Let’s face it: A fantasy novel adaption to any media platform is a tricky business. Even those who mean well usually fail and those who succeed are celebrated, which is why The Dwarves is probably the strangest game I’ve ever reviewed. For all of the many things that it does right, there are a few flaws that drag this game down from the heights that it nearly achieves. To put it bluntly, this is nearly a perfect adaption tied to an almost fatally flawed game, which is something that will be addressed throughout this article.
Let’s start with the obvious question – does it capture the novels? In short, yes, yes it does. While there are many things wrong with the game, the love and care put into bringing Markus Heitz’s bestselling series to life is very much evident throughout my experience with the game so far, even a half-decade removed from the last time I read the series.
Altogether, the graphics, voice acting, and the setting itself perfectly capture the world of Girdlegard, which is why it is so painful to consider the rest of the game - it's so close to achieving excellence that its stumbles are depressing. Maybe a sequel will address these fundamental issues, but that doesn't matter when considering this first title.
However, before we get to that, let’s discuss the good, which begins with the game's graphics. For any beloved novel being brought to life, it is usually difficult to precisely what a reader desires to see first. Is it the sprawling world and the lushly described environments? Is it the people and its histories brought to life, bringing color and substance to a slowly decaying picture in one’s mind?
The Dwarves doesn’t capture its setting perfectly, nothing ever really can match expectations, but it more than does an adequate job of doing so. To put it simply, it takes the words from the page and reproduces an excellent approximation on the monitor screen, ranging from characters such as the kindly Tungil and the wise Lot-Ionan to environments such as Lot-Ionan’s Vaults to the Dwarf fortress of Ogre's Death. For an independent game, it looks great, with only the jagged edges of underutilized anti-aliasing, and the somewhat frequent graphical glitches ruining the effect.
Ignoring the graphical issues for the moment, the voice acting is superb. Each character sounds different, acts differently, and essentially nails their novel counterparts. Boindil is a hothead who means well, Tungil is an initially naïve character who grows into a leader, and so on. Even better is the narration, which gives much to those who watch and don’t skip through it. To show what I mean, here’s an example:
“What do you mean he’s angry with me?” Tungil said, his breath coming out in a frustrated huff as his eyes looked upward in supplication. Vraccas save me from the stubbornness of dwarves, Tungil thought tiredly.
My bad fanfiction aside, the difference between writing and visual media is how potentially limited visuals are in comparison to the written word. While the face is a canvas of emotions that can be utilized to great effect, thoughts are how one truly learns to understand a character besides resorting to basic tropes. Usually, one doesn't hear the thoughts of characters aside from reading a book or looking at a character’s face, and the last option does not nearly give as much depth as the first. This is because, in the end, the face is just another mask to shelter one use or hide behind, and is a potential limiter that curbs the viewer's true understanding of a character. Essentially, thoughts are guileless and filled with truth - everything else is suspect to differing degrees.
Of course, while visuals can do much to alleviate this, it’s not usually practical to do a straight translation from novel to game, film, or TV show, as things are always lost in translation. While this is still the case for The Dwarves, the way in which the title approaches its narrative is close to both The Banner Saga and other games of its ilk approach their storylines. As one travels across Girdlegard, there are scenes off to the side that are not pivotal to the main story but are used to help flesh out the characters and give them depth, which is always appreciated.
However, what isn’t fully fleshed out is the gameplay, which comes across as half-baked and underdeveloped.
While the somewhat blatant Dark Alliance inspiration is there and appreciated, where The Dwarves falls flat is in its implementation of essentially everything else that isn’t strictly tied to gameplay.
When the game begins, the player is given a titular quest: to save Girdlegard from the forces of evil. While the road to which that event eventually occurs does change, the way in which the player reaches the ending does not.
There are two methods of play – on the map where the player moves from A to B and sometimes plays through visual events such as seeing orcs attack a town or a village, and in-game when they are either moving within a specific place for the narrative or actively fighting. It works fine on paper, it’s just that there is very little to break up the fighting. You appear on a screen (which usually isn’t that big to begin with) and fight a horde of orcs or some other evil assortment of creatures. While it’s not without its fun points – slamming down a hammer and forcing half a dozen enemies off a cliff is always fun – it’s just that that’s all there is to it. You have different heroes, but they play the same from the start to where I’m at now (which in the novel is more than three-fifths of the way there or about four hours of game time).
Even worse, there’s barely enough in the game to merit the classification of ‘RPG’. You can use potions and spells and you can level-up, but there is no armor or weapons to be gained or sold, only a few trinkets and a few talents in a pathetically small talent tree. For the most forgiving player it would be just enough, but for someone who has even an inkling of expectation will eventually find themselves disappointed.
Frankly, I’m not surprised. The Dwarves is a Kickstarted title and it shows, if not in the graphics or voice acting, but the overall game itself. The menus are bare bones with barely any options to customize the experience, graphical glitches such as characters locking up or floating are not unheard of, and the soundtrack, while great, is overused to cover up the fact that there isn’t much actual music in the game. It’s a title where it's clear that the developers budgeted themselves down to the last penny, and I cannot help but wonder what The Dwarves would be if it had received a proper AAA budget. Probably something spectacular.
Overall, my time with The Dwarves so far is a strange mixture of positives and negatives. The may be disappointing to some with what it currently offers, but since I’ve started treating it as an incredibly overproduced audiobook with sub-par gameplay it has been a lot easier to digest. I haven’t regretted my time in Girdlegard, but it hasn’t been an amazing time either. For what it’s worth, I still cautiously recommend checking out The Dwarves, but with some caveats. If you have read the books, love dwarves, and are looking for a decent ‘RPG’ title with an excellent adaption of a good fantasy series, you could do a whole lot worse than this.