King Art Games, the studio behind such differing experiences as adventure game The Book of Unwritten Tales and strategy game Battle Worlds: Kronos, have again turned their sights to a new genre, delivering an RPG adaptation of Markus Heitz’s 2003 fantasy novel The Dwarves (originally Die Zwerge). The narrative pitch is simple: dwarves often play second fiddle to humans in fantasy, so what would a story centered on dwarves be like?
The answer, as I’m sure you can imagine, involves lots of tunnels, smithing, and axes – but surprisingly little alcohol.
The Dwarves is a role-playing game where you play as a predefined hero, a young dwarven smith named Tungdil, who inevitably assembles a party of fellow adventurers. Important story beats and frantic, physics-based isometric combat plays out on stark, vibrant 3D maps tucked away in a vast, abstract map where your party moves through the world like a tiny chess piece.
As an RPG adapted from a novel, it’s no surprise that the game’s narrative dominates much of the experience. The Dwarves strives to present us with an interesting world, and send a heroic protagonist on a journey accompanied by colorful characters; but whether the result works for you will depend heavily on how you feel about traditional Western fantasy tropes.
The shift in focus away from humans is a welcome breath of fresh air, but the end result is still a generic fantasy plot in a generic fantasy world. The supporting characters are almost all familiar faces you’ll have seen in countless other media – the young hero with a secret heritage, the proud berserker, the skirt-chasing bard, the female rogue, the hulking giant who never speaks, the girl subjected to experiments that gave her terrible powers, and so on. The writing and plot are competent, though, and while the voice acting isn’t spectacular, for the most part it’s surprisingly good. There are even some genuinely nice interactions between the supporting cast, from the brotherly affection of two dwarven twins to some friendly snark between an amazonian mage and the bard.
Aside from being well-crafted and acted, there are a couple of sparks of creativity and originality throughout the narrative. Some of the side characters are genuinely interesting and deserve more fleshing out than they get, from a warrior-smith leaving her isolated culture to see the outside world for the first time, to a mixed-parentage actress and rogue who teases an intriguing backstory. There are a few genuine surprises in the plot too, when NPCs seize more agency than they usually do in games. I got the impression King Art Games could have made something more interesting if they weren’t constrained by the source material; that doesn’t save the narrative from often feeling overly familiar and plain, but it makes me feel more kindly towards the developers and the effort they put into this.
Luckily, the game feels fresher in its mechanics. The combat system is a good example; I don’t think I’ve ever played an RPG that has brought the phrase “wading into the fray” to life the way The Dwarves does. Wading is distinctively something we do when walking around in fluids, an effort of locomotion against a shifting, heavy environment. Most RPGs don’t really deliver that physicality, since their characters are firmly rooted to the ground as they act, but in Dwarves all characters are physics-driven objects that apply forces to nearby characters as they jostle and fight.
Every spell or swing of an axe pushes the receiving character back a step or two, with appropriately solid sound effects. Battles with dozens of characters turn into roiling masses of violence that pulsate and shift across the field. Well-placed attacks send orcs or zombies flying off ledges into ravines or into lava pits, further solidifying the combat’s sense of physicality. Sometimes this all gets so floaty it feels a bit unreal, but that was more than made up for by how different it feels to the combat in games like Pillars of Eternity, Shadowrun, Divinity: Original Sin etc.
Combat is also augmented by real-time pause, which allows you to freeze time and issue commands to your heroes thoughtfully while preserving tension and uncertainty through synchronous enemy action. Heroes level up and gain new abilities, but skill trees are manageably simple and the abilities are few and distinct, which is appropriate to a game where combat is frantic and you can easily accumulate a dozen characters by the end. The game itself is also concise and fairly short, despite its epic scope, and doesn’t really suffer for it until the final act.
Between battles and story scenes, the game takes place on a network of connected nodes spread across a large 3D map. As you move your party across the map, you consume food rations to heal injuries received in combat (though you won’t starve if you run out), and you encounter plot events that give you opportunities to interact with the people of the world and make RPG-style decisions. Sometimes these can impede your progress or even kill you, but for the most part they add some flavour to the experience without proving overly stressful.
The game and story all flow smoothly until the final act, where all the game’s weaknesses suddenly manifest at once. For one thing, the final act consists of several battles chained together without any overworld to let you heal your party’s injuries, so your roster of healthy heroes constantly dwindles. The physics-based combat also sours when one of the final objectives requires you to guide an NPC through a roiling mass of enemies, since the escort target constantly gets bumped away from the objective by the melee. The finale also abandons most of the supporting cast without any narrative resolution, to the point where we don’t even get a clear picture of who survives the final battle. It’s a shame, though ultimately in tune with the narrative’s single-minded focus on the hero’s generic quest.
The Dwarves, then, suffers from sins that aren’t uncommon in games – an overly generic plot, setting, and cast, and a rushed final act. Still, the game manages to be entertaining thanks to King Art’s concise design of RPG systems and the fundamental quality of the writing, audiovisuals, and voice acting. More than anything, I’m left wondering why they didn’t just dream up their own, more interesting world and characters to play with.