Coming Up Short
HIGH Boindil’s impromptu minecart massacre.
LOW The battle system is frequently a confusing mess.
WTF Auto-pathing that makes characters occasionally leap to their deaths.
Based on the novels by Markus Heitz, The Dwarves is a real-time strategy RPG largely centering around the antics of Tungdil Goldhand, a dwarf who’s been separated from dwarvenkind for his entire life and raised amongst humans. He’s a little more polite and cultured than the average dwarf, and a little less likely to go charging into the midst of a bunch of orcs and start chopping them into bits… at least for the first twenty minutes of the game or so. It isn’t long before he’s soon sent on a quest hundreds of miles from home, where he quickly falls in with some other dwarves who have a keen interest in bringing him back to meet their king. Things rapidly escalate from there.
The journey itself is conveyed in a fairly neat manner, with a little chessboard representation of Tungdil traveling between nodes on an overhead map. At each node something can occur, whether it’s a bit of narrative about the journey, settling down at an inn for the night, or being plunged into a life-or-death battle.
Once battle is underway, the game cuts to a real-time battlefield with up to four player-controlled characters taking on dozens of enemies at once. Sometimes the requirement is to annihilate a set number of enemies before the next cutscene kicks in, others may simply entail hoofing it from one end of the map to the other. Unfortunately, no matter what the victory conditions may be, it’s here where Dwarves starts to fall apart.
Annoyingly, every character in the player’s party needs more micromanaging than a bunch of infants in a razor blade factory. Give them three seconds alone to themselves and they’ll charge off into the largest enemy group they can find and get themselves hacked to pieces. It’s no wonder that pausing the game while throwing out orders is so heavily encouraged — attempting to deal with their rampant idiocy in real-time would be damn near impossible.
Make no mistake, the quality of the combat here is pretty terrible. Characters won’t use special attacks by themselves without being specifically ordered to, and their standard melee hits are all but useless. This means that swapping back and forth to activate every special as it becomes available is key to winning, and it’s simply not a satisfying way to play. Most fights barely require any tactics — block the most obvious enemy pathway, try not to get surrounded, and abuse the best special moves without accidentally murdering any allies in the vicinity.
Dwarves‘ performance is consistently awful throughout, with a framerate that’s all over the shop. Sometimes it’ll be chugging along at a relatively acceptable level, then suddenly freeze for extended periods while the battle continues on in the background with no way to see what’s going on. Then there are occasional annoyances like fights kicking off before cutscenes have finished, or heroes repeatedly blocking each other’s pathways — try to walk past an ally and they often ‘stick’ to one another, making even simple traversal unnecessarily awkward.
I could go on at length about the problems I encountered — moments like calling my allies over to my location only for their abysmal pathfinding to drop them down a hole and instantly fail the battle — but instead of going through a laundry list, let me simply underscore just how rickety it is by saying that Dwarves crashed to dashboard during the final cutscene, forcing a replay of the final couple of battles to finally see it all through.
The storyline fares a little better than the technical side, but still isn’t enough to salvage the overall package. The characters aren’t handled too badly, with Boindil’s typically-murderous outlook towards adversaries (including a great moment involving some orcs and a minecart) being a particular highlight. Without spoiling anything, it turns out that he’s even more of a maniac than expected. The script also doesn’t shy away from some grim subject matter despite its cartoonish visuals — unexpectedly finding a human foot in a cauldron of soup was a bit of an eye-opener.
Although I enjoyed certain moments, it’s tough to shake the feeling that The Dwarves expects players to be familiar with the source material so that it can essentially bypass most of the required character work throughout, and instead flits from plot point to plot point in an almost haphazard fashion. It occasionally feels like a summary of events rather than a true narrative, and it’s not helped by the fact that some of the most important events in the story occur off-camera.
Needless to say, The Dwarves is a tough game to recommend. There are times when it looks like there’s a much better game trying to claw its way free from the technical and design issues that plague it, but they’re only fleeting glances at what could have been before it gets overwhelmed by the muck dragging it down. Fans of the books it’s based on might get some worth out of The Dwarves, but when compared to pretty much any other half-decent RPG on the market, it comes up short in almost every possible way.
Disclosures: This game is developed by KING Art and published by THQ Nordic. It is currently available on Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac and Linux. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains blood and gore and violence. It’s a bit of a weird one. about ninety percent of the game looks like it’s all twee and cuddly and child friendly, then someone picks up a rock and smashes someone’s brains open out of nowhere, or cheerfully decapitates someone mid-sentence during a cutscene.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Pretty much every piece of dialogie has subtitles, and I don’t recall anything that would impair the experience from an audio point of view.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.