If I was feeling particularly snarky, I might start this review by saying that The Dwarves is a series of loading screens separated occasionally by a video game, but that would — although accurate — disparage quite a few interesting and effective moments and ideas that manage to appear. The Dwarves is based on the first of a series of fantasy novels by Markus Heitz, whose books in translated English (from the original German) aren’t exactly high art, but instead straddle the line between young adult fiction and Tolkien-flavored, Teutonic-infused fantasy.
While Heitz’s books aren’t great literature, his characters and story give The Dwarves‘ world a sense of lore and place that is more fully realized than in many generic fantasy RPGs, though the lore itself very quickly becomes a jumble of Nordic names. After a long, action-packed introductory prelude and tutorial battle — which very quickly encapsulates the game’s mechanical strengths and weaknesses — the story proper begins and then takes a long time, filled with many words and many cut scenes, to move forward. As a novel, The Dwarves might not be great, but superimposed into a video game, its writing seems downright elevated, and the voice acting is generally nuanced and well done. It does beg the question: why are Dwarves always voiced by Scots?
You play as Tungdil, a “groundling” (i.e. Dwarf) who has been raised in a human monastery of sorts, a school for magic. Anxious to see the larger world, you innocently accept a rather challenging errand that will become a lengthy, epic journey filled with large and small quests, all at the center of a conflict between races. A great deal of The Dwarves is played while moving through an overworld map, listening to narrated, descriptive text and seemingly making a number of game-altering choices. In reality, there are “right choices” that move the game forward, and “wrong choices” that result in a game over screen and a restart. The game and story would have saved a lot of time (and loading screens, so many loading screens) had it simply told the story.
When the game manages to break free of its overworld map or narrative excess, it becomes a squad-based, tactical RPG along the lines of Dragon Age or Mass Effect. Not the Diablo-esque clone suggested by its fantasy setting and isometric view, The Dwarves action consists primarily of rather frenetic battles in which the player controls a squad of four heroes, switching between them, and pausing the action to cue up the next hammer bash, sword swing, or grenade toss for each. Each hero (the player eventually may recruit three additional squad members out of a field of fifteen potential teammates) has unique moves, weapons, and abilities and these need to be chosen in advance — each character can slot three — to be effectively used in combination.
I’ve got no issue with the hero and character development systems — in fact, they’re flexible and offer a lot of potential variety to the game play — but they’re in service of combat that can be frustratingly chaotic and difficult to enjoy. Taken individually, the characters and environments are artistically rendered and believably animated, and there is a nice, subtle tilt-shift effect at the edges of the scenes that make the dimensionality of the characters pop out. The problem is that in large scale encounters — which most of the battles are — the heroes and enemies are almost impossible to distinguish from each other and the battlefield becomes a muddy cluster of figures and health bars and movement. Even at normal difficulty, the opposition is a challenge and while the action can be paused to issue orders, the constant stop-and-start feels at odd with what is clearly meant to be a fluid experience.
As noted, the voice work is committed and excellent, and the orchestral musical score by Benny Oschmann is regal and unsentimental. You’ll hear that score a lot during the many, many loading screens, some of which can drag on for a full minute. I don’t know if it’s the limitations of the Xbox One or something more fundamentally broken, but the game stops and loads so often that any hope for continuity or momentum is lost very quickly.
I really enjoyed some of The Dwarves presentation and I would have liked to have explored its combat systems in smaller scale encounters with fewer indistinguishable enemies. I appreciated the care that went into the writing and voice acting but I wish they had been in the service of a story that offered genuine, and meaningful choices. The Dwarves has some shining moments, but it’s a difficult game, and a difficult game to fully enjoy.
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Review Statement: The author was provided a code from the publisher for the purposes of this review.