPG mechanics, which are simply shallow and underdeveloped. As someone who has leveled up quite a bit of Dwarves in my day, I can confidently say leveling-up a dwarf has never felt so unsatisfying. Customization options usually boil down to choosing between two different skills to learn at certain level milestones. Two.
Whatever you choose can be added to the character’s loadout, which holds up to four abilities at a time. Most of the abilities are classic RPG abilities, like a lighting strike for a mage, and an axe sweep that knocks multiple enemies to the side with one hit. As you would expect, abilities can stack on each other and be combined to be more effective in battle. It’s a very simple system that at the end of day had a negligible impact on the gameplay.
As for more personal customization options, like ability to customize armor, appearance, or weapons — none of that is here. The extent of such customization begins and ends with the ability to equip characters with one item that frustratingly takes the place of one of your loadout slots.
So, if you have gotten this far in the review you’re probably wondering: “so what did he like about the game?” Well, quite a bit actually — enough that I would recommend the game to fans of the genre, or dwarves.
For starters, the game’s original music — featuring things like a live orchestra and choir — is great. In particular, a few of the game’s more epic pieces that play during battles kept me in immersed even when the gameplay itself wasn’t. The music feels great, and like any great soundtrack doesn’t just add to the identity of a game, but is an experience of its own, with memories of the game intricately linked throughout.
The best part of the game is the story and characters though. Now, don’t get me wrong — it’s no masterclass in either of these departments, but the story and characters do feel above everything else, closet to AAA quality. And this should come as no surprise either, after all the game is based on the novel of the same name written by Markus Heitz.
The story follows a young orphan blacksmith named Tungdil, who has lived his whole life apart from dwarves, in the human kingdom Ionandar. Tungdil is only dwarf in stature and beard though, for everything about him — his mannerisms, his education — is human. At the start of the game, your foster father (a powerful Magi named Lot-Ionan) sends you on errand that takes you across the realm of Ionandar. But this simple errand soon skews into a epic journey of orc annihilation, hard decision making, and world saving. You know, the usual stuff. I won’t spoil any more of the story simply because it is the best part of the game, and worth experiencing as blind as possible.
What I will say is the story is well written, and presented in a rather unique way. Despite mostly just being commonplace high fantasy, the story felt quite refreshing. Cutscenes were largely limited to only pivotal story points — totaling around 20 minutes — and were executed quite well. Were they Uncharted 4 level? Nope, not even close. Graphically and technically in fact, they were a little underwhelming, but this was balanced with good voice acting, and a well-developed story plot.
The game also boasts a novel-esqe narration that often intertwined with dialogue or interactions, and provided an effective way of providing backstory and world building narrative. Along your journey you will also have to make decisions that impact the world around you. However, more often than not these decisions hardly weighed on my conscious (and that’s coming from someone who takes hours upon hours to beat even a single Telltale game episode due to indecision). The choices ultimately are a nice touch, especially the ones made in dialogue, but the game would hardly be any worse without them.
As for the characters, most of them were just more run-of-the-mill fantasy characters, but yet I found them quite enjoyable. Whether it’s Boindil Twoblade blurting out a “OINK OINK PIGGIES,” or Rodario giving one of his sonorous speeches, I enjoyed my time with these characters. Boindil Twoblade specifically ranks up there with some of my favorite characters of 2016.
One thing that takes away from the story and world building though is the game’s lack of exploration. Traveling takes place by moving from one node to another via the map, and doesn’t include anything more than a pawn piece representative of Tungdil sliding node to node. Some nodes don’t hold anything other than the representation of a day passing (which in turn means a decrease in your supplies, which are used for healing injuries).
Other nodes will have town’s or cities next to them, but you never get to see said town or city, most of the time all you get is a narration blurb. Certain nodes will have events, or battles tied to them, and only then do you actually get to see what the area looks like, but this always very limited to just the battlefield. Some locations allow exploration, but you never can go off the linear path very far without being plopped right back on track by the game. It’s all very constricting, and sadly took me out of the world each time.
Lastly, the game has a plague of performance and optimization issues, as well as quite a few bugs. It is perhaps in this regard that the game’s budget nature shines through the most. At least on PS4, The Dwarves runs borderline terribly at times. The frame rate is unpredictable, especially during combat. For example, whenever the screen would fill with too much chaos the game would microfreeze, and clunk along for a few seconds. Luckily, I’m an Orc killing machine, and didn’t find this to happen more than a handful of times during the game.
Quite a few times the game also suffered some screen tearing, and when transitioning to cutscenes would momentarily drop in resolution. As for the graphics themselves, everything bar the cutscenes screamed lackluster, and looked frankly a bit old. The visual design also could have used a bit more color, as many things looked bland, and didn’t serve the characters, world, and genre well.
The Dwarves has a lot of potential. If it was made on a AAA budget, I believe it could have been one of the best games this year. But it wasn’t. I thoroughly enjoyed my 15 hours with it, but I’m also well aware of its numerous, easily identifiable, shortcomings. If you’re a dwarf connoisseur, then I can recommend this game. If you enjoy fantasy RPGs, and don’t mind tactical (though it’s hardly that) combat, then I can also recommend this game. But if you don’t particularly love either of these things, then The Dwarves from KING Art Games, may not be the dwarves for you.