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The Dwarves Review
Video game adaptations of movies are a common (and usually terrible) sight, but it’s not every day you see a novel adapted into the video game format. Maybe it should happen more often, because The Dwarves, based on Markus Heitz’ novel of the same name, is a solidly entertaining action/strategy game that should satisfy anyone with a craving to bash in some orcish skulls.
Being based on a novel, The Dwarves naturally has a rather involved story. Things kick off in typical fantasy fashion with the orphan Dwarf Tungdil setting off on what should be a fairly simple errand to deliver some items to a wizard. Naturally, things don’t go quite as planned, and Tungdil soon finds himself caught up in an adventure involving rampaging hordes of orcs, sinister elvish creatures, and a treacherous mage who seeks to control the entire land of Girdlegard. There’s nothing particularly original or shocking here, and you’ll probably have figured out how the story is going to go within an hour of starting the game, but it’s a straightforward and well told example of old-fashioned fantasy adventure. The heroes proceed from A to B to C, overcoming the sinister schemes of the enemy and encountering enough strange new lands and eccentric characters to keep things interesting.
Speaking of characters, there are a lot of them. The Dwarves contains over a dozen playable characters, so it’s quite impressive how distinct each of them feels, particularly as most have a limited amount of speaking time. A strong voice cast brings each character’s unique quirks to life, so it doesn’t take long to get to know them. It helps, of course, that most of them are stock fantasy archetypes: the boisterous and bloodthirsty warrior, the intelligent but cold sorceress, the flamboyant rogue with a knack for sleight-of-hand. Still, the game utilizes these familiar tropes to good effect, creating a memorable cast of characters that add life to the story.
If all you wanted was story and characters though, you could just read a book. This is a video game, so it’s all for nothing if the gameplay doesn’t hold up. Fortunately, it does… most of the time, anyway. The Dwarves adopts an unusual gameplay style halfway between a traditional RPG and a real time strategy game. Each battle sees you controlling a party of up to four members against a much larger force of orcs, undead, or similar foes. The action unfolds in real time, and you can switch control freely between your four heroes (The three you aren’t controlling are handled by the AI). Moving next to an enemy triggers your characters auto-attack, but this is so weak as to be almost useless. The real power lies in your special attacks. These, selected by a simple tap of the D-pad, inflict massive damage and have a variety of other effects (Stun, knockdown, panic, burning, etc.). Using these powerful attacks, however, consumes action points, which slowly replenish over time. To keep up your momentum, you’ll need to switch rapidly between characters, having each one unload their most devastating blows before rapidly moving onto the next.
It isn’t quite as simple as just blasting away with your strongest attacks though. Different characters have different moves and fulfil different roles in combat, and you’ll have understand and synergise their abilities if you want to make it through in one piece. The dwarf warrior Boindil, for example, can move quickly across the battlefield and inflict massive damage with his twin blades. However, he lacks the staying power to go toe to toe with the enemy for extended periods of time, relying on more defensive characters like his brother Boendal for support. Similarly, the Sorceress Andokai has an array of devastating magical attacks, but falls quickly if trapped in melee combat. Every character has their own strengths and weaknesses, so there’s plenty for you to explore as you develop your own strategy.
A solid grasp of strategy is a necessity if you want to reach the end and save Girdlegard, because the Dwarves is far from an easy game. Though it rarely strays into the realm of the unfairly difficult, battles are always a challenge, and often pit you against enemies that outnumber you ten, fifteen, or even twenty to one. It certainly gives battles an impressive sense of scale, but it also means you can quickly become overwhelmed if you aren’t careful. This can be a particular problem because the allied AI isn’t great. Your friends have an annoying habit of charging directly at the nearest enemy, regardless of how low their health is or how poorly suited they are to direct combat, which can throw your whole strategy into disarray.
Despite a few AI issues, the game-play is a lot of fun on the whole. It can be a little frustrating, particularly when you’re just starting out, but once you get the hang of it it’s very satisfying to see your handful of heroes slaughtering their way through endless hosts of enemies, and the fast pace of the combat ensures that there’s very little downtime. It can get a little monotonous, as each character has only a few abilities to work with, but varied battle objectives help to keep things from feeling too repetitive.
One problem the game does have, though, is length. The Dwarves will probably take you less than ten hours to complete, and there isn’t a huge amount of replay value. Since the game follows the novel, you obviously don’t get many major choices story-wise, and the game has only a very basic character progression system, so you have fairly restricted choices in terms of game-play as well. Unless you really enjoyed all the orc killing and want to do the same thing again, this probably isn’t a game you’ll be coming back to.
You certainly won’t be coming back to enjoy the visuals. The environments of Girdlegard are mostly bland and generic, and the characters look stiff and lifeless, like they’re made out of clay. Obviously the game was made on a budget and it wouldn’t be fair to expect AAA graphics, but a little more stylistic flair would have been nice to see. Fortunately, the soundtrack is much better. The voice acting, as mentioned earlier, is excellent, and it’s backed up by some great fantasy music in the vein of Lord of the Rings, with lots of dramatic trumpets to make everything feel appropriately epic. Also, the end credits are set to some awesome power metal by Blind Guardian, which is a definite plus.
The Dwarves is a game with a strong story and cast of characters and some solid gameplay, making it a good choice for any fans of fantasy RPG’s. The graphics aren’t great, and the difficulty and occasionally repetitive feel might discourage the less patient, but if you’re willing to take the rough with the smooth, there’s a fun game here waiting to be discovered.
The Dwarves was played on Xbox One