Developers: Zeal Game Studios
Publishers: Paradox Interactive
It was only the other day I was saying to our editorial overlord Matt that I had a hankering to play Theme Hospital or Dungeon Keeper again, so when he handed me a review code for A Game Of Dwarves I was more than ready to jump back into the fold of management and strategy games (or “strat-agement”, if you will… no? FINE.) I must say though, I’ve learned a few things whilst overseeing my underground kingdom. Firstly, Gandalf the Grey was right about dwarves: if they get too greedy and get too deep they will end up in a subterranean world of hurt. Secondly, without an assistant to give me a helping hand, much like I had one in Dungeon Keeper and the Theme games, I will almost certainly mess things up.
The premise for AGoD is as such: The King of the dwarves has decided to put his lazy Prince of a son to task, recapturing the kingdom that was lost years ago, defeating the mages, ogres, and dragons that have taken up residence in the former dwarven dwellings. Told out through text dialogue that attempts to be funny, the result is equally hit or miss at the best of times (and the audio clips that play when different character appears proves unnecessary, out of place, and annoying.) However, once in-game you see what separates AGoD from other games in the genre; the multi-layered levels in which the action takes place. Coming across as Dwarf Fortress meets Dungeon Keeper, players will be ordering their army of dwarven subjects to dig out blocks above and below their current plane. As players go on the hunt to find resources and hidden dangers, you end up crafting a labyrinth that will disorientate newcomers to begin with, but the tutorial does a good job of easing you into this three-dimensional style of play.
The tutorial then gradually guides you through the basic mechanics of the game, teaching you the importance of gathering food for your tables so nobody starves, beds to ensure everyone had enough energy, and containers such as chests to house the wealth of materials you will gather. Recruiting dwarves is another important aspect of AGoD, as you gain untrained dwarflings who can be assigned the various roles of warrior, crafter, researcher, worker, and most importantly digger. Initially limited to a total of 10 minions, this can be upgrades by spending gold, which can either be earned by digging out materials such as gold and silver, or by selling resources such as stone, wood, and other rarer materials back to your kingdom. Educating me on the ways of ruling my underground settlement, as well as completing main missions and side missions for extra rewards, the tutorial did a fine job of informing me of the important basics for AGoD.
So, was I prepared for what lay beneath me? No, not really.
After what felt like a few informative tutorial levels and a first level that felt natural in its increasing challenge, the second level (the first with a mage) suddenly jumped in difficulty, punishing me within seconds of stumbling upon a pre-existing chamber. Whereas the previous level had enemies that gradually increased in power as I went down, everything I came across this time was level 6… which my initial troupe of level 1 dwarves had no chance against. I was done for, and so began my several restarts of the level.
Eventually I came up with a system where I dug around every chamber and gathered enough resources to sustain my settlement, and to train my only warrior up to a level where he could take on two or three enemies at a time. It worked, allowing me to expand my reach to most of the area, but in doing this I noticed something about the pacing of the game; I had spent ages doing what felt like nothing just to train up one soldier. Of course, as I continued I was able to raise my number of warriors to five, and after training those up I became unstoppable… until I hit the level 30 mage at the bottom.
Making this mage level 15 would have been acceptable, but after spending a good few hours getting over the initial level 6 enemies I had all my work undone by something far too powerful. Although I did manage to box the mage in with doors after it killed most of my soldiers, the damage was done, and as I sat there thinking about how I was going to need to train up even more soldiers defeat the damn thing. I felt that the only way to win was to spend even more time grinding, something that was already taking its toll upon me. It all felt too slow, especially the research aspect of the game. Although the technology tree available is well thought out and easy to navigate, I found that for the most part I was reaching useful technologies such as upgraded soldiers and traps after the time when they were useful, and had I waited to get them I would have wasted far too much time sat there doing nothing.
While I appreciate that players need to work towards getting better units, the way AGoD was forcing these huge jumps upon me was the opposite of my idea of fun. I had already spent a good few hours in the first real level discovering all the hidden chambers and completing missions, and I had spent even longer trying to get this far in the current level. Either I was missing something completely integral to the gameplay, or something is horribly off-balance. Either way, it never gets easier, and I hadn’t been informed of what I was doing wrong.
This leads me onto a small aggravation that fast became a strong point of contemplation; You don’t play as the Prince, instead you are just some benevolent being that just happens to be doing what the Prince needs doing as they sit there and eat everything. You are not referred to directly once, and it made me feel like an advisor character, much like the ones in classic Bullfrong and Lionhead games (“Your creatures are falling in battle!”), would have been a welcome addition. Instead, players are given minor audio cues of dwarves, who have dug beneath them and are now stuck in a hole, begin to starve. Players are not even informed when they run out of space to hoard materials, meaning they waste already limited resources as either items are stored or destroyed. This is why an advisor would have been a true lifeline, but instead I was throwing precious piles of stone away and coming back to find dwarven tombstones everywhere.
This being said, the pros very much outweigh the cons, and there are some good reasons to get involved AGoD. The art style is colourful and pleasing, and the various aesthetic decorations for your settlements can add real personality to your underground home. The midi-fuelled soundtrack, whilst a little repetitive, not only fitted with the ambiance of the gameplay but reminded me of the days I would play games like this for days upon end. That joyous feeling of discovering a new vein that is desperately needed is there and, as I’ve already stated, the controls for both building and overseeing the settlement are well implemented. In fact, I feel the game is at its most enjoyable outside of the main campaign, as the custom games allow players to tailor the experience to their needs to experience the various types of land and the map size. There is even an option to turn off enemies, allowing players to enjoy a true sandbox mode as they create the dwarven underground paradise of their dreams.
The overall basis and the idea of fun is absolutely there, but the lack of fine tuning that turns a playable game into hell under earth, along with a lack of being kept abreast of important developments such as dwarves starving , bury what fun could be had. For its asking price of £8, those of you looking for a real challenge could find some masochistic joy in it all, but newcomers or returning genre fans could find the path to dwarven glory a perilous (and possibly unfair) one. A patch to fix the difficulty could be all that’s needed to reach its potential, but for now I will be digging out my old copy of Dungeon Keeper…
- The Three Dimensional playing field provides a new depth for the genre.
- An art style that is fun and enjoyable.
- When at its best, it can be a fun and rewarding game…
- … but the sudden difficulty curve soon removes that feeling.
- Too much grind and time is needed to reach the best items and minions.
- Issues such as filled stockpiles and starving dwarves happen with too little warning.
The Short Version: Zeal have managed to hone the base mechanics and visual design down to a 'T' with A Game Of Dwarves, but the difficulty curve and need to grind in the campaign buries what fun could have been had. A patch to fine tune the experience could improve thing greatly, but for now only those looking for a challenge should dig away at this one.