With all of the complicated things we see in life, I think we can all appreciate a game, book, or movie that just gives you exactly what to expect up front. The quintessential movie example, obviously, is Snakes on a Plane. And for me, the quintessential game example is now The Dwarves. It’s about dwarves.
The Dwarves is based on a book of the same name, which is the first in a series by German author Markus Heitz, and although I’ve only read half of the book so far, I feel like the game does a great job of adapting the source material. It remains true to the main storyline while allowing for freedom in terms of side beats that you see or don’t, including some items I’m relatively sure aren’t in the book but that make sense in the world.
In The Dwarves, you play the part of Tungdil, a young blacksmith. Having been separated from his clan as a baby, Tungdil was raised by a mage and found his way to the forge via natural inclination. In this setting, as in many, dwarves are known as powerful warriors and excellent craftspeople. Unfortunately, all Tungdil knows of his people is what he’s read in books, as he is the only dwarf in the kingdom. Still, he is proud of his heritage, as the Dwarves in other kingdoms serve as their lands’ main line of defense against the physical forces of darkness.
As the game begins, the mage who raised Tungdil asks him to take a bag of items to a former apprentice who now lives a few hundred miles away. But almost as soon as he’s out the door, Tungdil’s father figure is betrayed by another mage in a bid for power that will corrupt the land in which they live and bring the dead back to life in service of evil — if “someone” doesn’t stop him. I’m sure you only need one guess as to who that someone will turn out to be. (The story wouldn’t be very interesting if the answer were “some guy you’ve never heard of,” after all.)
As the game progresses, Tungdil meets up with a few other dwarves and several humans who aid him in his quest, each for their own reasons. It’s a good party, and everyone is useful in battle, so you should always have a balanced group available to you in a fight. Combat in The Dwarves is a real-time affair, and before each battle, you can choose up to four characters for your party and equip them with one trinket each that can be activated in battle to do things like increase their defense for a time or give them a chance to leech health. I really appreciate the varied goals you have in battles — some task you with simply ensuring that one party member is alive until all enemies are dead, while others make you reach a certain spot and clear the immediate vicinity of foes even if hordes are still alive elsewhere. Others ask you to kill a specific enemy or rescue a certain number of people from burning buildings, after which you have won regardless of who else is alive.
The battles I did not care for, though, are the ones where the objectives include “the entire party must survive.” I don’t know if it’s a lack of skill on my part or an AI issue, but when they came up, battles like that were the bane of my existence in The Dwarves. I had to play one such battle around two dozen times before I pulled it off. The main issue is that as dwarves, your characters are known to be tougher than any single foe, so their enemies go the route of surrounding them and overwhelming them with sheer numbers. (It is worth noting that this is true to the book.)
Thus, as the player, if you’re not checking your entire party’s health frequently and finding ways to move them out of danger while also attempting to achieve your other goals, someone is going to die. The game provides you the ability to pause and issue commands at any point, but I’m really bad at remembering to do that. After a while, I ended up changing the difficulty to Easy, which reduced the scope of the problem, but did not eliminate it. If you’re better at that type of gameplay than I am, you may find this a fun additional element rather than a frustrating challenge like I did.
Getting beaten up or knocked unconscious in battle (there is no perma-death) leaves your characters with “injuries” that reduce the amount of health they have at the beginning of subsequent battles. Fortunately, given a little in-game recuperation time, you can heal those injuries between battles, as long as you have “supplies,” which can be purchased or received as loot. It’s not something that has a major impact on gameplay from moment to moment, but it feels logical and keeps you from getting too reliant on the same group of four people in every battle when you don’t have the luxury of recuperation time. Even characters who don’t participate in a battle earn experience points, so you never worry about someone falling behind the team.
Between battles, you move from spot to spot on a (very attractive) world map. You can head to your destination via the shortest possible path or take your time exploring. If you do explore, there are quite a few random occurrences that add flavor to the world, such as an exiled dwarf with whom you can have an awkward conversation about your eagerness to rejoin your people. And whose burned and broken wagon you can come across later, leading to an optional side quest to find out what happened. These optional items generally award you with experience points, and we all love those.
The nice world map is representative of the game as a whole, since The Dwarves looks good in battle and cutscenes as well. Animations are smooth, and when you use your special skills, the game clearly shows you the area and characters that will be affected. This is especially important given that you can hurt your team or knock them off ledges just as much as enemies. This is clearly intentional — the words “friendly fire” appear over the affected character’s head — so that ability to pause and aim carefully before issuing commands frequently comes in handy.
The Dwarves’ presentation is top-notch in audio as well, with far more dialogue than I anticipated. Even just the party having a little chat by the fireside on the world map is fully voiced, and all of the actors do a good job. The soundtrack doesn’t include a huge number of tracks, but those on it are all solid and fit their purpose well. The closing credits feature an excellent original song by Blind Guardian called Children of the Smith that helps the game end on a real high point. I was already pleased with the last few battles in the game for reasons I can’t explain without spoiling story beats, so to then go into a song that I liked was a good enough experience that I had to give myself a couple of days between finishing and writing this review to make sure that I scored it based on the whole experience rather than just that.
I’ve been trying to think of complaints, and aside from my issue with the “all party members must survive” battles, the only thing I can really come up with is related to the menu for selecting party members and adjusting their skill hot buttons before a battle. There’s no real instruction on how that works, but I eventually worked out that if I used the d-pad to go up to the list of party members at the top, I could hit the X button (on PS4) to add or remove party members. The confusing part is that doing so doesn’t change which party member you’re looking at in the main section of the screen — L1 and R1 switch characters there. There are times that even that doesn’t seem to work quite as expected, but it’s not the end of the world — you have all the time you want. In the game’s first week or two of existence, there were also intermittent framerate issues in some battles, but after a patch came out to resolve the issue, I didn’t see them any more.
The Dwarves is a game that came out of a Kickstarter campaign, and it’s absolutely the type of success you’d hope for as a gamer. It’s a fun game with a really good story, thanks to a solid adaptation of good source material. It looks good and it sounds good, and my few frustrations with menu controls and a couple of battles I had a hard time surviving really don’t diminish my appreciation for the game as a whole. In fact, the two battles that really left me stuck led to very satisfying victories when I finally managed to succeed. Seeing as The Dwarves is based on the first book in a series, I hope we see sequels that continue the story to its conclusion in the future.