What would happen if you took the tower defense and action-adventure genres and threw them into a blender?
Games that try to meld two genres that don’t share a lot of overlap are often well-intentioned, but fall just short of the mark when it comes to utilizing both to reach new heights of gameplay. They tend to be a bit messy, in other words, which is why I was quick to fall in love with the fact that Dwerve, developed and published by Half Human Games, is absolutely not that.
Dwerve feels more like the result of taking a scalpel to each genre, carefully excising the greatest parts of both, and then intricately stitching them together to craft a cohesive marriage of ideas that’s a charmer from start to finish. It’s available as of May 31st, 2022 for PC with a Nintendo Switch release on the horizon, and if any of the above sounds appealing, I’d highly suggest reading on.
Quest to Crowcrest
Centuries before the events of the game, the dwarves lived within the hollow interior of Mount Crowcrest. As their civilization continued to prosper, they delved deeper into the mountain’s depths to fuel their machines and unwittingly loosed a horde of trolls and vicious creatures. This ignited a war that resulted in the dwarves being ousted from their home, giving them no choice but to make a new settlement in the sunny hills near the mountain, as sunlight has the convenient penchant for turning the trolls into stone.
Generations later, a young dwarf named Dwerve lives in the peaceful hills with his father and grandfather. When a nearby village is attacked by an unknown enemy, Dwerve inherits weapons from his grandfather and takes it upon himself to investigate. After reaching the village, he discovers that trolls have inexplicably ventured out into the sunlight to carry out the deed, setting him on a dangerous path into Crowcrest to find a way to stop the invasion and find out how it was even possible to begin with.
As the adventure unfolds, Dwerve’s storyline is almost entirely focused on its titular character unearthing the culture and greater history of the dwarves as they existed before conflict with the trolls began. There’s a lot of emphasis on the key figures at that point in time, with recurring names consistently popping up as Dwerve pores over old texts and learns the purpose of the areas he traverses. Even most of the exchanges between the characters are centered around the the dwarves of old, and Dwerve’s eagerness to learn about it all is an adorable character trait.
To have this be the major focus of the storyline is a bold choice. It’s clear that a lot of time went into developing and weaving the finer details of the world’s history into the narrative itself, but it sadly works to the detriment of the immediate characters and timeline. As interesting as it is to learn about the past, there simply isn’t enough done with the characters in the present for a majority of its runtime, specifically with regards to character development. The storyline isn’t completely bereft of twists and turns, but it does feel like a missed opportunity to make things more interesting for the player.
Still, despite feeling a bit unambitious in this particular area, the story is still an enjoyable one. Dialogue is cutely comedic and the characters Dwerve interacts with are charming even if they are a bit stagnant. It’s a successful motivator to see you through to the end—it just isn’t nearly as successful a motivator as the stellar gameplay.
The Bearded Builder
As mentioned earlier, Dwerve offers a fusion of tower defense gameplay and action-adventure battling. The former is represented in the fact that you have to strategically place structures as your primary means of dealing damage, and the latter by the fact that Dwerve himself is something of a mobile tower you control. The enemies are gunning specifically for him, and that means you have to pick and choose the best time to actively dodge enemies and place your defenses, whether that’s after the coast is clear or before the enemies even start to spawn in.
Dwerve gets access to a large variety of weapons to build throughout the game that each bring something different to the table while falling into three distinct categories: melee turrets, ranged turrets, and floor tiles, each with their own unique upgrade trees. Additionally, Dwerve also has an auto attack to support his turrets and a dash to avoid attacks and travel through structures he’s placed. As you progress, he also gains access to artifacts that widen his combat repertoire, such as a powerful one-time-use hammer attack and a damage-over-time effect for enemies he dashes through.
Combat encounters require a variety of all three turret types depending on the enemies involved, and the game’s balancing is such that every battle offers a sizable challenge while still allowing the player to find success by using the structures they like the most with clever placement. My personal favorites were the Tesla Turret, which stuns enemies and chains between multiple targets every time it lands, and the battle-axe turret, which sacrifices its area of effect for dealing extra damage.
The limitation of only being able to recall the turret you’re closest to means that Dwerve is constantly on the move when the situation changes, and this keeps you on your toes across each fight and fosters a satisfying feeling of improvement as you get more comfortable with the game. Things are also kept engaging by the fact that enemy spawns are never predictable until you see the pattern of the encounter, and the game regularly throws new enemy types at you as well to switch up your game plan with different decisions. There is no “set it and forget it” in Dwerve.
Bosses crank the activeness of the combat up to ten. They’re chaotic and force the player to quickly dodge attacks, deal with additional enemies, and decide the best placement for their turrets all at once. They’re a highlight of the experience, and each one of them offers a different style of fight than the one before it. There’s plenty of them in the game, but I still found myself craving more because they were just that fun.
Even on the standard difficulty, Dwerve can be punishing. There’s a decent amount of trial and error until you find your preferred way of tackling each enemy type, but it never feels like bashing your head against the wall so long as you aren’t afraid to try different strategies and placements, nor is there a punishment for failure, given the plethora of checkpoints after every victory.
There are also appreciable attempts to keep the gameplay loop fresh as you play. As an example, there are exploration-focused and stealth-centric sections where enemies patrol in groups, rather than spawning in an enclosed space like most of the battles. The change of pace this brings is a welcome one, but some enemies are a bit too omniscient in the stealth sections. Puzzles also feature often in every area, but each one is a variation of the same concept: fiddling with levers that close and open doors while trying to find the correct path through each one. These typically reward you with the currency you need to upgrade, and while they’re a fun distraction, they’re very one-note.
I also found myself wanting to build more defenses at a time as the game carried on, but a large portion of it is based around only being able to have three or so structures at any given time. This is an understandable design choice given that it prevents the player from being overwhelmed, and probably goes a long way in maintaining combat balance, but I wanted to craft more all the same.
Dwerve’s pixelated art style isn’t the most unique you’ll ever see, but it certainly makes up for it with great execution. Its perspective and design is immediately reminiscent of A Link to the Past, which makes quite a bit of sense considering the game spoke to its Zelda inspirations in its initial Kickstarter campaign. The highly detailed character portraits during dialogue gives the already endearing overworld pixel art that much more life, and I especially enjoy the way the blockier art style brings the characters to life. The inclusion of dynamic lighting both from Dwerve and the light sources of the environment is a nice touch, but doesn’t add much to the visuals in the grand scheme of things.
The layouts of each area make for unique encounters during gameplay, but that variety of locations also makes for a diverse and visually distinct world. Dwerve makes his way through everything from mushroom-laden caves to windswept villages and subterranean castles. Dwerve does bill itself as a dungeon crawler, but I was still hoping for a few more open areas like those found at the start of the game and less caves and stone hallways.
The music is lovely. It features synth stylings evocative of a music box to find its relaxing ambiance. It’s ethereal and atmospheric enough to perfectly suit the environments, but not to the point where it recedes from your attention. The sound effects themselves are equally well done, from the voice emanations from characters in dialogue to the satisfying plunk whenever Dwerve places a turret.
A Constructing Experience
Dwerve is a difficult game to put down. It incorporates the strategic aspects of tower defense with the reactive dodging of action games and fully reaps the benefits of both elements. Having to approach each of the varied combat encounters with tactical and mechanical skill creates a layer of engagement that not every game can reach, urging you to keep playing and tinker with your approach all the way up to its conclusion. Despite its somewhat lacking storyline, Dwerve is a fun, challenging trek through dangerous dungeons and dwarven history that carries itself with aplomb.
Review copy provided by Half Human Games for PC. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of Half Human Games.