The Dwarves is a fantasy, realtime tactical Role Playing game based on the well-received The Dwarves novel by Markus Heitz. The Dwarves is actually the first book in a long running series and this game is King Art Games attempt to turn it into an RPG. The game has you play a character called Tungdil, a Dwarf who was raised primarily by Humans and who’s only knowledge of his Dwarf heritage is through whatever books he could find while growing up. What begins as a relatively straight forward journey across the lands of Girdlegard, you very quickly begin to see that things are not as they should be in the kingdom, and soon the tone descends into a story of desperation and heroism as you uncover a plot to unleash an evil across the lands which threatens the lives of everyone who lives there.
As someone who is unfamiliar to the series, the premise of the story was actually quite appealing. As a fan of Lord of the Rings and other fantasy type stories, it certainly caught my attention. The initial world building and introduction to the world was a bit hit and miss, if I’m being honest, but King Art Games made a great effort at converting the written story into something that could be enjoyed in a game. The voice acting can range from really good to jarringly awkward, but I need to applaud their decision to use an in game narrator to help explain how your character is feeling, thinking or explaining some of the greater lore surrounding an event. The female voice actor they chose was spot on, sounding almost like a younger Judy Dench and she does a great job of pulling you into the story surrounding the characters.
Character progression is disappointingly limited for such an RPG, with few skills to choose from as your characters level up and little choice to diversify their playing style. Certain skills can only be activated once you hit a certain level, which can make levelling up between those levels almost a non-event, which is something that should never happen in an RPG. Ok, the character gets a hit point boost and what not, but the achievement of levelling up shouldn’t feel this empty. You can’t even upgrade, change characters weapons or armour and inventory management is basic at best with only a few items really to be scavenged and used in the game.
Travelling in the game occurs on a huge map of the realm, with the character and his group represented as a counter on the map that almost resembles something from a board game or a paper based RPG. The map itself seems reasonably sized and gives the impression that the world you are playing in is a lot more expansive than you might have thought, with Towns, settlements and places of interest dotted all around the map. Some places have a floating question mark above them signifying some event or person of interest is currently there which can trigger one of the many random events that can occur in the game. Each location is connected via a series of nodes/paths which your group use to travel. Travelling between nodes actually takes up a number of days and you need to make sure that you have enough provisions to keep you and your party fed when making a particularly long journey. When moving between nodes on the map sometimes a seemingly random event can interrupt your progress. It’s all mostly done via dialogue boxes but it can range from a conversation piece between yourself and members of your party or a random encounter with an NPC. Sometimes these play out with nothing gained, just adding flavour to the experience. Other times they can lead to extra XP, or depending on how you guided the conversation, additional loyalty points with a member of your team. Sometimes it can lead to an area for you to explore or even a combat situation. Moving about the map are counters which represent other groups, such as merchants or Ork raiding parties, which you can choose to move towards or avoid, depending on your priorities in the game. Merchants give you the chance to top up your provisions, or chat away and maybe get some clues as to what’s happening in the region while encountering the Orcs will initiate combat.
I admit to being initially confused by the combat mechanics in The Dwarves, which resulted in me having to restart the tutorial mission until I actually realised what I could and couldn’t do. Trailers gave me the impression that the combat would have you charging into to hordes of enemies and performing amazing feats of crowd control, ala Diablo style. Instead, the only control you have is where the characters moves to and when to activate a skill. The actual physical combat is controlled by the game as your characters swing and slash at whatever enemy that’s closest to it. It honestly felt strange to have control over everything else except the actual combat itself and takes away, I feel, an important element of the combat mechanic of the game.
But once your party starts to grow and you are controlling more than one character, the ‘tactical’ part of the game really comes into effect. You can pause the on screen action at any time and issue ‘orders’ to your characters. It’s a very simplistic system, however, and ultimately feels very limited. While paused, you can tell a character to ‘go there’ or activate a skill in that direction. That’s it. There is no ability to stack up orders or queue up a complex series or actions you want your character to do. It almost feels as if this mechanic is unfinished. The combat quickly starts to boil down to, pause combat, switch to Character A, activate skill, switch to character B, activate skill etc. Un-pause and wait for skill cool downs to reset before pausing the action again and repeating the above ad nauseam. Maybe you’ll switch to a character to move them back into a big group of enemies or to retreat them away from a group they can’t quite deal with at that moment. But ultimately, the ‘tactical’ part of the game feels incomplete, or at the very least fails to meet the potential you would expect a system like this to have.
At times the combat can range from relatively easy to hitting a brick wall. Regardless of the difficulty being on easy or hard, some of the scenarios can feel like a frustrating grind which is compounded by the fact that if anyone in your party dies, the game is instantly over with no option to revive them during or after combat – thankfully the game quick saves before each encounter. The difficulty curve seems to revolve around the game just swarming you with just too many enemies to deal with. Each retry has you trying to funnel enemies into more manageable groups or hoping that this time your skill cool down management is that little bit faster than the last time. It’s at this point you really wish the tactical mechanic, mentioned above, was fleshed out that little bit more so you could micro manage your group more efficiently and not feel like you have to baby sit each of them while you wait for their cool downs to reset. The frustration really sets in when you manage to bring down the most dangerous enemies in an encounter only to be ground down by the cannon fodder that the game struggles to let you manage more efficiently.
Unfortunately The Dwarves graphics engine doesn’t escape criticism either. When in the world map, the game runs reasonably smooth, and to be fair there isn’t much happening that should be overly taxing anyway. But once you switch to the tactical combat part of the game, the cracks begin to show and we start to experience an engine which doesn’t feel overly optimised for the Xbox One. I wouldn’t say the 3d environments the user is placed in are overly complex, yet the engine can struggle to keep up with the player as they navigate around the small, limited areas they are placed in. And it doesn’t matter if you are in the middle of a busy battle scene, or are wandering alone in a mostly empty area, the frame rate can drop quite dramatically and the screen can tear almost to the point of distracting. It doesn’t feel consistent either, as one second the engine struggles with the most basic of scenes, the next it seems to handle a busier set piece with no issue. This may be fixed with a later patch, but at the moment the effects of both are enough to be quite off-putting.
In the end, what we have here is a game with a good story to tell, wrapped in a basic RPG system and a flawed tactical combat engine. King Art Games made a great effort with the look and feel of the game with amazing hand drawn portraits, great looking 3D scenes and decent voice acting but the actual gameplay will ultimately leave you disappointed and wanting more from the game. Gamers new to the RPG experience may appreciate the relative basic approach to the RPG mechanics, but seasoned RPG players will quickly grow frustrated at the limited options available to them. Maybe fans of The Dwarves lore will appreciate the work King Art Games put into the game, but as an outsider to the series, I feel the game won’t do much to attract new fans.