One of the greatest things about the proliferation of cheap indie games over the last few years is the return of the video game impulse buy. Most will find it tough to impulse-buy a $60 retail game, but a $10 game bought off the web? That you can take a chance on. I did that today with a new Steam release called Dwarfs!?, and it was a very good decision.
Dwarfs!? is the debut release by two-man Swedish developer Power of 2 Games (it won 2 prestigious indie game awards in Sweden), and the second game published by American company Tripwire Interactive. It's a top-down real-time strategy game with elements of Lemmings, WarCraft, and Dwarf Fortress. You play as the overseer of an underground dwarf fortress, with the goals of making money and defeating enemies. Individual dwarfs will automatically dig if they are diggers, patrol if they are soldiers, etc. You cannot control the dwarfs directly (hence the Lemmings comparisons) except by drawing paths for them, which costs money. Money is also used to build new buildings and recruit soldiers to fight off the monsters hidden throughout the levels.
Most of the strategy, especially in the early part of a level, derives from economical use of the path making function. If you leave them alone for long enough, the dwarfs will accomplish most of what you need them to accomplish automatically. But recognizing when to draw lines for them for what the situation calls for is crucial. The randomness of the dwarfs' movements creates a fast-paced and exciting game because you're never sure what's going to happen with all your other dwarfs when you're issuing orders.
The graphics are drawn in colorful, charming 2D that reminds me very much of WarCraft II. The whole game takes place underground, which means there's a lot of brown. But it still looks good thanks to its charming graphics. Music was composed by another Swedish company called Tonescroll and sounds straight out of a good '90s PC game, much like the visuals. Those 2D graphics and low-fi audio tracks also mean that the game has very forgiving system requirements and runs like a dream on my netbook. The excellent presentation is rounded out by a great sense of humor, from the sound effects when dwarfs die to the funny, self-effacing dialog in the tutorial that's seen throughout the game without it ever being obtrusive.
There are some problems, though. Your base produces new digger dwarfs automatically, and when you have 15 of them all walking around randomly, keeping track of which ones are about to run into lava traps or dens of enemies can get hectic. The path-making system is problematic as well; It will only allow you to make a path that is the shortest distance between a dwarf and where you want it to go, regardless of what dangers or walls to dig through may lie in between. This makes ordering a soldier dwarf to navigate hallways and fight a monster quite a chore sometimes. Both of these aspects add to the out-of-control feel of the game though, and were probably deliberate choices by the designers.
The game is still great fun and simple enough for gamers of all skill levels, so if you've got $10 lying around and a Steam account, give it a try.