However clumsy the elevator pitch is for Whale Rock Games‘ We Are The Dwarves, the game itself is anything but. Out of nowhere, a hugely competent and hyper-focused tactical affair drops onto the PC market and continues what is already a vintage year for atmospheric strategy titles. And We Are The Dwarves is pretty damn atmospheric. I know! Dwarves! Astronaut dwarves, no less.
Three interstellar squads find their journey through the cosmos halted when an anomaly drags their vessel off course, shattering it across a suspended archipelago of verdant alien biomes. Each island is home to a variety of life; from the relatively benign to the highly lethal. Smashfist, Shadow and Forcer must navigate through the environmental chain to recover scattered parts and return to the stars. The setup is quaint, and while not particularly original, it is the execution that makes one sit up and take note.
The Lost Vikings comparison is not without merit; the triumvirate spread their talents in three distinct directions, with little overlap. Smashfist is the brawler, a hulk with good close-quarters melee and the ability to zone for damage. So far, so Erik. Shadow is the stealth expert, operating as advertised with phasing and zipping across open spaces. My favourite, rocking a Dwarven boomstick, is Forcer. Forcer totes a brutal shotgun-cum-spear gun, effective as the team’s crowd controller and resident physics devotee. Three characters is the perfect number, given the small locations.
But what locations! Exuberant design grabs from the first level. Gnarled roots spiral down to swampy vales, hemmed in by alien orchids. Thick mossy banks meet shimmering pools. Curious pipe coral sprouts in clusters around ornate outcrops, the crags bracketed by opalescent fungi. This is merely a scant selection of the static flora. Beyond the dynamic, reactive plant life, there’s a stupendously well-realised bestiary. Instectoids skitter and click, carnivorous subterraneans lay in wait with bear-trap jaws hidden just below the topsoil, weird tribesfolk patrol their domain and more. Perhaps it’s the Eastern Bloc perspective, but the creatures within We Are The Dwarves feature that same exuberance of design seen in something like the Etherlords series. While the inhabitants of the realm don’t enjoy an emergent AI system — that would be oh-so-sweet — they do react to sight and sound, forming the core of the game’s tactical puzzle.
Initially separated from each other, players are introduced to the character-specific abilities and gameplay styles as the team slowly reunites. It’s not exactly a new idea, but the upward swing in difficulty is just bracing enough to force familiarisation through experimentation with each character. Movement and combat are enriched by the pause-and-plan toggle; jamming spacebar to slow time to a crawl to assign targets, set in motion special abilities and react to enemy position and attack. We Are The Dwarves is not an easy game. Enemies are lethal. This makes the pause option an imperative, rather than an option. Couple ability cool-downs with the rigors of planning and every encounter becomes one of economising every attack, crafting ad-hoc combos on the fly.
Knowing how to deal with mobs is a lesson learned early. Smashfist can disperse bum-rushes with a battlecry, flinging inbound opponents backwards. Forcer’s special shotgun does the same, albeit with high damage in tow as well as recoil that shunts the character away from the target or targets. Knowing how to keep the hurt on and locking down or juggling enemies becomes key, particularly in relation to the environment. Given that everything is governed by physics, using blowback to send critters off the edge of a map or into environmental hazards is a great combat shortcut, freeing up the player to concentrate on the next batch. Alternatively, bouncing enemies between characters is also equally effective. All of this, every encounter and every part of each bite-sized area, can be attempted a number of ways – including setting different species on one another. This forms the core puzzle-solving element of We Are The Dwarves’ strategic combat.
The big triumph here is, unlike similar combat-centric squad affairs like Cyanide‘s Confrontation and Aarklash: Legacy, the environment is part of the encounter equation. Given the meticulous and creative variety of each and every area, We Are The Dwarves never runs out of steam. Be it zero-gravity shotgun-driven accelerated scavenger mission to destroying star parasites or navigating beast-ridden trenches in near-darkness, every level is exciting. It recalls the topographical luminescence of the Trine series in a way; a kindred fae-folk swamp-world. Though, in place of winged sprites, it’s a swarthy band of science-fantasy dwarves barreling through an increasingly deadly landscape.
Singular in focus, but sidestepping ennui with impressive variety in mission design, We Are The Dwarves is a surprise treat. I knew I would at least find it interesting from pre-release trailers, but never anticipated how much I would dig the entire package. A rich world, chunky and responsive combat, We Are The Dwarves doesn’t, ahem, fall short in any area.