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JPublic Will Play It - June 2011 - Dwarfs!?

Posted 06-05-2011 at 08:51 AM by jpublic
Developer: Power of 2
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Platform: PC (Steam)
Price: $10, Demo Available

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For this month I thought I'd take a look at a recent attempt by a developer to cash in on a popular freeware phenomenon, Dwarf Fortress. We are of course talking about the indie game Dwarfs!?

For an alternate look, you can check out Mot Wakorb's CoG review for it here.

Dwarfs (I reject your silly punctuation) claims to provide an arcade experience, wherein you command a Dwarf base, using your minions to get as rich as possible. As the game text says, there are only 3 certainties in the world: death, taxes, and that Dwarfs dig too deep.

Dwarfs has seven game modes. The mainstay is the Arcade mode, in which you can customize the length of the game and the difficulty. There's a Tower Defense mode - or Base Defend, as they call it. Third, there's a Rush mode, where you have to deal with an increasingly huge Dwarf population, and try to only lose up to 200 of them. Fourth, there's Dark Mode, in which you can only see where you've dug. Fifth, there's a Sandbox mode, where you can simply play around with the game engine. Six, we have an Endless game, which is like arcade but without pesky time limits. Finally, there's the Campaign mode, with a tutorial and challenges. We'll be starting with the campaign, so I can run through the tutorial.

No multiplayer, but there are Steam Leaderboards.

As I start the game, or attempt to, I run into a major hurdle. The damn game crashes on boot. After some digging through the Steam Forum, I discover it's a problem with missing XNA. Go into the game dir, run the redist, and bam, game starts.

Now, I'm going to take a moment to comment on this. As a hardcore Steam addict, one of my biggest complaints with the games is how every single one seems to want to install DirectX and other libraries on installation. This I find massively irritating and uncool. However, it is just as bad to have a game that just crashes until you go get the library, because they didn't install required components. There's got to be a balance between forcing installation, and just blindly running. Are proper detection algorithms too hard to do?

Finally starting the game, I switch it to windowed mode and start the first tutorial, about the controls. I'm taught them by "Awesome Dwarf", who has one of the most painful voice actors ever. It's not horrible (but not good), it's just that the voice is one of those half-hoarse ones that makes your throat ache.

Anyway, the Controls Tutorial gives me the rundown on how Dwarfs love gold, how to navigate your view with the mouse (edge of screen or hold RMB) and quests. First off I'm to use the mouse controls to find some mineral deposits on the map, and then I'm to command my lone dwarf to mine some of them by creating an arrow path to it. Ordering a dwarf to dig to a location costs money, but if you don't command him he can dig around randomly, a dangerous proposal. You get a tiny amount for digging a square, and a lot for digging up minerals and treasure.

One of the first tutorial levels.

For the second mission, I'm to learn about Lava and Water. The tutorial starts, and we're shown a dwarf that's about to dig into an underground lake, thereby killing himself, and causing a cascade of water to head towards our base. If it gets there, we lose. But Awesome Dwarf, who just found some money in time to save us (but not the poor dwarf), gives us enough to buy a Wall, which we can place by holding LShift and clicking with the LMB. We stop the water, just in time for another dwarf to dig into a Lava pocket, which starts spreading into our base. Again, we can stop it with a wall, but unlike water, lava burns through walls. So we have to permanently halt it. With DYNAMITE! We have to place the dynamite in a dug out area (in the lava's path), and then bring another dwarf to sacrifice his life to set it off. Right then. This creates a Hole, that allows the lava to fall down and out of harm's way.

The next mission is to learn about Cave Trapping, which is the only way to permanently seal off lava and water and to boost score. The problem with using walls and holes is that your stupid dwarfs will cheerfully dig around them, and release the lava and water again. So, what you do is use Ctrl and LMB to click brown earth squares and transform (Solidify) them into dark brown/grey rock squares, which can't be dug into. This also gives you a nice score boost, and a pittance of cash (which doesn't cover the massive cost of Solidifying.

Next, we look at Dark Caves. These are "open" areas on the map which if you're lucky have treasure, and if you're unlucky have water, lava, or enemies (we'll get to that last one later). Unfortunately, you can't trap a cave until you know what's in it, so you have to risk a dwarf's life and find out first. I send a dwarf to the first of the caves, and unleash lava. Thankfully, I have just enough to afford a couple walls, which give me some time for one of the other dwarfs to mine some treasure and get me the money to trap the cave.

Moving on, we finally get to do some fighting! In this mission, my horde of diggers have been attacked by a couple goblins. Since diggers aren't that good at fighting, we're provided with a couple Warriors (with blue health meters as opposed to the digger's green) to fend them off with. Warriors will patrol the area their town hall/outpost unless you direct them otherwise with arrow paths (although if left alone they go all over Hell's Acres), so I set one up to where the diggers and goblins are. My first warrior dies, but the second manages to kill off a goblin and levels, healing him enough to take out the other one. Unfortunately, another goblin shows up, and the game shows us how to call my warrior home and train some new ones to fend the goblin off.

The penultimate tutorial involves Outposts. As we start the mission, we run into a Shaman, which is a boss-type enemy that summons goblins. As I'm given a load of money, I buy a load of warriors to go beat him up. But, another shaman appears, this one encased in un-diggable rock, so we have to use an Outpost Cannon to get to him. An Outpost is a mini Town Hall, where you can buy Warriors, train them up, and use the cannon to fire them to locations on the map (with fairly low accuracy, so it's risky). Training up some new warriors to level 3, I fire them into the shaman's cave and after a short epic battle, end the level.

An outpost near a shaman, who is securely trapped in stone.

The final tutorial sets you up to use all your skills at once. Given a map that looks pretty much like an Arcade map, you need to get a sum of gold, trap a water and lava cave, and kill a boss. Simple enough. Combining the skills taught in earlier tutorials, this proves to be fairly easy. Most of the caves tend to have some treasure (yay) or some enemies (usually a couple goblins and an egg that hatches some spiders). I find a water cave in short order, and then the shaman quickly after that. Because he's so far away from my home base, I quickly build an outpost, train up some level 3 warriors, and cannon them over at him. Shortly after that, I find the lava cave, trap it, and I'm done.

After I finish the mission, Awesome Dwarf advises me to check out the Codex to read up on some more topics, especially Dwarf Snapping and Favorites. The former (Snapping) occurs when you click on a dwarf that happens to be moving between two squares. He will 'snap' back or forward, and then wait for your order. If you're good with it, you can use this to make a dwarf move fairly quickly by repeatedly snapping him, or if you're good and lucky you can pull of a trick where you place dynamite behind a dwarf that's opening a wall into a lava/water cave, then snap him back onto the dynamite, thereby saving you some money and a dwarf. The latter (Favorites), allows you to tag a dwarf with an icon for easy reference and if it happens to be a warrior, you can use them to warp a dwarf to a specific outpost and reassign it.

Having completed the tutorials, I take a look at the campaign challenges. There's five. The first involved using a limited number of dwarfs to battle an enemy, and you get bonus points for doing it with less casualties. The second involved holding off a torrent of water, with a bonus for using less money and also for not using dynamite to do it. The third is a speed challenge (get X points in 3 minutes) with bonuses for having a higher score at the end. The fourth is a population challenge - get to 100 dwarfs, with bonuses for doing it faster. The last one is a survival challenge, where you have to last as long as possible with the game on fast forward.

They're cute, but I'm not interested. I want to try Base Defense.

The Bade Defense mode. The key is to build a system of paths which work for all the entry points.

In Base Defense, you start with a home base, 1000G, and a gate, which has a single digger dwarf at it. The dwarf is going to dig his way home by the most direct route possible. Once he gets there, monsters pour through the gate. Using your limited funds, you have to guide the dwarf in such a way so as to make a longer route that you can funnel enemies through so your towers can kill them. If you spend too much on the route, well, you can't buy towers. To make things even more tricky, new gates form for wave 2 through 4, so you'll want to make sure the route(s) you dig take that into account. It's fairly tricky, especially once you get to higher waves, but all in all it's a pretty standard tower defense. Fun, none the less.

Enough of that, let's try an Arcade game, shall we? I start an Easy 5-minute game, and run it through. It's awfully fun, but I see the appeal of longer games and even the sandbox or endless modes. As they tell you in the game, this is more of a Lemmings experience than a Dwarf Fortress or even a Starcraft game. You need to leave your dwarfs alone unless they get into trouble.

I load up a longer 30-minute game. At the end, my home base has grown dramatically due to my larger digger population, and the random digging has cleared out a lot of rock. It also showed one of the great dangers of combining the random digging with the progressive advancement of water and lava - at least twice I nearly died because I had no way to bottleneck the lava/water, and ended up having to sacrifice dozens of diggers to build the holes so I could trap it.

I began an endless game, and after about 85 minutes gave up as I watched some lava overcome my horde. There was just too many paths for me to close off.


I was perhaps a bit unfair in expecting a Dwarf Fortress experience in Dwarfs!?, despite the obvious thematic references. The game is a fun little Lemmings-esque experience, a good diversion that you can sit down and play for a short while if you like, or devote hours to if you really want. However, I don't see it having a huge amount of staying power in your library. You'll fool around with it for a week or so, and then only go back to it rarely. I do wish there had been a bit more depth in the arcade or endless modes, to keep things fresh, but they paired down the experience to keep it clean, which is a fair decision.

In terms of graphics, they're serviceable but nothing great, with a rough cartoony hand-drawn quality that reminds me of stuff from the 16-bit era, to be honest. It's a style that makes me think of The Lost Vikings for some reason. The sounds are nothing special, but nothing bad, although the music is definitely retro, sounding a lot like old RPG music from those 16-bit days, or even MIDI/Synth music from the 1990s. It's not bad, just very... nostalgic (and I swear I've heard the main menu music somewhere before). Controls are simple and intuitive, for the most part.

All in all, a fair but not brilliant game, definitely worth picking up on sale, and even worthwhile as a whim purchase at full price. And if the makers at Power of 2 are listening, get this game on XBLA and/or PSN. It'll do very well there.

1) The JPublic Fun Rating: 3 out of 5

2) The JPublic Irritation Rating: 2 out of 5

3) The JPublic Value Point: $6

Discussion thread here.

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