It’s hard to describe how incredible it felt when I discovered that the first book of The Dwarves – part of one of my favorite book series ever – would be brought to life as a video game. Fantasy properties have really been underserved in the gaming medium, and The Dwarves could have been the golden standard going forward if done right. Sadly the final result after all that buildup was nothing less than a crushing disappointment.
This is quite easily the weirdest game I’ve ever reviewed. Why? Because the discrepancies between the good and the bad are so vast that I can’t help but wonder what happened. It’s almost as if two separate teams designed this game, with duties switching between one team who were bored out of their minds and another who put their heart and soul into this title.
To begin, the graphics are quite good. Capturing a fantasy property and bringing it to any visual medium is no easy task, but King Art Games nailed it here. The most important race in the game – the Dwarves – move and act like one would expect author Markus Heitz’s characters to move. From the Fifthlings’ fortress to Ogre’s Death, their homes look like grand dwarven halls, and the big human cities look like large urban centers that no dwarf would ever build, much less live in. It’s not perfect by any means (faces in cutscenes look creepy in that uncanny valley manner), but it certainly gets the job done.
The sound is decent as well, albeit repetitive. While of course there is some variance in the strikes and the general sounds of battle, they are recycled to the point where seemingly the same sounds are played over and over. This is best shown in the battle music, which is good but reused to the point where it becomes distracting. Even just one other battle tune would have been appreciated. The score is excellent for what it is, but the same criticisms can be applied. What’s there is good and effective, but it just needed more. The music imparts a sense of awe, wonder, sadness, and energy, but these effects lessen considerably when one hears the same thing a dozen times over.
What isn’t effective is the gameplay, which is the one thing that brings down the experience completely. It’s a shallow recreation of the combat featured in Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, and for every positive that can be gleaned three other negatives do their best to take its place. When the combat works, it feels good, and pushing orcs off cliffs by spell or hammer is always amusing. This ties into another point of contention, which is the sparseness of the menus. There is just a single page of settings, with no way to rebind the controls, no way to have a borderless windowed mode (unless you try and force it through third-party programs) and no definable way to change the graphics and settings besides a ‘Fastest’ to ‘Fantastic’, which tells me very little.
As I’ve stated, the combat in this game is its major downfall. Players can control four characters out of around a dozen, each having their own unique abilities and playsets. Tungil is a great tank while Boindil is an axe-wielding maniac who lovingly chops down orcs. You can pause and give your troops orders, and you can click on the screen to tell them where to go. It sounds great on paper, but the entire system is let down by both an overall sense of repetitiveness and the camera.
Basically, there are only three types of scenarios that players will face in combat: go somewhere, pick up something, or flee from overwhelming numbers. A mission is generally composed of some or all of these tasks and nothing more. While it’s cool to see so many enemies on the screen, they served as little more than obstacles. I never really wanted to kill them because combat takes way too long and delays the story elements that were keeping me invested.
As for the camera, it can generously be called a horrible mess. While you can adjust the camera, you can’t actually move it from what I could see. Honestly, who knows, since there is no resource that I can go back to in order to make sure that I have the controls memorized correctly. Instead, I was forced to mash all the buttons on the keyboard, and even then I couldn’t find anything to move the camera other than clicking from character to character or by changing the angle or elevation of the camera. It’s always fixed on something, which is terrible when you are up against a wall or in a small area. Of course, this exact situation could describe the vast majority of the game’s combat.
What this means is that you have a very limited camera to work with while you try to control four characters who do their best to kill themselves from unintentional neglect. Controlling this many characters in a top-down RPG will always offer some sort of challenge, but the challenge offered within The Dwarves is due too much to the game's design. An example of this is when I had a side-mission where I couldn’t pick up a bomb in order to blow up a bunch of caves, and I honestly couldn’t figure out if it was the game’s fault or ultimately my own. It was impossible to view correctly due to the camera, and when I went to click on the bomb nothing happened. In the end, I left and I found another way to get where I wanted to go. I shouldn’t have to do that.
I shouldn’t have had to, but I did, and this is because there a lot of bugs and glitches, with the worst offender being that sometimes the characters would stop fighting and have a particularly virulent staring contest with one another until my violent button mashing would force them to remember that “wait, we are in the middle of a battlefield, aren’t we? I guess we had better try and kill each other then.”
It gets better. Sometimes my characters would begin randomly floating in the air, and they would either stop moving completely or they would float forward so slowly I had to restart the game completely. It just seems as though the game reached a certain point and they were forced to ship it due to some sort of constraint. It certainly doesn't feel like a finished game, and one can only hope that its all eventually patched out.
While the bugs and the camera angles never completely derail their game, the combat system pushes it towards the very edge and into oblivion. Each character has three abilities that they can use on the battlefield, and over time you gain experience and new abilities, rounding them to around four to six overall. Through one of the weaker RPG systems that I've seen, the player can choose one of two abilities upon leveling every two levels, each of which are shared amongst all of the other characters. There is a charging ability, a slamming ability, a multi-target ability, and a few self-heal and one general healing ability. Rinse and repeat. It’s incredibly dull.
It looks so good on paper, and much of the game comes together in such a satisfactory way that it breaks my heart to see it stumble so badly. For instance, the excellent voice acting is utilized in a manner that I’ve never seen in another game. For each spoken passage, there is a voice actor and a general narrator. The character is brought to life by the voice actor, and the narrator finishes the passage by describing the character’s actions, movements, or expressions. It’s a melding of the book and visuals that I’ve never seen before, and it’s done so well.
Sadly, all this unique potential is wasted in such a spectacular manner that this may as well be a highly budgeted Graphic Audio production. I had to keep fighting the entire game in order to unearth some nuggets of enjoyment, all for around seven to nine hours of content overall. Considering the wealth of RPGs being released nowadays, you can do so much better. Whether you are a fan of the books as I am or you love the concept of a video game based on dwarves, wait for a sale. For everyone else, stay far away. This story is told very well, but it’s ultimately a generic save-the-world story that’s been done a thousand times before. Everything but the gameplay seems to have been given love and care, which is especially ironic considering that this is a video game.
Vraccas would be displeased.
The Dwarves was reviewed on PC (Affiliate) via Steam using a copy provided by the developer. It is also available DRM-Free via GOG (Affiliate), and on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
While The Dwarves is an excellent story-based experience, the gameplay surrounding it serves to quickly sour most of the enjoyment that can be found, and most fans would be better off rereading the books.(Review Policy)
- Graphics Show Off Girdlegard Well
- Excellent Voice Acting
- Quality Sound Design
- Mediocre Combat
- Rampant Bugs and Glitches
- Terrible Camera