The night has come and it’s time for a halt. You encounter a giant tree situated next to a recently lit campfire, only a few days after your squabble with the locals in the nearby village. There are two obvious choices – either go up the tree and sleep through the night in uncomfortable safety, or relight the fire hoping that whoever was there last night isn’t to return.
This was just one of many choices I ended up making during my time spent with The Dwarves‘ beta (available now via The Dwarves website). Although it’s presented as a high-fantasy, narrative-driven RPG with real-time tactical combat (now that’s a handful), the game certainly isn’t all about crushing foes with giant dwarven hammers. In fact, despite me expecting a game mostly consisting of fighting and bloodshed, I was pleasantly surprised to see my journey taking place on a map riddled with small points of interests, with elements such as food supplies and patrolling troops taking their toll on decisions each day.
Playing as a dwarf raised by human mages, I set off on an epic journey in times of turmoil and war almost immediately – that is, after playing through a brief tutorial consisting of me controlling a bunch of near-invincible warriors, plowing my way through hordes of orcs in spectacular fashion. Despite a bombastic start, the overall flow of the game is a bit slow, with its narrative evolving quite nicely through plenty of dialogue mixed with narrated bits for an added sense of personality.
For example, character chit-chat in The Dwarves is presented in a very unique way, with dialogue constantly being intersected by third-person observations coming from the game’s narrator. The plot might follow typical high-fantasy tropes most of the time, but every now and then I’d encounter brief and unexpected sightings described in prolific and unexpected ways.
I guess such quality writing can safely be attributed to Markus Heitz being involved…
Also surprising was the amount of random encounters that had detailed descriptions of the merchants and travelers I’d come across, despite those being nothing but insignificant faces in the grand scheme of things. I guess such quality writing can safely be attributed to Markus Heitz being involved in the game’s development, with the author behind The Dwarves books acting as a counselor and a designer for some quests according to the Kickstarter campaign.
But you’re probably surprised by how much I’m focusing on the game’s narrative merits. It’s certainly not because I didn’t enjoy the combat – in fact, far from it. Already being a fan of squad-based, real-time strategy combat, The Dwarves is right up my alley.
A highly satisfying feeling of power and control.
To begin with, its main draw has to be the idea of being able to control a squad of dwarves battling hordes of enemies. On paper, it’s almost the same as what you’d get in movies, where main characters become near-invincible to regular blows, walking around almost as if they had an invincibility aura around them. Simply issuing a move command results in heroes swinging their way through whatever stands in their way, stripping away some control in favour of a highly satisfying feeling of power and control.
Most abilities also add to this sensation, with area of effect skills such as hammer swings lifting off multiple foes in aerial disarray, or brutal charges pushing anything in the way off to the side. Once you get all the timings right, combat suddenly becomes an oddly satisfying battle for positioning and crowd control where each decision has its toll. Sadly, The Dwarves does falls short during tense moments in which you’d want to issue a precise task aimed at specific enemies – I can’t even count the amount of times I wanted to stun a particularly nasty enemy, only to whiff my ability and instead hit an insignificant mob.
Pausing wasn’t too kind in that regard either, as it provided almost no help for landing precise commands, mostly acting as a safety-net for assessing the carnage that was happening on the screen more than anything else. I could also go on and list camera angles behaving unexpectedly and movement being somewhat sluggish and slow when reacting to characters turning, but considering this is a beta version with lots of issues remaining to be fixed I’m certainly not that concerned.
However, what I will say is that combat can quickly become overwhelming, as it wasn’t long until I encountered a nasty fight involving an evil pale creature summoning hordes of undead, on top of it unleashing a hellish horse for good measure. Should I keep my dwarves together or separate them? Would it be better to target that crazy horse, or should I focus on eliminating the majority of the undead first? How do I time my abilities so that stuns can be aligned with flurries of melee attacks? I ended up spending more than two hours trying to answer those questions, desperately attempting to devise an ever-changing cunning plan.
Ultimately though, it all ended with me quitting the game in mild frustration.
It is a shame my experience with the beta had to end in such a way, especially since fighting and traveling prior to that was so damn enjoyable. In retrospect, I’m also not sure whether such a frustratingly ludicrous difficulty spike outweighed my overall enjoyment of using the game’s intricate tactical combat – watching dozens of orcs flying in carefully orchestrated arcs of guts and screams certainly never got old.
As it stands though, with this being an unfinished version of the game such balancing issues are bound to be looked upon (or at least I hope so). Considering The Dwarves is set to release in September later this year (judging by this Kickstarter update in specific), the game’s current state certainly shows a lot of promise. I’m also certain there’s much more to encounter, as the build apparently includes a little less than the first half of the game – it’s only a shame I couldn’t experience it for myself.