Everyone loves dwarves. They’re the lovable sidekick, the violent Scotsman with a heart of gold, and if you need beard advice, that’s pretty much their only hobby outside of mining and blacksmithing. In the world of fantasy fiction, they’re a race of compatriots, rarely ever starring in their own adventure. Until now, that is. King Art Games won the rights to Markus Heitz’s well loved novel, The Dwarves, and has crafted one of the most colorful, lightweight RPGs of the year. Sadly a number of bugs and spotty polish hold it being truly great.
In The Dwarves, you play as Tungdil, an orphan taken under the wing of one of the world’s six powerful magi who has lived among humans his whole life. Before long, you’re sent out into the world to discover yourself. While you’re away, terrible things happen: The magi are killed, pale-elf-like Alfar collude with orc warbands, and the remaining magi that’s responsible for all this plans to tear the very veil between life and death.
Tungdil is no warrior, but it doesn’t take long for him to meet some friends that will whip him into shape. Boindil and Boendal are the first of more than a dozen companions you’ll meet along the way. They stand by your side in battle in your own mission before leading you back to their mountain kingdom. There you’re drawn into political intrigue and dismissed on the mission to craft the only weapon capable of stopping the powerful wizard Nod’onn.
If that sounds cliched, that’s because it is. Virtually everything in the story is tropish. The Dwarves bear Scottish accents. They love stone and metal work and say things like “Vraccas made us out of stone!” There are elves and orcs, wizards and warriors, good, evil, and hope a mystical, world saving weapon. Outside of the dwarves themselves, nothing much challenges convention here.
Surprisingly, it works. The Dwarves leans into its cliches and pulls them off very well. This isn’t the deepest game in the world; far from it, actually. The game is lightweight and easy to digest - Tolkien with a lighter heart. The stylized character models steal the show (they may as well be straight from Dreamworks), but the voice acting is truly excellent for the dwarves in particular. Their colorful, varied personalities steal the show. Yes, they’re stereotypes, but if you even chuckled at Gimli’s “not the beard!” line in Lord of the Rings, there is a lot to love here. This is a game that survives on its character. King Art nailed it.
It’s in the adventuring that we discover what kind of RPG The Dwarves is. Outside of specific encounters, you travel along an overworld map that resembles a game board. You move your piece through branching paths, encountering towns and events along the way, or pausing for conversation and story scenes with your companions. Mostly these are narrated, and present several dialogue choices that might reward you with money or provisions to heal your party as they they travel. The map is massive but fairly empty. A lot of points serve no purpose other than to mark time or narrate a sentence or two. Merchants and enemies also roam the map, the former becoming downright irritating to chase down. More important locations throw you into the world to play through an encounter or battle.
As you might expect, characters complete quests and gain experience to level up, but there’s no gear or weapon upgrades to be found. Armor and weapons are given through the story and are few. You’ll find the occasional talisman to activate a temporary buff, or some potions and money, but that’s about it. Stats aren’t really a consideration. Progression consists instead of unlocking a new ability every two levels, up to level 10. You also customize your companions, and change them up every level, so there are a good amount of options but it still feels a bit shallow. What becomes shortly apparent, however, is that The Dwarves cares more about party tactics than solo prowess.
You control all four characters character with a pause and play system, allowing you to choose when and where to fire special abilities. The game applies an interesting Crowd AI system, which simulates the physics of individual enemies and then swarms you with them. Since most attacks are AOE with knockbacks/knockdowns, groups of enemies feel almost fluid as your attacks ripple through them and blast gaps that they rush to fill. It takes a while to get used to this system, but when it clicks it’s feels amazing. Proper positioning can make or break battles. Pulling enemies to a ravine to blast them off or positioning your team across a choke point and hacking down hordes with that devastating sense of impact is incredibly satisfying.
Sadly, I can’t say the experience was without flaws. The game never crashed, but I did encounter a number of bugs and polish issues that dragged down the experience and made the game feel unfinished. Badly timed deaths, say at the end of the encounter, confuse the game to no end, sometimes making everyone stop what they’re doing and other times running right into the next scene while you’re lying dead on the ground. Events sometimes failed to load. Oddly, pressing the wrong button adds Boindil and Boendal to your party before you ever meet them in the game.
Likewise, there are polish issues peppered throughout. In the first major fight, the mission objective stands in contrast to the dialogue coming from the person who just saved you. That fight also represents the first major difficulty spike of several throughout the game; however, this is mainly due to that lack of clarity and an enemy that just moves frustratingly fast, and the game’s harsh reload penalty if even one party member dies.
For PC players like we here at MMORPG, it was also sad to note a complete absence of basic graphics options or viewable keybinds. The last is particularly egregious. Without the ability to seen even basic controls, it took me more than two hours before I realized the camera could be rotated (middle mouse button, FYI.) It is inexcusable that in 2016 we should have to reading loading screen tooltips for basic, game changing functions like this.
But despite these issues, I kept coming back, and it’s because of the Fun Factor. The Dwarves has it in spades. The game is at once lighthearted in it’s art and humor, but also unsettling and sometimes wincingly violent. The dwarves are fun to be around. I wanted to see more of what they had to say and then take them into battle to put their mallets, axes, and great-weapons to use against the Crowd AI. Fun Factor doesn’t overcome the game’s issues, but it certainly helps mitigate them. The Dwarves is also a budget priced game, retailing at only $40, and for that price it’s fair to give King Art time to work out the kinks. For now, you have to accept the foibles to get at the fun.
The build used for this review was provided by THQ Nordic and King Art Games.
Gameplay - 8 | The RPG systems are lightweight, but the Crowd AI system works great with with the pause and play system. Characters feel and play differently. Ability choice is your primary progression.
Visuals and Sound - 8 | The Dwarves has a wonderful art style with its character models that is immediately reminiscent of animated films. Environments and sets are more standard. The voice acting and musical score are excellent.
Polish - 5 | A number of reload-inducing bugs, lack of options and overall clarity make the game feel unfinished.
Longevity - 7 | The campaign is about 20 hours. There are some limited branching paths, but this is mostly a well-told linear story.
Value - 8 | The Dwarves tells a fun, if stereotypical, tale from a novel perspective. Fun factor wins the day. For $40, there is enough playtime and enjoyment to make this a solid purchase.