One Small Step For Dwarves
Have you ever come across something for the first time that makes you instantly wonder how you’ve been able to live your life up until that point without it? I had one of those moments when I watched the opening cinematic for We Are The Dwarves and saw dwarf astronauts. It becomes apparent very early that developer Whale Rock Games put a ton of effort into establishing compelling and deep lore for their game. More, infact, than most full budget releases, and it’s easily the game’s biggest strength. See, in the game’s world space isn’t empty space, space is rock with empty pockets that foster life. Stars aren’t suns, but mineral elements that can and must be mined for the dwarves to keep their way of life going. When the dwarves become desperately low on the stones they need, they send three vastly different individuals on a deep “space” mission to parts unknown to battle the hostile local fauna and claim what they need to survive.
Without getting too deep into the lore, I was more engaged with the larger world in the first few minutes than a lot of books and movies I’ve come across, in large part due to the big pile of journal entries that give you background info on everything from the three playable Dwarves to enemies and mission locations. Unfortunately the story doesn’t stay particularly engaging the entire game, but the background info and hints at a bigger world kept me intrigued. Dwarf astronaut are something I -need- more of in my life.
A Combative Start
Combat in We Are The Dwarves, which is really the thing that it most needs to do right, is a somewhat frustrating mix of elements that work very, very well, and ones that are frustratingly detracting. I’ll admit to a bit of apprehension about the core mechanics of the game before I even started. Those that have played any of the vast number of pause-and-manage RPGs or strategy games will find the general flow of gameplay very familiar in We Are the Dwarves. You’ll be in control of either one or multiple of the unique dwarf characters (depending on the mission at hand), each one has a standard attack and specials that operate on a cooldown, and you have the ability to near-pause time in order to queue movement and attacks.
The combat system isn’t complicated, which is a good thing. Movement is more important here than in most similar games that I’ve played, so I always had more than enough to worry about trying to manage positioning, attacks, and specials. The combat feels good, very good. Hits and shots have real weight to them, sending enemies blowing backwards, and even recoiling the player depending on the technique used. Friendly fire is also a danger, giving yet another element to think about.
Unfortunately, this is the point where a lot of things start to fall apart, and most of them stem from the fact that We Are The Dwarves is extremely challenging in a number of the wrong ways. I know tough, nasty, die-a-million-times games are popular right now, but the ones that are successful are those that are built around consistent, reliable systems that ensure the player knows it’s their fault they failed, but that by thinking a bit harder or playing a bit better victory is within grasp. It’s about control. I don’t want to feel like I’m losing because of something I couldn’t know or affect. I don’t want to be penalized for not following the one way the developers decided I should have to approach a situation in a game like this that seems to promote creative, synergistic thinking and tactical decisions. Both of these were the case a bit too often.
Assessing enemy senses is a key to progression, and the inconsistency of being able to do so was the root of many of these problems. At first I thought it was pretty darned cool that I not only had to worry about enemy vision cones when trying to navigate past them, but also their senses of smell, touch, and hearing. In practice it was near impossible to predict how different enemies would react to various stimuli, resulting in trial and error until I figured out what I needed to do. This would be fine if it wasn’t a big deal to alert an enemy or two accidentally, but it normally results in death. This is a game where even just two enemies is a pretty serious threat, and there’s normally a very particular order the game wants you to tackle enemies in. This type of restrictive design combined with such dangerous enemies meant me playing some segments to many times over for poor reasons. Despite this, it is worth re-stressing that when the game is hitting its groove it’s an extremely satisfying experience. It’s group combat done well, hectic and fast without being overbearing, but when there are such frustrating difficulty and consistency issues it becomes a bit difficult to fully appreciate.
Game Under The Mountain (Of Dismay)
Playing We Are The Dwarves made me sad. Not because the game is that bad, but because it does what it does well so incredibly well and counteracts it by doing some pretty important things so poorly. This is a setting that needs to be explored more, whether it be with another game, books, comics, or whatever. I love it. There’s also enough here with a solid core gameplay system that I really do believe a sequel, one that takes bit more time to do difficulty right, could be fantastic. Unfortunately, I shouldn’t have to hope a sequel fixes a game. There’s fun to be had here, but I’m still not entirely certain if enjoying it is worth suffering through the shortcomings that never should have been.
Combat system is both deep and easy to understand, combat has a great weight to it, the lore is genuinely interesting, and the environments are pleasantly varied.
The game is too frequently unfairly challenging, some systems are unreliable, and the story doesn’t match the intrigue of the background world.