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RPG Codex Review: The Dwarf Run

RPG Codex Review: The Dwarf Run

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 3 May 2016, 21:10:26

Tags: Alexander Mirdzveli; The Dwarf Run

[Review by Bubbles]

In early 2015, the world of RPGs bore witness to two monumental events: the world release of Blackguards 2, and my subsequent Codex review of the game. It was my first front page feature for this venerable site; indeed, Blackguards 2 was the first game that I had genuinely wanted to write thousands of words about. The game had well and truly pissed me off; it was the sequel to a complex and entertaining tactical RPG, but instead of simply offering more complexity and more entertainment, the developers instead decided to rip out everything that had made the first game good. Blackguards 2 managed the rare feat of being both heavily casualized and absolutely aggravating to play; it was a terribly unenjoyable game.

Now, one short year later, I present to you the game that Blackguards 2 should have been. It's a super-low-budget tactical turn based RPG where you control a pre-made party of adventurers. It's been made by a Russian chap who seems to have no professional history in the video game industry, but who obviously feels passionately about combat design. It's entirely without voice acting, offers a selection of fiddly and awkward camera modes, and features highly outdated 3D graphics directly from the Unity Asset Store. It offers only a paper-thin, strictly linear story and is riddled with typos and grammatical errors. It's full of terrible jokes. It's being marketed as an RPG-Adventure hybrid, but its puzzles are extremely simplistic and will not satisfy any actual adventure game fans. It's an unashamedly old school dungeon crawler game that finds its core audience in the most niche of niche gamers. It's called The Dwarf Run, and it's one of the most entertaining games I've played in the last few years.

What makes The Dwarf Run remarkable is its combination of two design elements that are very dear to my heart; complex tactical combat, and a lighthearted, pun-heavy writing style.

The character and battle systems are surprisingly well designed

What surprised me most about The Dwarf Run was the obvious amount of thought and care that had gone into most of its design elements. The game establishes clear boundaries to what it can offer, and then strives to create the most complex and well-balanced experience it can manage. Let's first discuss those boundaries: there is no character creation, and you have zero choice over your party composition. You're limited to a party of four characters, who are confined to their pre-set classes: Dalain the dwarven Warrior, his father Zenn, who acts as the party's Cleric, the ancient human Wizard Barbados, and Ionor, an elven Ranger with an unabiding passion for stargazing.

Your progression through the game world is also highly limited; each “chapter” of the storyline drops you into a small 3D area – an ancient temple, a spider cave, the inside of a space ship – that is broken up into a number of rooms. You have the option of freely exploring each room, solving simple puzzles and taking on various side encounters – for example, by freeing the souls trapped in an ancient teleportation stone, or by wiping out an orc camp that threatens a nearby goblin village – until you feel ready to tackle the “main quest” elements of the map and proceed to the next chapter. Once you've moved on from a chapter, you can usually never go back; thus, you're highly encouraged to keep restarting difficult battles and trying out different tactics instead of simply coming back later when you've outleveled them.

One of the last maps, the arena, doesn't offer any sort of puzzling or exploration at all – you're simply presented with a large selection of arena battles, and then you keep fighting until you become strong enough to beat the champion. I played TDR on the hardest game difficulty (which I would strongly recommend for fans of tactical games), but with the Arena mode set to the default setting of “Casual” (which really just means “short”); with these settings, the arena took me about five hours, or a quarter of my total play time. That seems reasonable enough. The arena has been commonly criticized as the absolute worst part of the game due to its length and its total focus on combat; personally, I found that the encounter design and the continuous sense of character and equipment progression were strong enough to keep this section entertaining from start to finish.

The maps are small, but packed with content.

Indeed, the character system is one of the most interesting features of The Dwarf Run. Your characters have five primary attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Speed, Constitution, and Intelligence), and a character can distribute two attribute points at each level up. The designer has gone to great pains to make each attribute at least moderately useful for every character class. Strength, for instance, affects both melee damage and the character's fatigue. In simple terms, fatigue determines how many actions a character can take in a battle before he has to perform a Rest action; being hit by enemies also fatigues you, so frontliners can burn through their fatigue pool rather quickly. Dexterity affects physical accuracy and the damage of ranged weapons; Intelligence determines the power of many abilities and increases a character's xp gains, Constitution affects maximum hit points (important due to the scarcity of healing spells and potions for most of the game) and fatigue, and Speed improves the amount of action points you get in combat. Action points? Yes indeed – TDR's combat system is roughly similar to that of Divinity: Original Sin, except without combos, with fewer active abilities per character, and with a per-encounter limit on each ability instead of cooldowns. I bloody hate cooldowns, so this suits me just fine.

It seems to me that TDR's systems are also a little better balanced than those in D:OS or in either of the Blackguards games. Take the Speed stat, for instance; you don't need to be a hardcore RPG veteran to notice that increasing your action point gain per turn is extremely powerful. To compensate for that, increasing your Speed score past a certain point becomes progressively more costly than increasing your other attributes - see the chart below. The same type of cost scaling is also applied to active abilities; unlocking two casts of Fireball per battle is relatively cheap, but if you want to unlock a third one, you'd better be sure that it's worth the investment. This may be a somewhat crude balancing mechanism, but it works well in practice; I frequently found myself cursing my build choices in one battle, only to be profoundly thankful for them in the next.

The in-game manual is both informative and concise. Help screen nerds will be satisfied.

Stat calculations are further complicated by the fact that a character's abilities generally scale off multiple different stats; for example, the Cleric has a heal-over-time spell where the healing per turn scales off Intelligence, but the number of turns scales off Dexterity. Finding these turning points in my Cleric's progression when Dexterity was a better investment than Intelligence took me a lot of careful consideration – were all of my Dex-dependant spells useful in the last few battles? Did these battles last long enough to justify an increased duration on my heal-over-time? Would increasing Int and focussing on Int spells have been a better tactic? Were the Int-heavy spells affected by another stat, like Strength? I love making these kinds of strategic calculations, and TDR offered me plenty of opportunities for number crunching at every stage of the game.

Still, the stat balance is by no means perfect, and certain stats are distinctly more useful than others to certain classes. Thankfully, the developer has implemented a “revert last level up” feature to encourage further experimentation in case your calculations turn out to be wrong, or if you make a drastically bad choice; in case you totally screw up, you can simply go into the “Cheats” menu and get a full respec.

A brief side note: the game also has perks, but they are far too unbalanced to be worthy of attention. Physical fighters have a no-brainer perk that lowers their Pain threshold (if their HP falls below x% of maximum, they are “in pain”, and their accuracy is progressively decreased – yup, lots of systems in this game), and everybody likes the perk that increases xp gains, but then it's just a lot of weak and inconsequential stuff. Still, the stats and abilities make character building complex enough already.

There aren't a lot of active abilities in the game, but most of them are quite useful.

The items in TDR play off the stat system rather nicely. For example, you're going to find a heavy axe that deals tons of damage, but inflicts a large penalty to your accuracy. That kind of weapon is good for Dexterity-based characters, but lousy for strengthers... until you get enough accuracy to reliably hit again, in which Strength yields massive gains... until you meet an enemy type with enormously high evasion, in which case the negative accuracy modifier becomes totally untenable. Or maybe you'll find a strong, but rather peculiar ranged weapon that can only be used by the master race (i.e. Dwarves), leaving your elven Ranger high and dry. Suddenly, the Dexterity you may have used to wield that heavy axe will synergise with your new weapon to transform your dwarf into the strongest ranged fighter in the party. Until you find the next piece of equipment…

While finding a new weapon can potentially cause a major change to your character's combat style, the other items are generally a bit more conventional in their design; a piece of armour might simply offer a flat 15% reduction on all magical damage taken and a +1 Int bonus, or a combination of 10% physical damage resistance and 2 extra points of evasion. A typical late-game trinket may offer a minor health regeneration effect, or merely a +1 bonus to Dex and Con. Thankfully, the character stats in TDR are meaningful enough that even minor boosts can make a noticeable difference in combat performance. Overall, I had fun with TDR's itemization; it features just as many delightful trade-offs and opportunities for number crunching as the stat system, and the offering of unique (though rarely overpowered) items with their funny little backstories kept the looting and crafting systems interesting and fresh straight through the endgame.

Even the rather single-minded design of the arena map is enlivened by this system; the initial hook of the chapter is that you're fighting in the arena to buy your own equipment back. I can imagine a lot of readers shuddering in collective annoyance at such a concept, but I found it to be quite delightful. I was forced to re-evaluate every piece of equipment I had been taking for granted over the past few hours, and ponder: was my beloved axe really worth a precious 200 coins, when I could instead get my super armour back for 250? What if I bought two regeneration amulets instead? Which of these items would best help my party to get through the next battle, and which would have to wait? Or should I just buy none of them and save up for some massively expensive new sword instead? I never had to make meaningful economic calculations like these in D:OS or PoE, and I'm rather happy that the developer gave me the opportunity to make them here.

The UI is clean and functional. Having to swap between inventory and character sheet to see stat changes is a little sub-optimal though.

Finally, onto the tactical combat itself: it's really quite good. There are no random encounters in the game, and almost all the content is handcrafted (only excepting one optional series of arena battles). The party is fully healed and restored after every battle, so all the battles are designed for a group at peak strength. TDR has a large bag of tricks when it comes to setpiece design; there's a demon who charms a certain party member before battle begins, an enemy whose strength scales off one of your party statistics (and who isn't easily tricked), a guy that can only be beaten if you let another neutral mob attack him first, an overpowered Drizzt parody with his absolutely infuriating murdercat who's only there to frustrate completionists, and a bunch of other mechanically interesting encounters I'd rather not spoil. Enemies are generally quite versatile; some are easy to hit, others dodge almost every attack. Some spread a strong poison with every hit, others cast only a few powerful spells and then become weak as puppies. Some are resistant to magic, others to physical damage. Others, like the fake Drizzt, combine enough self-buffs and offensive powers to leave you cursing for days.

All of an enemy's stats are freely visible on the in-combat tooltips, except for the spells they can use; the tooltip shows you the total amount of spells an enemy can cast, but it doesn't actually tell you their names. This design allows the party to make well-considered tactical decisions based on the enemies' statistical strengths and weaknesses, but still offers a nice element of fist-shaking surprise in the battles against spellcasters.

Many of the party's tactical decisions revolve around the careful use of abilities; the ranger, for example, has the ability "Aim at Feet", which slightly reduces an enemy's Speed for a short period of time. Most enemies have so many action points that this ability only amounts to a minor debuff for them; however, certain creatures – and certain bosses – are rather slow by nature, and reducing their action points from 3 to 2 can make a huge difference. Certain spellcasters are also so strong that you will want to delay their casting by any means necessary; in that case, even a small debuff will be highly valuable. Similarly, the Wizard has a short-duration single target confusion spell that can be used for all sorts of clever tactical shenanigans. Sadly, the confusion effect only works on enemies who have a much lower Intelligence stat than the Wizard; thus, if you want to get full use out of this spell, you'll have to focus heavily on that one stat and suffer all the trade-offs that come with specialization.

Wouldn't this look much better on a grid?

Overall, the tactical combat offers plenty of variety and entertainment, but it's also the area of the game which could be most easily improved with a few tweaks. First and foremost, there is no way to speed up the combat animations. Most of TDR's battles are so small-scale that the animation length is barely noticeable, but some of the larger arena battles – those with a dozen enemies or more – can feel slightly overlong. Enemy AI is also a little glitchy; this is especially noticeable in the “Damsel defense” arena missions, where the enemies' sole objective is to kill a single NPC... and yet I regularly saw them waste turns attacking the party instead. To be fair, the game is balanced around these weaknesses, and still offers a fine challenge on the highest difficulty. Besides, most of the people you're fighting are meant to be idiots anyway.

The movement system is also flawed; the battle maps are totally gridless, and it can be quite difficult to eyeball how far a character can walk within a round based on their available action points. For party members, you can at least preview a movement command to figure out their reach; for enemies, it's simply a guessing game. For a game that is built around a combination of complex, yet transparent systems, the lack of any sort of movement range indicator feels like a disappointing omission.

Finally, it seems proper to mention The Dwarf Run's xp system. This is a hybrid system, and it's bound to be a little controversial; characters get a certain base amount of xp for every combat, but most of the xp rewards are distributed based on damage dealt. This system is not even remotely balanced; the xp of your party members will be all over the place, with the Wizard generally outperforming everybody else by the endgame. Thankfully, the actual effect on level balance turns out to be fairly minimal; after the final battle, my party's levels were 18, 18, 19 and 21. I personally harbour an intense dislike for damage-based xp systems in a party RPG; however, this spread actually seems quite tolerable to me.

The Higher Art of Storytelling, or: Fun with Puns

Imagine the following scenario: you're walking through the city on a lazy Sunday afternoon; suddenly you see a sign promising “great entertainment at a reasonable price!” You follow the sign to a darkened back room in an ancient, half-ruined building. A faint light guides your way towards a large cardboard box; in front of the box, you perceive strange dancing figures. From the back of the room, you hear a man's voice muttering to itself in broken English and occasionally bursting out in howling laughter. With a sudden flash of insight, you realize what's going on: you're watching Russian improv puppet theatre! Do you a) run away in screaming terror, or b) sit down and enjoy the show?

If you're the type of person who would choose option a), then The Dwarf Run is probably the wrong game for you; this is a very silly game, full of weird jokes and rhyming puns. The storyline theoretically revolves around a treasure hunt in an old temple, but in reality it's all over the place. Early on, you're conscripted into a rebellion against the misandrist leaders of a clan of black widow spiders; later, you'll encounter the Seven Deadly Sins and explore outer space. The writing is absolutely riddled with typos and unnatural expressions, which makes the occasional outburst of poncy language (is a telescope in a bedroom being used for “sybaritic perversions”?) feel all the sweeter. The game doesn't have any voice acting, but it's full of “cinematic” cutscenes, with the characters' lips moving soundlessly along to the subtitles. When a character becomes highly emotional, his model will turn purple and start violently shaking up and down.

It's hard to analyse this type of storytelling; all I can say is that I found it damnably charming. To me, TDR was reminiscent of classic comedy RPGs like Anachronox and Frayed Knights; it made for a pleasant change from all the self-important, “epic” games of recent years. Of course, your opinion of The Dwarf Run's “unique” brand of humor may very well differ from mine, and I doubt that any amount of explanation could prepare you for the game's highly peculiar style; thus, I leave you with a few screenshots that might help you to make up your mind:

An acquired taste.

In conclusion: I liked it

The Dwarf Run is primarily a combat game, and a surprisingly good one at that. Sure, it has a number of flaws (most obviously the opaque movement system, the janky camera, and the mediocre AI), but it also offers enough complexity and variety to keep a seasoned RPG player fully engaged from start to finish. For a tiny indie operation from Russia, this is already a great feat; but even in comparison with other modern combat-heavy games, TDR looks pretty good. Pillars of Eternity is certainly a much bigger and grander game, but it's also insidiously buggy, vulnerable to overleveling and rest spam, and stuffed full of trash mobs, which are completely absent from TDR. Blackguards 1 features higher production values and a slightly larger array of spells and abilities, but its balance and difficulty curve are badly out of whack, and the writing is generally snoozy; meanwhile, TDR (on the hardest difficulty setting) offers a continuously challenging, well-tuned experience. And say what you want about TDR's writing, but it's certainly never boring or predictable.

Over the course of this review, I've compared The Dwarf Run to Blackguards 1, Anachronox, and Frayed Knights; I find all three of those games to be highly enjoyable, and putting The Dwarf Run in the same category is high praise indeed. However, I'm not blind to the fact that all of these titles only have niche appeal, even by Codex standards. Perhaps The Dwarf Run is one those games that can only be successful on an extremely low budget; Steamspy claims that it's currently sold about 1,000 copies at “full price” (meaning €8.99) and another 9,000 in a super cheap bundle sale. Fortunately, that seems to have been good enough: TDR's developer Alexander Mirdzveli has already started development on a prequel, and the franchise's future seems assured. I'm quite happy about that.

The Dwarf Run is available on Steam.

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