Dwarf Journey is a diamond. It’s a diamond in the ‘diamond in the rough’ sense, as we had zero expectations from it: it was yet another rogue-lite platformer in a cavern full of them. But it’s also a diamond in the concentrated-carbon sense. This is a game that takes the very small amount of gameplay that it has on offer, but refines it to the degree that every moment is dense and enjoyable, and it becomes a tiny, high-carat example of the genre.
Stop us if you’ve heard this before. You are a warrior, in this case a dwarf king, who has come to the deepest, most dangerous dungeon in the kingdom to test your mettle. There are four consecutive levels to the dungeon, each ending with a boss, and you have to see how far you can get before dying. And you will die. But dying isn’t the end of everything: you will have gathered enough resources and experience from the dungeon that you’ll be in better stead for the next run.
It really is the 101 of roguelike dungeon-crawling. We can’t really defend it in innovation terms. We’re desperately scrabbling around for something that Dwarf Journey does new, but the closest we can get is that you play a dwarf. And that the game is short.
Your dungeon run starts in the Echoing Cave. The levels are procedurally generated, and the first room is a safe one, where you will make your first move in one of the cardinal directions to hunt for the boss room. There’s a Metroid-like map in the top-right corner that displays the series of boxes that you will be moving through.
Hopping through a door will close all the exits, so you need to kill all the enemies to proceed. There are goblins that charge, goblins that chuck rocks at you, lunging bats and slugs that merrily wander their way around the walls of the level. So, you’re using your reasonably stumpy sword to cut into them, jumping out of the way of their attacks, and nursing your health bar.
Combat could have done with a bit more depth, especially as you have a single attack and no blocks or blinks to speak of. But your jump is versatile enough that it bridges the gap a little. You can double-jump, cling to walls for a wall-jump, and generally mix up the height of your leap. It’s all extremely responsive, too, and we got to the point where we could weave around arcing bats without taking a hit.
You might not want to progress from a room immediately after massacring everyone, as there’s a fair amount of loot around. Seams of ore can be mined for metals, and chests burst open with even more. You can dump the ore into mine carts (slightly rarer), which is regularly the right idea, as death means you lose all of the ore that you had on you. And – best of the bunch – there are occasional idol-like constructions that you can raid for weapon, armour and rune recipes, or temporarily boost your four main stats: Vitality, Strength, Agility and Luck.
Keep hunting through procedurally generated rooms (which, as it goes, are in that sweet spot of feeling varied, without feeling like they were randomly placed by an AI) and you’ll get to the boss room, which spans from goblin kings to infernal dragons, crystalline golems and armadillos. These are fine enough, containing a sequence of attacks that will decimate you on the first run, but will become trivial as you learn the pattern. And then you’re onto the next level, hopping from caves to lava tunnels to crystal caverns all over again.
Die and you’re back to the hub, the Refuge of Immortality, where you can make all manner of improvements to your dwarf. Your first stop will be to level up, and you will have swathes of points to spend. We’d get four or five level ups per run, so you can really feel the difference each time you play, which is essential for a finely tuned roguelike. Strength means you hit harder, Vitality allows you to take more hits, Agility makes you faster, and Luck triggers critical hits more often.
You can pop to the blacksmithy to create weapons and armours from your newly found recipes, and then improve them further, all of which requires the ore that you’ve mined. Again, in most runs you will be creating or upgrading gear one or two times over, so you will feel the difference. And then you’re over to the runes, which give you passive buffs for your character, with a greater number of slots for runes as you level up. These are awesome, truly transformative, giving you hefty improvements like life-regen whenever you kill an enemy, an extra life, and the chance of double-hits. Those three were our favourites, and they got us to the end with gusto. A merchant also turns up at level three, offering you some one-time unlocks and the ability to trade for different ores.
It’s relatively easy to pinpoint why we liked Dwarf Journey so much. Runs are short, and you’re quickly back at the hub, making several improvements to your dwarf. Those improvements are near-exponential, so you’re playing through again and feeling buff. Enemies that were tough are now taking one or two hits, and you’ve swiftly become a killing machine. Sure, you’re repeating old floors, but they’re quickly in your slipstream. The knowledge that the next run is going to become even easier is superbly satisfying, and keeps you replaying, and we looked to drain our run of every last metally drop, so that we could ramp up as much as possible.
And, while combat is simple, there’s an elegance to it. Your dwarf is a nimble, parkouring little dude, and controlling him becomes second nature. You can dismiss everyone in a room with three or four little double jumps, and then crash to the floor with a superhero landing. It’s all rather satisfying.
There are a few rusty links to the chain, but they’re nothing overly damaging. It’s not going to last you for longer than four hours, we would say, but the enjoyment is so concentrated that it’s almost a non-issue. The economy of the game also goes a bit haywire in the latter game: you stop needing certain types of ore, and Dwarf Journey introduces new ore that is frustratingly hard to get hold of. You’ve got the merchant to convert ores, but it’s a little slow to use and unsatisfying.
Dwarf Journey is small, short and completely lacking in innovation, but it concentrates your time with it into a thunderingly enjoyable burst. If you’re tired of every game wanting to be your new best friend, offering hundreds of hours of sprawl, tempting you back with numerous progression systems, events and live services, then Dwarf Journey is your game. It’s a tiny diamond: a refined experience that sparkles for the short time you spend with it.
You can buy Dwarf Journey from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S
- A condensed little dungeon crawler
- Responsive and nimble controls
- Power creep is real, making it fun to play each run
- Plenty of ways to progress
- Doesn’t do anything new
- Over in a blink of the eye
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
- Version reviewed - Xbox One on Xbox Series X
- Release date - 8 Oct 2021
- Launch price from - £4.99