Review | We are the Dwarves

We Are The Dwarves

We Are The Dwarves tells the tale of three astronauts sent off to save their kind by navigating the cave systems that make up the Endless Stone – this setting’s outer space – as they try and find a new star for their people to move to that they might survive and make a new home. It’s a tough ol’ game, and one based around careful planning, and delicious execution – think Commandos, but in a moody, atmospheric fantasy setting.

Hack and Slash, you might think. You'd be horribly, brutally wrong.
Hack and Slash, you might think. You’d be horribly, brutally wrong.

Each of the three dwarves are in possession of different skill sets. The first one you are introduced to has a shotgun, perfect for group control, and blasting enemies into the aether. The second is melee focused, with an ability to massively strengthen their own armour, serving as a perfect tank. The third is a sneaky rogue, being able to assassinate from the shadows, teleport distances, and scout the cave networks ahead.

The game features 18 lengthy levels, split across two campaigns, with the earlier missions teaching you each dwarf separately in linear, controlled environments. Later missions however have you controlling two, and then all three of the dwarves, in much more freeform levels, requiring you to use each of the characters in a tight, and efficient manner in order to proceed.

Looking at the game through screenshots does the game a disservice. While its graphics paint the setting perfectly, a still image will only show you snapshots of the protagonists fighting through hordes of enemies – moments that you WANT to show off as you play the deeply tactical game, moments when everything you’ve planned comes together perfectly.

In fact, most of the combat in game isn’t real-time, nor fast paced. It’s a gruelling balance of timing and positioning, getting yourself in just the right place before you launch into an ability to ensure you maximise damage, or end up in the right place. Most of my time in combat has been spent with the game in its state of active pause – a press of the space bar will reduce the game speed down to a crawl, allowing you to better look around, angle your moves, and time your precise movements.

We-Are-The-Dwarves-Dramatic-850x478Why is this important, this active pause that I use so much? It’s because the enemies are tough, and your protagonists are squishy. Even if you’re running full armour and health you can only afford to take about ten direct hits before your character is unconscious on the floor. Most enemies take several hits to down, and this is before you get to the fact that many are ranged, or poisonous. Ten hits might sound like a lot, but health only restores naturally if your armour is full, and a tumble from the map spells instant death unless you’ve spent your limited upgrade points on single shot Gravity Loop upgrades.
Timing and positioning are absolutely critical throughout the game. The earliest missions showcase the explosive plants which litter the map, and every level has an edge and pathways teetering over dangerous thresholds. A quick knock, a shotgun blast, or an unsuspecting explosion can as rapidly fling your astronauts from the level into obscurity as it will the enemies. As I said, there’s no quick conventional way to come back from this. So you can chalk environmental risk up alongside detrimental effects from having weaker armour.

Each of the levels are made so that there’s a way to best position your team for increased effectiveness, be that a ledge where you can position your shotgun wielding Forcer so that they can kite opponents into the tricky maws of your other dwarves, or a nice open area for Shadow, your rogue, to sneak through as to better gauge the routes where you can control the flow of enemy resistance.

Each character's upgrades are managed in a freeform manner, granting development freedom over the two campaigns.
Each character’s upgrades are managed in a freeform manner, granting development freedom over the two campaigns.

The developers have done a fantastic job of stressing the mechanics of the game, early levels start enemies on teetering edges, tempting you to blast them away. Then fire-power pick ups wait among nests of eggs – a quick charge through eggs will destroy them in one hit, but if they are alerted then they burst to life, cluttering around you and pinning you down in seconds. Later levels showcase wider maps, choke points, and – most importantly – multiple enemy groups. The latter is important because the different groups are not friendly, and a carefully ‘missed’ shot can trigger a group to move to investigate, and end up charging head on into combat with the foes who had been blocking your path.

Just as the missing shot can trigger the enemies to search for intruders, they also have lines of sight, and other ones have strong senses of smell. What this means is that you can/could evade your way around combat, if adept, or just use this information to better position yourself for an inevitable show-down.

I’ve always found in games that there’s a sudden moment when everything clicks, a magic moment where you use a mechanic perfectly and the result is so excellent that you have to keep on playing and share. For me these moments came in the first five or so levels, for example the second level saw me as the Forcer – the shotgun wielding astronaut – blasting about eight enemies off of the map so that they had no chance to close the gap and start ripping into my character.

Learn these symbols, they will keep you alive.
Learn these symbols, they will keep you alive.

My second moment, and I wish I’d filmed it, was me ignoring a pop-up’s advice to sneak around a pod of eggs, instead charging straight through several. Chunks of egg shell splashed around the map in slow motion as I then backed an enemy that I’d not hit with my forward surge away from me, Smashfist pivoted on the spot and stunned another foe, then launched into his whirlwind attack, smashing through the hatchlings I’d not crushed. Stone armour clad the dwarf as his special ability activated, then he moved in to smash the stunned enemy, and slaughter the remaining swampy bastards. It was amazing.

Each character feels completely different, from their design through to the fact that they have entirely different skill trees and ability sets. Skills are upgraded by finding collectables around the game world, and if you have a favoured dwarf then you can share around the consumables used for upgrading – meaning that there’s actually quite a depth to the character developing within the game.

Obviously, with three characters to control in the later levels there can be quite a bit going on, it becomes increasingly important to set up traps, and bait enemies to a point where you can deal with muiltiple threats simultaneously. The game features a stance system – similar to Fallout Tactics’ aggression system – where units will engage, chase enemies down, or wait and die when under attack.

Oh - and yes, don't displease the queen.
Oh – and yes, don’t displease the queen.

In a game where you’ll potentially be restarting multiple times there’s something that’s extremely important – the audio. Interestingly the version of the game I played completely lacked any sign of character speech, and a lot of sounds – like landing on the group – were simply not in the game. Combat noises were at a minimum, with the swinging of alien limbs, the blast of a gun, and several others you would have expected in there. Faults with the sound effects aside, the game music was absolutely fantastic. Wonderful strings, vocals and percussions make up a suitably epic string of songs that I’d happily sit and listen to at home. What is also important is that the combat audio sounds absolutely grand even when it is slowed down due to you using the active pause – fantastic.

I’ve little to find at fault with the game, as a matter of fact during my earlier days playing the game I found a level perverting bug with the game, and a screen which hadn’t been translated. Within about 30 minutes of reporting these two things to the developer they had already pushed a patch forward which fixed the issues. With a dev team that driven, and the fantastic design and execution of the game, this is a must have for anyone who enjoys tough, squad-tactics titles.

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