Imagine for a moment, if you will, that all the previous RPG games and films have been wrong. Dwarves are not just a short tempered, mead quaffing, subterranean race with a penchant for big axes. No, instead the protagonists of We Are The Dwarves are interstellar explorers in a stone universe, boldly going where no short, bearded individuals have gone before. Got that picture in your mind? Then lets continue…
First off, We Are The Dwarves is touted as a story driven, real time tactical action game. The setting is a fascinating one. The universe the Dwarves know is an almost exact inverse to the one that we inhabit. The entirety of their universe is made of stone, with life only possible in the caverns surrounding the Stone Stars, giant magical crystals that provide light and warmth. Brave crews board their drilling spaceships and depart to explore, searching for new stars and a new home, as their own Star has gone out, leaving the Dwarves on the verge of extinction. As the game opens, the ship our heroes are travelling on has encountered some sort of anomaly and has crashed, scattering the crew around. The cut scenes used for exposition are, well, I think “serviceable” is about the best I can say about them, and the voice acting is not quite up to that standard.
After the crashing has finished and the game is ready to start, we are introduced to our first Dwarf Astronaut, Forcer. Once the novelty of seeing a Dwarf in a spacesuit has worn off, there’s a brief tutorial, explaining how to move the Dwarf around and his various implements of destruction. Forcer is tooled up with a gun, the only one of the Dwarves to have a firearm at his disposal. It has different firing modes that can be unlocked as you progress through the story, but starts off as either a shotgun type blast, which has heavy recoil but can blast enemies off paths, or a single sniper type shot with lesser recoil, but that can over-penetrate targets. So far, so good, right? Later he can unlock a diversionary item that draws enemies to it, and an arcing, mortar type shot that does damage over a wide area. Also, weirdly, he has a force field that doesn’t prevent you, the Dwarf, being hurt, but prevents damage to your spacesuit? I mean, when have you ever been in a fight and thought “I may have an arm hanging off, but at least my outfit is ok? ”
The second Dwarf to be found, Smashfist (who in my head was forever Fisty) is a melee type brawler, complete with, you’ve guessed it, axes! His abilities are all based around close quarter combat attacks. He has a single smash, which can stun enemies, allowing you to finish them off in peace, a spinning vortex type attack that comes in very handy when surrounded by enemies and a charging attack where he will run in a straight line, hitting bad guys in his wake. He also has the ability to accumulate rage, which first of all sets his head on fire, and then will let him use Stone Form, which makes him slow but almost invulnerable.
The Final Dwarf, Shadow, doesn’t appear until Chapter 2, but he is, as the name would suggest, a stealthy character who can sneak around in cover, and even teleport from cover to cover to avoid detection. He has a “Hush” ability, which allows him to sneak up on enemies from behind for an insta-kill, a power shot with his bow that requires timing to hit anything at all, never mind with all the available power, an AOE attack where his arrow splits into many arrows and peppers enemies in the area, and a smokescreen that he can disappear into.
And so, after introducing the cast, we come to the game proper.
After the cutscene, the game loads up and is revealed as a largely arena based environment. Each level loads as a single screen, which scrolls around as you move, but that is enclosed on sides apart from the exit. This fits in with the whole “stone universe” thing so isn’t jarring or unexpected. There are two main ways that you can approach this game: wade in, all guns (or bows or axes) blazing, or sneak around, staying out of sight and work out a path to the exit. Obviously, the sneaky stealthy approach is easiest with Shadow, while the wade in approach works best with Fisty, as he is more of a tank character. Forcer is kind of middle of the road; he can sneak but if you do shoot his gun, then the enemies hear and the situation can go south very quickly.
The first few levels are easy enough, there are never more enemies than you can handle, and the various items in the environment to pick up or utilise are introduced. These include Life Stones, that magically heal your Dwarf but don’t give any repairs to the spacesuit, Dwarven stones that can be used at Rune Stones to upgrade abilities, Rune Stones themselves are glowing rocks set into the floor, that can be used to upgrade Dwarves or mend their suits, and also act as save points, and blue energy that allow the repair of your suit. Repairing the suit brings different abilities, with each suit split into four sections. Each of these lets your Dwarf do something different, such as recovering from falling off the map, healing the Dwarf when not in combat, and also team based abilities, such as faster team revive and so on. The last thing to pick up are the Exploration Points, which either unlock a bit of the lore of the game, or give clues about enemies, or sometimes give extra abilities.
This sets the tone for the following levels. Enter a level, figure out how to get to the exit, and execute your plan. Then swear a bit, remember that that enemy is going to pop out there, reset and try again. And again. And again. It’s fair to say that We Are The Dwarves is not an easy game – I’m not afraid of a hard game, I played all 3 Dark Souls games by choice! – however, in this game, it seems that progressing is very largely based on luck. You can watch the patrol patterns until you are blue in the face, but the one time you manage to sneak by the enemies or defeat them, it feels like the game has taken mercy on you, rather than that you have executed a plan flawlessly.
Add to this a game camera that can’t be moved, and quite often the first you’ll know that you are in trouble is when you hear a whistling or growling, and projectiles fly from off screen and demolish your health bar. Oh, and don’t think that because you are in cover or behind things that you will be safe, as the Whistler Pirate spears can penetrate rock and take you out. As it goes, Forcer’s sniper shot can do the same, but being below an enemy, aiming through the very ground hes stood on and taking him out feels ridiculous. The enemies, when they are riled, also seem to develop X-ray vision, so its impossible to hide from the bad guys and reset. A good example of this is in the first Shadow mission, where as I was sneaking about, I was spotted. Cue whistles, grunts, spears, the whole nine yards. I got into cover, and immediately teleported to the next patch of cover, which should have been out of the enemies line of sight. Nope. The very next spear went straight through me, almost causing irreparable damage to my Elite pad!
Those aren’t even the worst bits. There are two sections in the game that stand out as awful, for me.
In one, Forcer has to traverse a section of the environment which has zero gravity. He encases himself in his forcefield, and then propels himself around by firing his gun backwards, which pushes him forwards. So far, so good. He has to collect the components to upgrade his gun, which entails him flying around the level, squashing enemies and grabbing stuff. What the game doesn’t tell you is that the purple swirly things, which appear to be in the background, will instantly kill you. Ok, lesson learned, try again. Oh, the purple swirly things can also pull you off your trajectory, suck you in and kill you? Good to know! Add to this the reload time of the gun (which is also an issue in combat, but we’ll come to that later) and the chances to correct an errant trajectory are nil. What this results in is making a jump, quick saving, making the next, quick saving and so on. This effectively kills any immersion or flow the level has and makes it a chore, rather than a treat to play.
The second part that sticks out is the first boss fight with a parasitic star. It will show you the enemy in the cut scene that sets up the fight, but after that, the enemy isn’t visible on the screen again. The only way to damage it is to load Forcer’s mortar gun with a fragment of the parasite itself, and then hit it with the shot. In practice, you have to run to the edge of a cliff, aim out into the invisible void, then fire and hope it hits the boss that you can’t see. I spent the entire fight wondering aloud how I was supposed to shoot something I couldn’t see!
Combat in general is a real problem in We Are The Dwarves. The mechanic of using an ability, then having to wait for it to cool down before it can be used again, makes each encounter a real drag. Fisty isn’t so bad in that regard, as being a tank he can take damage while waiting for the abilities to activate again, before carrying on the fight. Forcer and Shadow really suffer, with Shadow coming off worst. If Shadow is detected, unless you can move the fight to the vicinity of the healing stone, he will die. Every time.
There is a particular achievement for killing 50 of the Fishman Pirate enemies. The first section in that you control Shadow, there are two of these enemies you have to kill to progress. Before I had managed to successfully navigate this small bit of the game, I had got the achievement. Thats 25 attempts at that one section alone. I got another two sections into that level and then had to give up, and lowered the difficulty to easy. I can honestly say I’ve never had to do this on a review before, but the frustration was way outweighing the fun by that point. Add to this the way that your character will only attack the enemy highlighted in red, even if that character is 200 metres away and you’ve silently approached an enemy and got into the stealth insta-kill zone. Surely the game should be able to work out that I want to kill the guy whose shadow I’m stood in? That was the death of me a few times as well, as in the heat of combat it’s all too easy to lose track of who you are targeting.
As for Forcer, well, if Dwarven technology is advanced enough to make a shotgun/sniper rifle/mortar, would a rapid fire machine gun have been too much to ask? Firing a shot and then running away until the cooldown has run out is not fun, and don’t even get me started on the recoil. The easiest way to kill an enemy is to blast them off the edge of the world, but woe betide you if you don’t have a solid wall behind you when you fire, as more often than not the recoil blows you off the opposite side of the platform. Add to this the fact that Forcer can only recover from this if the second “chunk” of his spacesuit is in working order and quite a few deaths occurred. The best and most efficient way I found to kill the many bad guys is to locate the Healing stone in the level you are on, attract a couple of enemies, kill them while your back is to the stone for on demand healing, and then rinse and repeat. It’s not the way the game is meant to be played and undoubtedly feels cheap, but when it works it’s hard to imagine another way to make it through the level. With the ever present “Quick Save” option, it is really easy to kill some bad guys, save, kill a few more, save and so on.
There is a multiplayer component to We Are The Dwarves, and when I tried it, I ended up on a level I hadn’t done yet, in control of a character I hadn’t yet unlocked, which was somewhat jarring. Also, I can’t actually report on the multiplayer aspect, as I seemed to be in the game alone, wandering around doing things that I wasn’t sure of. Best of all, when I quit the mode and tried to play single player again, I found that it had overwritten my progress, so the “continue” option took me back to where I was in the multiplayer session. I later found that it is possible to reload from any save on any level, which is a nice touch. It certainly helped when I found myself trying to do a level with Forcer and the worlds noisiest guns, with a whisker of health left and a universe’s supply of Pirates between me and the healing stone. I was able to go back, select a previous save where I was in better shape, and carry on from that point.
It’s not all doom and gloom however and there are good points. The premise is genuinely interesting, and the lore and bestiary entries in the lore section help to flesh this out. The Dwarves themselves are very different, and the design that has gone into each character and the animation in the way the different classes move helps to make the game more endearing. The enemies are also well designed, with many different foes, ranging from insect eggs to the aforementioned Fishman Pirates, via Whistler Pirates and a creature called the Swarm Mother, which has a kind of Nemesis feel to it and keeps popping up in various levels to chase us around. The graphics of the levels are perfectly serviceable, and despite some issues with objects in the foreground completely blocking your view of the action, the difference in the levels is stark and works well.
In conclusion, We Are The Dwarves has so much potential that I can’t help but feel disappointed at the way the game has turned out. Good story, great background and awesome character design are sadly not enough to overcome frustrating, slow gameplay with minimal exposition of the abilities and what they can do, insta death mechanics and any real lack of desire to carry on after the 50th death in a row from enemies off screen.
In short, Whale Rock Games could, and should, have done better.