Short in stature with big personalities, dwarves are one of the most misunderstood races in the mainstream fantasy genre. They’re always at loggerheads with each other or the elves, and have a healthy paranoia when it comes to exploration outside their own walls. The Dwarves, developed by King Art Games, delves into the spiteful relationship between dwarves, elves and humans, inspired by Markus Heitz’s novel of the same name. However, the quality of The Dwarves’ story is far superior to its lack of features and unreliable in-game performance.
The Dwarves tells a familiar fantastical tale, and the inhabitants across the lands of Girdlegard are put in a similar predicament with the Lord of the Rings novels. A dark evil has awakened in a faraway corner of the world, The Perished Land, and a collective of dwarven clans must band together, seek potential allies, and stop it spreading any further. You play as Tungdil, a dwarf raised by humans in an underground city who has never seen his own homeland – let alone been outside – until his guardian Lot-Ionan, the local mage, sends him on an adventurous errand.
King Art Games has taken a unique, choose-your-own-adventure styled approach to story progression. Sections of The Dwarves’ map are laid out in a dotted format where players must find their own path to an objective. Certain pit-stops along the way, like a tavern, may lead to finding useful information or trigger a quest at another location, or perhaps you’ll have the option of hiding up a tree or nestling inside its hollow to avoid an orc horde at night; it’s a great source of offloading player choice and ensuring suspense is constant, even if they have minimal effect on the major plot of Tungdil’s adventure.
The cutscenes during such moments are a particular highlight. The dark and brightly lit underground dwarven cities and the roster of short-tempered characters are given room to shine. Combined with the animation and voice-over work, the cutscenes make for an impressive package of narrative and source of character development. However, said cinematics are few and far between, and all too often lead to static screens where minutes can go by without a single in-game character moving an inch. Tungdil occasionally has a selection of consequential dialogue options as a means of breaking up this lack of on-screen stimulation, but it simply isn’t enough; the animations, cutscenes and voice-acting are a complete package and one rarely survives without the others.
But most of the voice-acting is well-delivered and adds that potent sense of urgency, struggle and self-belief to such a momentous situation; it’s some of the best work I’ve heard all year. The Dwarves is also anchored by superbly emotive narration, adding impactful sprinkles of anger or touches of sarcastic humour. The execution betters that of Theresa from Fable II, voiced by Zoe Wanamaker, whose delivery I’ve held with a high regard.
It’s extremely unfortunate this same level of class isn’t reflected in The Dwarves’ gameplay. King Art Games has made The Dwarves an unbalanced title, even on easy difficulty, and overcrowded the screen with orcs, goblins and hulking beasts, resulting in astronomical difficulty spikes. Your companions’ skills are meant for crowd control and every ability uses action points, which slowly regenerate over time. Each combat encounter, regardless of its simplicity, comes with a cumbersome, poorly-executed camera with a limited zoom that can’t move freely around the battlefield or rotate over the in-game map. Its poor manoeuvrability makes finding potential side-quest objectives a chore and leads to awkward camera angles and infuriating battles.
You can pause the game to activate certain abilities for each of your heroes and maintain a strategical advantage. Some skills are invaluable, like fellow dwarf Bavragor’s Whirlwind skill that deals massive damage to an enemy and lesser damage to other enemies nearby; heavily armoured brute Djerun has an efficient Kick and Charge skill. It’s satisfying to see these hard-hitting skills at work, but it in no way makes up for the lack of role-playing elements and other issues in the game.
It came as a real surprise to quickly learn of The Dwarves’ role-playing shortcomings. The levelling system is extremely basic for Tungdil and his companions, limited to a handful of skills and bringing only three into each battle. Some were already preset upon reaching the required level, whereas with others I could choose from a selection of two abilities to add to my repertoire.
The Dwarves also suffers from a non-existent customisation system. In another odd design choice, players can’t tinker with the appearance of Tungdil, any of his fellow adventurers, or purchase additional weapons or gear. The extent of your customisation ends when dealing with weary traders or village merchants, but even this simple task reveals problems, as many pricey special items I bought from traders – with damage buffs and action point bonuses – failed to show up in my inventory.
The game’s performance on Xbox One fared no better. Frequent frame-rate drops during large-scale encounters or battles with detailed backdrops made The Dwarves unplayable, at times. I experienced a few game crashes but these occurred early on at inconsequential moments in the game. However, despite the ferocity and frequency of these issues, I don’t regret my time with The Dwarves. But the stark contrast of compelling storytelling and lack of technical polish has undoubtedly left an air of disappointment that could’ve rewarded dwarven video game tales with a worthwhile hero.
The strong story behind The Dwarves is sourced from a reputable novel and author. The enthusiasm for this tale is clearly reflected by King Art Games, with some nifty cutscenes and stellar voice-acting. Sturdy foundations were set for this game but couldn’t be replicated, due to shallow role-playing elements and a severe case of technical and gameplay inadequacies. The Dwarves clearly needed more polish prior to release and could’ve risen to be one of the success stories of 2017.
Beards and Broken Things
Above all else, The Dwarves is held back by a poor technical finish.