A Fun High-Fantasy Surprise
The Dwarves
Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox1
MSRP: $40
Release Date: Dec 1, 2016
Copy provided by published

Sometimes, a game appears that you weren’t expecting.  It might have been because there was no hype, or life has just been too busy.  Then, all of the sudden, you see it on the rack in the game store, or it pops up as a recommendation in the Steam store, just for you.

The Dwarves is a game that you don’t expect to see.   It might not be the sort of game that typically catches your eye; but yet, you want to play it.  You want to play it because it feels like it could be something different, something fun…and better yet, from the looks of the trailer, it’s going to tell you a good story.

The Basics:  A Fantasy German Story Brought To Life?  What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

The Dwarves is an unexpected adventure for many partially because of its source. Developed by King Art Games (German) and THQNordic (Austrian), The Dwarves comes to us from overseas, and with it, an element of familiarity. And yet it feels immediately different than the games we see American publishing companies pumping out. 

The Dwarves is a game that follows the plot of a book with the same name, Die Zwerge.  It was written by Markus Heitz, and the series he wrote was large enough to gain a strong following, the books being translated into other languages.  You are thrust into the role of Tungdil, a dwarf that was orphaned and grew up with humans rather than his own kind.  When he finally has a chance to set off on his own adventure of self-discovery, the world around him is being invaded by dark forces.

It’s honestly refreshing to be handed a high fantasy story to play through.  This isn’t a JRPG or a gritty open-world from Ubisoft. This is its own beast with its own goals and end game.  The Dwarves feels different than most games you see on the market, and because of that, it succeeds in some big ways, being able to march to its own tune.  At the same time, it makes some mistakes trying to do some of those new things.  It’s a great game to play, but it might not be for everyone.

The Gameplay: Mass Melees And Quiet Investigations

The Dwarves is an interesting study in extremes.  It takes its time in telling you a story, with long stretches of exposition giving lots of detail to the world and its history.  The narrator and different voice actors weave a story, whether you are on the overworld map walking from location to location or investigating an abandoned hideout or large dwarven hall for clues.  There are plenty of character animations of Tungdil as he rummages through rucksacks, yells at annoying humans, or climbs up mountain sides.  You have dialogue options you explore, where the selections you choose change elements of your story; some encounters can be avoided entirely by your quick wit, and some characters (and even towns!) will live or die by what choices you make.

The overworld map is where you can shape the narrative to be your own story.

Then, suddenly, this quiet, almost point-and-click world explodes into chaos.  All of the lazy, slow exploration that you enjoy at your leisure evaporates, and your band of characters find themselves outnumbered by the hordes of monsters which are invading Girdlegard.

I have not yet fought a single battle where I am not outnumbered by ridiculous margins.  The first fight you encounter with Tungdil has over twenty orcs suddenly appear from every corner of the screen, and for the most part, that number of foes just keeps increasing as you play.  There are some fights that, if you become weighed down with slaying hordes of grunts, you are rewarded with more foes streaming in, blocking you from your true objective for that scenario.

An element of The Dwarves that makes the combat more chaotic than a typical RPG is that the combat is happening real-time.  There is no waiting for a turn: axes and clubs fly, characters are knocked over, and your heroes perform brutal killing blows on downed opponents as you hack your way through legions of foes.

There are....lots, and lots of bad guys for everyone to kill.  Trust me.

It bears noting that, typically, your basic auto-attacks don’t do a lot of damage.  In contrast to this, your special attacks are incredibly powerful: not only do they do (a lot) more damage, but often affect multiple foes.  Quite a few of your starting special tricks let your dwarves either knock down orcs, leap over them to get out of sticky situations (or into them), or just toss them around the map.  Fighting next to cliff ledges is a blast in The Dwarves, as launching your enemies off into the void never ceases to thrill.

Your main character might be new to being a dwarf, but he’s a quick study.  The twin dwarf brothers you meet first are hilarious introductions to the dwarves of this world; they help propel you through your first few fights and the initial plot of the game.  As the world you explore opens up with more options, you also start to gain the ability to rotate your team, taking four warriors at a time into a fight against the many people that wish to slay you.  Your first three dwarves have a lot of similar abilities, but as you find new team-mates, your options during combat start to widen up dramatically.

A few hours in and the game is spinning off into its full plot, with your party rotating through mages with explosive power, tough dwarves that throw about foes, and tricksters that help you pick off the foes you really want to be killing.  You dash across the overworld map, travelling from plot point to plot point, and along the way dialogue and exposition spring up, deepening character ties and your immersion in this world.  Then, just as suddenly, a new orc horde is on you without warning, and you are launched into the chaotic melee once again.

The Good: A Well Told Story With Climactic Battles To Match

I’ll be honest, I had some worries that the game was going to become repetitive when I played the first two or three hours.  It has an odd pacing to it, and the first few fights let you have only three characters with similar abilities.  However, once I fought my first combat against a foe besides orcs, that anxiety went out the window.

Four or five full battles in, you see objectives creep into the game.  It can be targeting the leader of the pack, forcing you to break through the hordes of foes that face you, or it might be trying to free villagers from their houses before they burn alive.  One of my favorite fights was one where I had to get to the exit of a canyon, where groups of orcs and ogres, complete with siege weapons, were positioned.  There was no way to handle all of these groups at once, and orcs ran to warn the other camps once triggered.  Rather than dashing to the exit, I systematically snuck around to eliminate the runners, and then removed every camp by leaping over rock faces and throwing many greenskins to their doom with special attacks.

The upgrade chart for your characters is simplified from other RPGs, but with combat so chaotic and fast, a quick interface is a welcome thing

When you start to get allies which have flame attacks and magic, things become really fun.  You are encouraged to rotate which four characters you bring into battle as the story unfolds, and you’ll find combinations that are a literal blast.  Using Tungdil’s ability to knock down foes so Rodario can spray flames across a sway of helpless orcs always is a delight, or having Boindil leap out of a chokepoint so a ranged character can bombard the area is rewarding.  These big moments where you turn the tide of an overwhelming fight are truly memorable.

It can’t be expressed enough how wonderful it is to have great voice acting in a game like this.  The Dwarves would have been unplayable if the actors hadn’t given their all to the narration of the exposition between map areas and to the individual characters themselves.  Listening to the dwarf twins complain about having to retreat, or ancient kings pass down laws to try and save Girdlegard is a genuine treat, and I found myself not skipping forward after I finished reading the dialogue, and instead enjoying the game play through both cut-scenes and arguments between companions around the campfire.

The Bad: Rough Camera Angles And Unpolished Edges

Unfortunately, taking the road less travelled can mean that you run into pitfalls as you try to clear the way forward.  The Dwarves is an uneven experience: ironically, while the voice-acting, animations and story are some of its strongest suits, it does run into problems with its combat and presentation.

First, there are some bugs in the game which will cause it to crash.  Since starting my play-through, the game collapsed on me 5 or 6 times.  It never happened while I was in combat, but while I was on the overworld, moving from location to location, I was booted back to my desktop as the game crashed entirely.  Fortunately, auto-saves do happen in The Dwarves, and I never lost a lot of progress because of these overworld crashes. It can be a little frustrating however, so make sure you save while travelling.

Combat can be a chaotic and fun melee, but occasionally it gets bogged down with a few issues.  The one you will experience the most is, unfortunately, character pathing.  One of the strengths of the combat (hordes of monsters and characters) turns into a weakness when your characters try to move and reposition on the battlefield.  Sometimes, scenarios ask you to escape to a certain location, or organize your armies along a narrow corridor; while you can use character abilities to leap or push monsters out of the way, your heroes might stop trying to move, or even fight, if they are blocked in by your other characters.  I did lose one or two fights because Tungdil didn’t realize how to tell his friend to step a little to the left to avoid an ogre club.

The camera also could certainly use some work as it can get ‘pinned’ above the action, and you won’t be able to rotate to get a better look of the battleground.  It’s not a deal breaker, but I did find myself frustrated once or twice that I couldn’t see where the enemy reinforcements were pouring in from.  Also, while the special attacks are an absolute joy to use, your auto-attacks do feel relatively useless.  It means that during some fights you will find yourself pausing every few seconds to set up the next well-placed attacks, taking away some of the fun immersion that the grand melees in the game give you.

The Dwarves Is A Refreshingly Different Take On Role-Playing Games And Storytelling

I can almost always tell when a video game was developed from somewhere other than North America.  This isn’t a bad thing, or a good thing, it just simply is.  Most AAA titles that come from the US or are imported from Japan are made with certain expectations, guidelines, and restrictions, based on what’s done well in the games market before.  The Dwarves doesn’t feel like a typical game: it is a novel brought to life, with characters and full paragraphs of text translated into pixels and bits for you to digest.  It is a game of high fantasy, a genre that was considered outdated with the rise of things such as Game of Thrones or Darkest Dungeon.

Yet, because of these very things, The Dwarves is a game that succeeds in doing what many polished games are trying so desperately to accomplish: standing out.  It does something different and goes against the grain to tell its tale.  It has both dramatic, exciting combat and long stretches of relaxing reading.  It simplifies your character customization in an attempt to make fighting feel more immersive than ever.

Immersive is probably the best adjective for The Dwarves.  I found myself enjoying the exploration in the game, trying to find out every last detail of a location before picking up and moving across the overworld map.  I found myself wanting to find every side-quest about saving a village or gaining a new ally, even reloading games to see different cause-and-effect in character interaction.  When I was in combat, I found myself pausing just to take a breath, spin around the camera, and look at the massive hordes of foes before preparing to try and remove all of them from existence.

The Dwarves is a good game, because it un-ironically leaps into the world of high fantasy and tells a great story.  It lets you enjoy escapism, get sucked in by its narration, and have some wonderfully epic battles.  It isn’t a perfect game, but I sincerely appreciate what it does right. if you want a solid single-player experience, this is a game worth looking at.  The bumpy ride is worth the price of admission, and there's plenty of enough chaos and fun for everyone to feel like a hero by the time the story is done.  Good luck in Girdlegard! May there be many orcs to slay along your path to glory.