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Score: 65%
ESRB: Not Rated
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Developer: Power of Two
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Strategy/ Action/ Arcade

Graphics & Sound:

Well, here is something different. A tower defense game that is equal parts sandbox game and Lemmings ... with an added dose of Dwarfs!?. Dwarfs!? is a low budget puzzle game from a small group of indie developers that tries to offer the depth of a strategy tower defense game with the simplicity of more casual title.

With smaller independent releases such as Dwarfs!?, it is usually common to find that more attention has been paid to the art style than the gameplay, but Dwarfs!? takes the opposite approach. Before I sound incendiary or cruel, I want to point out that I understand making games is a tough job, but presentation is everything in an industry full of attention-addled consumers. Dwarfs!? offers a bland and drab rendition of fantasy life with childish cartoon versions of dwarves and goblins. The animations are basic and the whole project seems like a first attempt at the craft of game-making. Between the awkwardly drawn Menu screens and the unattractive characters, Dwarfs!? feels more at home as a Facebook game than a stand-alone PC product.

The underwhelming consistency of Dwarfs!? carries through to the audio and sound design as well. Simple melodies with medieval instruments and the monotonous sound of pick axes meeting mountainsides and minerals lull you into a sullen state while you struggle to make sense of your surroundings and current state of play. It is a nice distraction that the mumble and grumble of the dwarves that talk to you is cute and charming in ways that the art style simply is not, but having to repeatedly listen to your head dwarf after every failed mission means you will soon skip his chats as often as you can. As you carry on with your underground objectives, the clang of steel and swing of axes alerts you to nearby happenings, but the sound is situational depending on where the camera is positioned, which means you aren't always given proper audio cues to the actions of your dwarven legion.


It is hard to articulate what type of game Dwarfs!? really tries to be. There are many variations of the principle formula in one package. One the one hand, it is a simple tower defense game where you have to look out for the well being of your dwarf castle. These dangers include lava flow, flooding caverns, and vicious marauding monsters. On the other hand, it could also be an exploration and survival game akin to Lemmings.

Let's go over the basics first. Dwarfs!? is laid out on a randomly-generated grid, with each square containing minerals, treasure, lava or water. Using your dwarf miners, you carve a path through the underground caverns searching for precious resources while defending your home base from attacking enemies or impending disasters. Every action costs you, so you have to act smart and manage your resources between dispatching miners, training warriors, and building defenses.

The first of many gameplay modes is the Campaign which is where a basic tutorial can be found along with loose story-based challenges for you to conquer and learn the ropes of Dwarfs!. These challenges include stopping the raging flows of underground rivers and lava flows, removing a goblin threat before it destroys the dwarf fortress, and another task simply asks that you survive long enough for the citizens to evacuate a total cavern collapse. There are only a half-dozen challenges or so, which is rather slim considering these challenges are the absolute best way to learn the skills you will need to survive the cruelty of the Dwarfs!? world.

It seems the developers decided that the real draw for Dwarfs!? would be the Arcade Mode, where you select a time limit and try to earn the highest score possible (which is calculated by how much treasure you collect, how many caverns you discover, and how many monsters you kill, etc.) Between 5 minute, 15 minute, 30 minute, and 60 minute rounds, there are definitely numerous ways to enjoy your time with Dwarfs!? and the multitude of gameplay variations does extend the enjoyment to be had.

Aside from Arcade Mode and the Campaign, the other gameplay types available in Dwarfs!? are Skirmish and Base Defense, with at least one of them being slightly misleading. Base Defense is exactly as it sounds, defending the dwarf base from wave after wave of resident baddies as long as you can, which is a different way of saying "tower defense." Skirmish is the misnomer of the deal. Personally, the word "skirmish" implies multiplayer, which Dwarfs!? does not have, but while the lack of proper head to head dwarf battles is disappointing, the variety of game types under the "Skirmish" umbrella is impressive. Rush Mode, Dark Mode, and Sandbox are fun twists on the formula. Rush Mode offers extreme and fast-paced adventure perfect for those who like big challenges. Dark Mode literally keeps you in the dark with the only light source being your dwarfs themselves as they wander into the dark and mysterious caverns. Lastly, the Sandbox Mode is a way to let all your creative juices out and design your own cave system and enemy placement in an effort to see if you can best yourself.

The multiple gameplay choices that Dwarfs!? offers is a welcome value on an already modest price tag ($9.99 USD at the time of this writing.) Dwarfs!? surprises with the amount of depth it offers in a seemingly small package, which given how much fun the core gameplay can be, is a very good thing.


Considering the many different ways you can play Dwarfs!?, it wouldn't be fair to say that it is hard, nor is it easy. The different gameplay modes offer their own sets of rules, and by extension, their own types of difficulty. For example, the main Campaign flexes its difficulty by limiting your resources and overwhelming you with enemy forces, but in the Base Defense Mode, I found the difficulty comes from unintentionally strategizing against yourself because more emphasis is placed on the larger picture of the battlefield than then individual actions of your lowly dwarfs. To those that only seek out the basic experience, however, there are options for "Easy, Medium, Hard, and Hardcore."

Game Mechanics:

While Dwarfs!? succeeds by offering an addictive and simple gameplay experience, it often stumbles with the execution of all its ideas. The only significant interaction between you and your dwarfs is ordering them to move along a specified path. Glowing arrows point the linear direction in which the dwarfs move and you can chain together a long series of arrows to plan ahead. The real hitch in the system is that the commands and arrows are not individual to a specific dwarf. Once an arrow is laid down, any dwarf that passes its threshold immediately follows in its stead. It becomes frustrating when dozens of dwarfs fill the screen and you only want to issue commands to a single unit. The hive-mind mentality works against your efforts because any surrounding unit will follow along willingly and often ruins fragile and delicate strategies.

The A.I. found in Dwarfs!? works pretty well most of the time because of the aforementioned path finding, but the random nature of the level layouts betrays any sense of control you might have on the situation. Dwarfs will search out treasure if it is within sight, as well as mine out precious minerals as long as they are in the miner's immediate vicinity, but each unit of the warrior class is brain dead to the point of not attacking enemies that are two squares in front of them. Taking that along with the random generation often causes unneeded frustration that usually leads to repeating the same level over and over again.

As a critic of an industry that spans many different genres and fans, I find that games like Dwarfs!? are the hardest to critique because they find their way into a dangerous valley between having respectable gameplay and addictive natures, but questionable execution and other unfortunate flaws. That damning mixture finds a way to tarnish an otherwise pleasant experience, which means Dwarfs!? struggles to break free from being simply "meh." While I never disliked what Dwarfs!? provides, I didn't always think it was reaching its full potential. On a budget, Dwarfs!? provides a nice time and a pretty good distraction, it just feels like a missed opportunity that it wasn't a Facebook game.

-HanChi, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Hanchey

Minimum System Requirements:

Windows XP SP2, Vista, or Windows 7, 1.7+ GHz or better, 1 GB RAM, DirectX(r)9-compatible video card and sound card, 250 MB Free Space

Test System:

Windows Vista, 3.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4 GB RAM, DVD Drive, 500 GB Hard Drive, NVIDIA GeForce 9800 GT

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