There is something instantly familiar about A Game Of Dwarves as soon as you tumble into the tutorial. The semi-isometric viewpoint, the block based tunnelling, the levelling minions and it all being buried deep underground. A Game Of Dwarves is certainly following in the footsteps of the Bullfrog classic: Dungeon Keeper. And only the brave or the foolhardy dare to follow in those steps.
In thirteen years there have been virtually no successful attempts at recreating the wonderfully nefarious style of the cult classic, almost entirely due to the fact that Dungeon Keeper and its sequel were perhaps verging on perfection of the genre. Recent attempts such as Realmforge Studiosí Dungeons hit a wall of critical apathy and disappeared into the abyss of averageness, with few players sticking to it for long.
Where Dungeon Keeper took the traditional fantasy set-up and spun it on its head, casting the player as the leader of evil, A Game Of Dwarves spins the the tale back on its feet and leaves you in control of a team of dwarves, building epic dungeons in search of treasure.
The game is far more freeform than what one would normally expect from the genre. Typical rectangular room formats are eschewed for whatever random assorted placement of furnishings the player desires. Dig out a room with your miners, stick in a training dummy for the warriors, throw a bookcase in for a researcher then finish it with some magic underground trees for food and you have a multi-functional habitat all in one. Then you may wish to furnish it with statues and hangings to keep those cultural dwarves happy. Oh, and you probably should chuck in a few beds and a table for them to eat off. Now these lucky troglodytes never have to leave this one room.
The idea that developers Zeal Game Studio and publishers Paradox Software seem to have for A Game Of Dwarves is to recreate the principles of Dungeon Keeper but approach it with a far more laissez faire attitude. While there is always a certain amount of peril from invading monsters, the game leans far more towards allowing the player to create whatever style dungeon they choose, aligning it closer to simulation, creation and exploration games such as The Sims or Minecraft.
One other feature A Game Of Dwarves shares with this cult block repositioning classic is that it has dared to take a step into a third dimension. Until playing this game I struggled to think of any simulation game that allowed players to build up or down, instead of just side to side. Sure, Dungeon Keeper 2 had a 3D engine, but the levels always existed on a flat plane, the same goes for any of the Bullfrog classics.
Unfortunately this is also where A Game Of Dwarves starts to come off its rails and plummet into the chasm it has dug for itself. The standard camera is stuck at that familiar isometric viewpoint, with the ability to rotate around in order to see from every angle. To mine or position objects above or below however, you have to hit a key to switch planes. Aligning vertical tunnels and cube shaped rooms suddenly becomes extremely difficult and disorientating. There is definitely a desire to rip the camera from its hinges and dive into the dungeon to navigate, in a similar vein to Minecaft, but unfortunately the perspective remains trapped.
The other deeply annoying result of entering this bold new dimension is having to guide your dwarves though it. Ladders, stairs and bridges have to be crafted to allow them reach areas on different planes, each tedious and tiresome to place and rotate into position. Worse, if you direct a dwarf to mine downwards (perhaps to dig up a rare piece of treasure) then he will stand directly over the the instructed spot and fall into it upon completion. If left unattended he will almost certainly perish through hunger. Then again, he probably deserved it.
One could perhaps forgive the game for attempting to break free of the dimensional shackles of the genre if it were not for the fact that so many other elements of the game fail to add up. Resorting back to being the good and heroic, tankard swinging dwarven essentially removes that exciting element of surprise and exhilaration one receives when they manage to tempt in a new creature from the underworld in Dungeon Keeper. Dwarves are simply summoned, given a job and then unleashed into the dungeon to perform their duties. There is very little personality or interest to any of them. Perhaps worse, once a dwarf has been allocated a profession he is stuck with it. This becomes extremely frustrating when, for example, your home is invaded and there is a sudden need for more warriors. If your (usually inexplicably low) population cap is reached, you have to sack your highly experienced workforce and slowly replace them with fresh faced low leveled dwarfs from the city, instead of simply retraining your original team.
The resource management side of the game fares little better. Virtually all resources are found through mining, the issue here is that they are they are all hidden only to be uncovered if a miner digs close by. In a map that is perhaps 75x75x50, searching for one square of precious metal is entering needle in a very small haystack territory. The best solution is often just to send your miners off to dig entire swathes of the map up and see what they discover.
Unfortunately more often than not they will discover hidden lairs of monsters, bizarrely unhindered by the vertical challenges of our dwarven compatriots, who will then swarm into your ornately forged home and destroy everything if you are unprepared. Traps can be laid to hinder and slow down the enemies but often the huge caverns you have created to find resources render them useless. If you have too few or too inexperienced warriors then the end (which is caused by the death of the prince dwarf) will not be too far off. Admittedly, there may be more of a skill to it than I tend to employ, but the frustrating nature of the controls and cameras simply does not encourage one to experiment.
For a game made thirteen years after its obvious influential ancestor, A Game Of Dwarves fails to look, sound or feel any better. The characters are cartoonish in style, but fail to invoke charm, the voice acting is comically awful, and the script is tepid and irrelevant at best. It is a struggle to find elements to praise beyond its attempts at innovation, and they failed rather miserably.
In the end A Game Of Dwarves is still in beta and some of these issues may be readdressed and fine tuned, but there is certainly a feeling that the main problems with the game are more conceptual. It is almost as if two polar opposite designers have joined forces to create the game, one with a desire to make the next Minecraft, the other one wishing to rekindle the magic of the classic Bullfrog games such as Dungeon Keeper. The result is a confusing and tiring mess that fails to work in either direction. With a release date set for the twenty-third of October, I cannot see more than minor changes being implemented. Yet, without completely redesigning the camera and control system, rethinking the resource management and altering the profession system, I wonder how this game will be able to grab the critical attention it needs to be a success.