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‘Dwarf Quest’ Review – A Jolly Fellow, but Short and Imperfectly Balanced

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Dwarf Quest ($0.99) began as a High School programming project… back in 1992. Now, 20 years later, it’s been completely re-envisioned as an iOS app. At heart, it’s a Roguelike, but it’s a Roguelike that breaks a number of the genre’s conventions, with mixed results.

I’ve played a lot of Roguelikes on my device, from iNetHack (Free) to 100 Rogues ($2.99), nearly all have at least two traits in common: procedural generation and permadeath. Dwarf Quest has neither, and that’s what sets it apart.

Every level in Dwarf Quest is put together out of the standard Roguelike puzzle pieces, square rooms and narrow passages, but its all hand-crafted. The maps, the monsters, even how many potions are available. To fully appreciate how different this is, you need to know that the original Roguelike, Rogue itself, was random. Fixing the levels obviously decreases replayability, but it offers a great expansion of the potential for storytelling and level design.

The storytelling is fairly minimal, but with some nice touches, as when your Dwarf takes up a fallen friend’s axe to avenge him with. The level design goes a good job of tutorializing the game’s features, and there are some lightweight sliding tile puzzles and doors locked with a key or a lever, but the biggest virtue of the level design is that it rewards exploration while keeping each level the size it should be, with an appropriate number of challenges and rewards.

The balance of the game is finely calibrated, making rationing your healing potions and battle cards (short-term combat bonuses) crucial. Battle is original: you can move or attack up to 3 times per turn, or save any of your moves to defend with, then each of your enemies gets the same opportunity.

This rewards the player for thinking like a Dwarf. Instead of racing up to your enemies like an Elf or something, a slow, defensive strategy is often the path to success. This is enhanced by the fact that, when combat begins, the room is locked until you win (or die). This eliminates the frustration and tedium of running all over a level to get away from a monster you can’t beat and can’t outpace.  If you can’t win, you will die.

That death isn’t (usually) a big deal because, instead of featuring permadeath, the game autosaves every few rooms. Given the fixed levels, this is a good design decision, but it came with a flaw: there’s no manual-save, so you can get stuck in an unplayable position, especially if you’re reckless with those potions. I never found myself in a tight spot until I got to the last boss (and I pulled that one off nicely, thank you), but a lot of people have been having this problem, and let’s be frank: permadeath is a feature, but unplayable autosaves suck.

Wild Card is correcting that by adding a “restart level" option, as well as a few other fixes and improvements in a promised update. As the larger problem is players running out of potions and cards, they’re also adding the ability to buy more at the game’s (presently decorative) altars. That could be interesting, if it doesn’t throw off the game’s balance. Dwarf Quest has a very simple statistical engine and no “grinding" is possible, so while being able to buy a couple of potions or cards won’t break the game, if that number is closer to a dozen, there will be no challenge at all.

The game’s tap-your-destination control scheme suits the casual feel and keeps the game moving, but can become a hazard in combat, where there is a hair’s breadth difference between attacking your foe and walking around him (wasting your turn). An option to confirm moves (in combat only, there’s really no need otherwise) would fix this. I also experienced dropped frames, which was irritating as the graphics are pleasant but not terribly complex or detailed.

Dwarf Quest mostly succeeds at being a breezy, casual Roguelike, but it isn’t very long (about as long as a single complete playthrough of 100 Rogues) and it feels like the first chapter of a longer story (the game’s website promises a final confrontation with an undead wizard that is nowhere to be seen). The games developers have garnered a lot of love in the forums for being friendly and open to suggestions, but it remains to be seen whether Dwarf Quest’s minimalist system can survive balance tweaks and remain interesting in expansions or sequels.

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