Based on a popular series of fantasy novels of the same name by German author Markus Heitz, The Dwarves has always been a property that’s been ripe for adaptation into either the RPG genre. So it is then that developer King Art Games has taken on the property, fashioning an RPG effort that predictably gives a strong account of itself in the narrative and characters stakes, but sadly comes more than slightly unstuck when it comes to the technical side of things.
A familiar, though well-told tale
Starting with the good stuff, The Dwarves taps into its storied heritage to weave a somewhat conventional, if remarkably well told fantasy tale which is ably flanked by a well-written cast of characters. Casting the player as Tungdil, a dwarf orphan brought up in the company of human magi, our protagonist has developed interests in academia and studiousness that no dwarf would ever think of embracing, though despite all that, he is never more at home than when he is toiling with hammer and tong at the forge; making him an interesting dwarf to say the least.
Our story begins when Tungdil is tasked with retrieving a mysterious artefact, requiring him to venture out into the sprawling lands of Girdlegard in order to find the shiny trinket in question. Along the way he meets up with other characters who in turn accompany him on this journey. Happily then, I can report that the friends which join Tungdil on his quest are an entertaining bunch to say the least. In particular the twin dwarf brothers Boindil and Boendal are frequently amusing, country bumpkin types who are the epitome of that Dwarven stereotype; being as quick with comedic dialog as they are with their axes in combat. It doesn’t hurt either that the personalities of all these characters, both hero and villain alike, are bolstered by some impressive voice acting, with Tungdil’s performance specifically showcasing a massive range of nuanced emotion that belies the dwarf archetype.
Speaking of decent performances, when the characters aren’t engaged in conversation with each other, the game’s narrator generally takes over and does a great job of chronicling all things descriptive; acting as the connective tissue for the entire journey and making the game much more immersive as a result. Going back to the narrative itself and being unfamiliar with the original texts that this game is based on, one aspect of it that did surprise me was just how dark The Dwarves is.
Despite its somewhat soft looking aesthetics, the game is absolutely awash in violence, with beheadings, dismemberments, folks getting skinned and all sorts of other types of nastiness going on during its fifteen hour or so duration – something to bear in mind perhaps if you’re not keen on having any younglings in your family being exposed to that sort of thing. Away from its grim tone, gameplay in The Dwarves is split between two different sections; you’re either trundling about on the overworld map, going from place to place, or, you and your gang are exploring the environment, talking to folk and generally battering anything that vaguely looks like it has a capacity for tyranny and badness.
In the case of the former, your group and all other entities in the game world are represented by carved wooden figures as you move around the map in a turn-based fashion, with certain locations triggering encounters that can further the main story, result in a side-quest or, in the case of tavern or inn, provide a bastion of respite for Tungdil and his mates.
What’s quite smart about this overworld map is that it’s dynamic in nature, because for every turn you take to move in one direction or carry out an action, other pieces on the map move as well; engineering narrative events that emerge on an ad-hoc basis. Bandits for example, can lay waste to a village if they reach it, yet if your group intercepts them before that happens you not only remove a hostile force from the map, but also stand to gain an extra measure of experience and loot too.
Sat atop this system of emergent events, is a branching system of choice where the player is required to choose a course of action whenever such a situation crops up. The thing is, while it’s obviously nice to have embrace such non-linear progression, it can all feel a bit like trial and error since some of these choices can result in instant death, thus necessitating a restart from your last save; something you’ll want to do manually and often simply because the auto-save feature is a tad unreliable.
Chaotic and often unwieldy combat
One of the cornerstones of The Dwarves is its combat, and it’s more interesting here than in titles of a similar ilk simply because it embraces an unusual kind of real-time combat. Essentially, you have full control of your characters (you can switch between each of them with a tap of the shoulder button) and can move them about the place or get them to attack enemies by moving them close to their foes, whereupon they will automatically attack the enemy which is closest to them.
Referred to by the developers as the Crowd Combat System, battles are almost always weighed against your group; more often than not it’s you and a small handful of companions being pitted against enemies ten times your number and so things get chaotic (and punishing) extremely quickly. Making things even trickier is the fact that friendly fire has to be observed, since on more than one occasion I employed an area of effect attack and unceremoniously murdered my fellow party members in the process, thus causing the quest to become a failure and forcing a restart.
When it comes to managing your party in combat, it’s largely a case of hopping between each character and ensuring that their health is topped up (potions can be used to do this should you find yourself in a bind), while a pause function allows you to freeze the action and plan your next move. Sadly though, trying to get all of your party members to do different things when the action is paused feels like herding cats. Rather than being able to pull the map all the way back and direct your units to move from one end of the map to another, you can only direct them to move in short space ahead, which makes moving them using the pause function quite laborious indeed.
One example of this is an objective that has you rushing all three of your dwarves to an exit, the problem is, because movement commands during the pause state are so desperately limited in distance, you need to instead switch to each dwarf and move them in real-time one at a time; leaving each dwarf that made it to stay behind in auto-attack mode. So ultimately then, though not lacking bombast, the combat in The Dwarves just feels too chaotic to truly be enjoyable.
Technical issues spoil the party
While the combat in The Dwarves is flawed, that it isn’t its biggest problem, but rather its issues of a technical nature that make the experience come truly unstuck. The first of these is that your AI companions can be quite short-sighted at times; they can often be glimpsed standing off to one side with their hands in their pockets whilst you get battered into a fine paste, requiring you to effectively herd the enemy in their direction in order to wake them up and get them back into the fight.
Another is that visually-speaking, The Dwarves is simply just lacking. Low-detail textures, a sub-optimal framerate (it’s south of the 30 FPS border frequently), constant stutters and screen tearing all result in a technically underwhelming effort that could have just as easily landed on PS3 as PS4. It’s not all bad news though, one area where The Dwarves shines in regards to its audiovisual presentation is the audio side of the equation; the game boasts an absolutely cracking orchestral score that feels like it was pulled from The Lord of the Rings movies or something similar, such is the scope and grandeur of its overture.
Make no mistake, there’s lots to like here; the plot, characters, non-linear progression and soundtrack are all grand, but it’s difficult to ignore The Dwarves technical failings, with distracting screen tearing, poor framerates, long loading times and scatterbrained AI all adding up to create a product that simply needed much more development time. That said, The Dwarves boasts a sort of ramshackle charm that when taken in tandem with its other qualities, could still make it a desirable prospect for fans of the RPG genre.