So much promise, but falls just short of the mark…
As the opening cinematic played out, completely silent and choppy as all hell, I prepared for the worst from We Are The Dwarves. As it stands, I was left feeling somewhat conflicted about the experience. I should add at this point, I was unable to finish the game. While the jury is still out on whether a review should only be conducted after fully completing a game, all I can say is that the following constitutes my opinions on the few hours I got through. An explanation on why I had to stop where I did appears below.
Describing itself as an ‘Action-Based Tactical Adventure’, We Are The Dwarves follows the trials and tribulations of three Dwarven astronauts who find themselves trapped in a strange land with only their wits, weapons and special abilities to guide them through.
Let’s start with the positive, as this is by no stretch of the imagination a game without merit. The most notable success of We Are The Dwarves is its art style, and the seamless building of a strange alien world. The vibrant plant life, all full of colours and angles, reacts aggressively to your presence thereby giving a sense of hostility to the world beyond the enemies you encounter. Those enemies, unlike a hell of a lot of recent indie releases, also look and behave in a manner that makes them seem like they belong.
Those points may seem trifling, but they’re the sort of thing that make a game’s location seem more like a world and less like a collection of pixels to beat up before collecting the MacGuffin.
Add to that the intricacy and smoothness of animations, both in-game and in cutscenes, and it becomes clear that a lot of effort went into this. I mean, go and watch a dwarf adorably hold their axes above the water when neck deep in a marsh, and then tell me that attention to detail doesn’t matter. When you can barely move for soulless releases, maybe it’s enough to see a game that so clearly has heart.
You might be noticing that the review isn’t exactly going how the score would suggest, although it should be noted that 56% isn’t awful, it’s average. That’s in spite of an industry that sees anything below 80% as an unmitigated disaster. Still, it’s true that there’s an elephant in the room and it’s a biggie, even for an elephant.
In order to explain this, it’s best to focus on movement and combat. You control each dwarf by clicking on a location and watching them totter off dutifully. There are a number of special moves which can be activated by pressing a specific key, and then clicking. Using the basic attack against enemies is accomplished by clicking on them, too. You can also collect items and activate healing points with more clicking. It’s a click-heavy game, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, especially in a game that has called itself a tactical adventure.
In order to make it tactical, there’s a ‘pause’ button which slows the game down to a crawl. It’s here that the tactical nature of proceedings should shine through. In order to progress efficiently I expected to be able to dictate a few queued attacks to my dwarf which he would then go on to complete. Unfortunately there is no action queuing, meaning that in order to be ‘tactical’ one has to pause, click on an enemy, put the game back on full speed, carry out the attack, and then pause again to figure out what to do next.
You’re left feeling less like a Dwarven commander rallying his troops with any kind of precision, and more like a au pair desperately trying to shout suggestions as the children run around knocking down vases and putting jammy hands on the telly. Queued actions would be nice, but even having a pause menu with variable speeds of gameplay would help, rather than having a binary switch between ‘Tasmanian Devil’ or ‘Neo dodging bullets in the matrix’.
We Are The Dwarves isn’t frustrating purely because of its difficulty, it’s frustrating because it refuses to give you the tools required to deal with the challenge. That’s not to say that the challenge itself couldn’t do with some tweaking.
As I said, We Are The Dwarves is undeniably an ambitious and heartfelt project. It also means that, in certain areas, it seems the developers overstretched themselves by trying to make the game too many things. For instance, there are stealth segments.
In a game about big dwarves with big weapons lumbering their way through a strange world and giving any opposition a swift bonk on the noggin, there are stealth segments. They, perhaps unsurprisingly, do not work. The imprecise movement scheme, the pattern of enemy patrols and the consequences of being spotted have not been balanced in any manner to facilitate a stealth segment. For instance, you’re placed in a level containing a multitude of cocoons. These will burst revealing a fully-grown enemy if you walk into them, or walk for too long in their vicinity without stopping. Oh, and there are enemies on patrol all around, too. If they see you they’ll be alerted, which in turn will alert the cocoons. Every single time you’ll make one misstep, be seen and suddenly have twenty large, angry insects surrounding you.
In the end, I managed to pass that section by exploiting some kind of bug that let me leave in spite of having enemies all around me.
It gives me no pleasure to give We Are the Dwarves this score. Its visual design, characterisation and animation are fantastically well realised. Even the writing, which is in serious need of a few proofreads, managed to put a smile on my face most of the time. In the end, though, the gameplay was simultaneously too imprecise and trying to do too much. Having said that, I’d keep an eye on Whale Rock Games for the future.