The Dwarves has got all your standard fantasy tropes: There’s a big world map with X kingdoms that you’ll be traveling across (although we never end up going to one of them – maybe they ran out of budget and had to cut something?). Team Good Guy is humans and elves and dwarves, with the emphasis placed strongly on the latter, and they must come together to fight Team Bad Guy, which is orcs and ogres and dark elves.
I can’t decide if the Dwarves is aware of the problems with this and just can’t bring themselves to completely let it go, or if it’s totally oblivious to the problems with clearly intelligent being with individual personalities being inherently evil. The titular dwarves face significant racial prejudice from humans, and a major theme of the game’s first arc is the hero, a dwarf raised by humans, having to deal with that, especially once he’s ventured away from home and no longer has any childhood friends or wise old mentors backing him up. A dwarf king who’s trying to persuade the other dwarf kingdoms to go to war with the (non-dark) elves is a short-sighted antagonist blinded by racial hatred. There’s a half-dark elf character who’s unambiguously good (this is supposed to be a minor reveal but I don’t feel bad about spoiling it because you can pre-empt that reveal by leveling her up enough to unlock her blatantly dark elven shadow teleportation powers). The dark elves are albino white, not jet black or purple, and they seem to originate from beyond the mountains but not underground, so the reason for this definitely isn’t that it makes sense biologically.
On the other hand, you never run into a good orc, and one of the main characters is really consistently racist against orcs. Like, more so than any of the humans are racist against dwarves. Dehumanization is basically inevitable in racist narratives, and the dwarf berserker character calling orcs “piggies” and making oinking noises at them has no equivalent in anything the humans say. The term “groundling” is clearly some kind of slur, but it doesn’t associate the dwarves with some kind of vermin or slaughter animal. The racist dwarf is impulsive and foolish, but the narrative still treats him as firmly one of the good guys, even as it talks about dwarves, elves, and humans putting prejudice aside and all coming together.
And the good half-dark elf is only half dark elf. Her other half is human, who, as the presumed “normal” viewpoint characters, tend to reflect the human reality that you can’t necessarily tell if someone is good or evil just by looking at them, which is common in racist narratives. White supremacists can make all black people their enemies by choosing to be enemies with them, but they can’t force all white people to be their allies, so they have to recognize that lots of white people can and do choose to side against them. I use white supremacy as the example here, but the same dynamic is at play in every racist narrative – members of the allegedly “good” race can and do choose to ally with the allegedly “evil” race, so racist narratives have to acknowledge that, so fantasy stories built on that DNA also tend to present humans (inevitably the stand-in for whatever the author’s own in-group is) as being prone to joining Team Evil without any reciprocation of orcs (or whatever) joining Team Good.
And it’s not like these orcs are mindless murderbots, extensions of the dark will of their masters. Early scenes show dark elves negotiating terms with orc chiefs for who gets what parts of the country, and establishes rivalries between different orc tribes, so these are clearly independent beings each pursuing their own agenda, with leadership hierarchies to keep it all organized.
I’m talking a lot about this trope, but the narrative’s opening and final arcs both deal heavily with putting aside prejudices between the three good-aligned races, so it sticks out like a sore thumb that the evilness of the orcs is never even questioned, especially since one of the main characters is so vitriolically racist against them. The story is about a defensive war, so if it weren’t for its own emphasis on inter-racial friendship and alliance married to the prominent role played by a blatantly racist protagonist whose racism is never addressed, it would be easy to assume that there’s probably good orcs out in the world somewhere, they’re just not part of the invasion force, because, y’know, obviously. Unfortunately, the story draws tons of attention to this theme while failing to explore its most prominent example in its own text.
The writing isn’t as bad as I’d feared from the opening. It never gets amazing, but there’s lots of different characters with firmly established personalities and a couple of them even have arcs. Given that there’s thirteen playable characters in the game, it would’ve been nice if more than half of them have arcs, and I count six. None of them quite reach the level of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate where I didn’t even realize an arc was supposed to be occurring until it’s being resolved, but there are some one beat character arcs that boil down to “I have decided that one of my established traits is a character flaw and have resolved to stop doing it” and then later on there’s a beat where they’re apparently already on the other side of that arc, demonstrating change but not struggle.
It also turns out the opening is slightly less good than I’d thought, because it actually takes place a thousand years ago. The dark elf villain who breaches the gates of the dwarven fortress to assail Girdlegard apparently spends the next thousand years getting punked by wizards before the game’s actual inciting incident, one of the wizards betraying the council to side with the dark elves. It’s completely unnecessary, too. You’d have to revise a few specific lines of dialogue, but the game’s events are totally unaltered if the dark elf invasion is a recent event, with the traitor wizard’s ambush occurring as they assemble to contain the dark elf invasion for the first time, rather than at a regular meeting of an organization that’s been keeping them at bay for a thousand years. And even if it did need to be an institution that’s stood the test of time, why is it always a thousand years in these fantasy stories? Thirty years would’ve been enough to establish that the wizards have the dark elves locked down indefinitely and the betrayal was necessary to their advance.
You do have to make sure that the fall of the dwarven citadel doesn’t coincide too closely with the age of our protagonist, because it’s an open question which dwarf kingdom he came from and if the fifthling kingdom fell to the dark elves at anywhere close to the time he was born, everyone would just assume he was a fifthling (he isn’t, and it’s not a spoiler to say as much – in the story as it is, the fifthlings were wiped out a thousand years ago, so there’s no way Tungdil could be one and indeed he is not). Having the fall of the fifthlings be an inciting incident for the story would’ve served that perfectly, though – there’s no reason to assume our protagonist is a fifthling because he’s already like thirty years old when the fifthling kingdom fell. He might be, but he might just as well be from any of the other kingdoms.
Speaking of dwarf kingdoms, the setting seems like the world map was drawn up first and then a story for it second. That’s fine, except then you need to go back and edit the world map so that areas not relevant to the story are de-emphasized. Early on I got the impression that there would be one arc in each of the seven kingdoms on the map, but we never visit Ran Ribastur or Urgon. It’s just as well, because the kingdoms are poorly distinguished from one another. While Sangpur’s desert theme makes it immediately visually distinct, we interact with its people not at all, since that arc is entirely about fleeing from an orc horde to the safety of a dwarven kingdom, and Sangpur is just in between the start and finish of that journey. Idoslane, Tabain, and Weyurn are all the focus of different arcs, but only in the sense that those arcs take place mostly or completely within their borders. Very little differentiates them from one another. Gauragar is visited a couple of times, but the only notable thing about it is that it’s the home of the traitor wizard whose betrayal sets the events of the game in motion.
I’m reminded of the Siege of Avalon, an old 2001 RPG that also featured seven good guy kingdoms fighting a bunch of orcs (sort of – for clarity’s sake I tend to undo setting-specific jargon for concepts that are mostly or completely the same as something well known, but Siege of Avalon’s Sha’Ahoul are actually kind of straddling the line between being orcs with a different name and being something distinct – they’re also not really important to the point I’m making, though, so “orcs” is close enough). Each of the seven kingdoms has some kind of hat, so there is a woodsy kingdom and a sailor kingdom and a knights kingdom and so forth. You don’t actually travel to these places, but rather people from all seven kingdoms have shown up to the titular Avalon to help it hold against the orc(ish) horde, and the seven kingdoms’ distinct schticks means they feel like an international coalition. Giving each kingdom a single hat that defines their culture is definitely not very realistic, but neither Avalon nor the Dwarves is trying to be a gritty tale of medieval succession wars or whatever, and a single hat defining different kingdoms is better than the kingdoms being distinguished purely by their boundaries.
Combat is good but not great. It’s real time with pause, but optimal gameplay requires you to pause about once every second or two. As you get deeper into the game and your characters get good at refreshing AP very quickly, you might actually find yourself pausing to issue new orders after less than a second of unpaused combat. Every combat in the game is against a huge swarm of enemies, and it has to be, because the game’s abilities are distinguished primarily by their area of effect. A good chunk of them are single target, but being single target (and usually very high damage) distinguishes them from other abilities which are cone effects, line effects, or radius effects. There are also a few buffs and debuffs and heals, but the vast majority of characters have one buff or self-heal alongside two to four attacks, differentiated by a combination of damage and AoE type, and also sometimes they move some monsters around which probably comes in handy if you’re sprinting for objectives rather than playing in Chara mode like I do.
The main characters have a lot of overlapping abilities, especially the dwarves, who make up at least half your party through the whole game. Since the game has thirteen playable characters, some overlap in abilities helps keep things manageable, and isn’t a huge problem, particularly the way that your main character Tungdil has a lot of ability overlap with the fast-moving high-damage melee berserker dwarf Boindil and the heavy armor sentinel-type dwarf Boendal, who join the party just before the first battle. These three will be the core of the party for the whole game, and it makes sense that Tungdil is learning most of his abilities from them. Some of the characters who join your party later in the game (and I won’t go into detail here because it’s potential spoilers) have a lot of overlap, which is appreciated, because there’s only like eight combats left in the game when they show up, so if they had a completely distinct max-level ability set, they’d be too overwhelming to use properly.
As with a lot of these games I find in Humble Bundles, I don’t regret playing it, but there’s much better examples of the genre out there. If you’ve already played Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 (and 3, if you aren’t waiting for the full release) and Neverwinter and stuff, and you really want another D&D-style high fantasy dwarves vs. orcs adventure, the Dwarves is perfectly serviceable. The roster of D&D-style high fantasy RPGs is actually pretty slim these days, so if that’s your jam, it probably won’t take you too long to get to the Dwarves.
If you like RPGs in general, then it might take a lot longer, but you’ll still probably get to it eventually. There’s a ton of fantastic RPGs in the archives to get through, but if you’re caught up on those, then Baldur’s Gate 3 looks promising, but what other big releases are you looking forward to in the genre? Mass Effect or Dragon Age? BioWare’s lucky when they can produce something mediocre these days. Fallout or Elder Scrolls? Best not get your hopes too high after the comedy of errors in Fallout 76, Bethesda’s been coasting on the goodwill from Skyrim and Fallout 3 for a decade and they show no signs of stopping. Bloodlines 2? Dev team fired, which means either the executives were right and the game was a tirefire, so that’s a bad sign, or the executives were wrong and sacked the dev team for some stupid or petty reason, so that’s also a bad sign.