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Dwarf Fortress Review

Review; Jun. 26, 2011; Channels: Video Games; By David Telfer
Create your world, then enjoy watching it burn

By the end of this review, all of my dwarves will be dead due to any number of reasons. Will they starve or die of dehydration? Will the invading beasts that roam the lands attack them? Will one dwarf go insane from a lack of alcohol and for fear of the monsters from hell that live below his feet, stalk through the fortress, and pull everyone's fingers off? Or will those monsters of hell burst from the ground, bite their arms off, and beat them to death with their own fists? Call me crazy, but I honestly am hoping for either of those last two to occur.

Dwarf Fortress Screenshots
Click the image to view game screenshots

The overall objective of this game is to build a fortress. You start off with 7 dwarves at your disposal, all with different abilities/skills that you must use effectively to run your fortress. Occasionally you will be attacked by raiding creatures and various beasts that inhabit the caves around you. It sounds simple. It sounds easy. It's not. Dwarf Fortress is hard. The game play, the mechanics, and even the graphics are difficult to understand.

It would be impossible for me to go through every single detail of why this game is so hard, so I'll do my best to cover the main points. To begin with, you have to create your world, which uses old-style text-based graphics. It's not a visually impressive game, but that's one of its charms; it looks so simple, yet underneath the text-based exterior lies a complex interior. You can download tile sets which help make sense of the world. I highly recommend these if only because it makes it easier to figure out what's what through the strain on your eyes from the extremely basic graphics. There are many tile sets, so there's plenty of choice -- a good place to look would be the Dwarf Fortress Wiki page. The world is all generated randomly based on parameters you set, such as the amount of resources, civilizations, etc. The entire history of your world is also random and unique and all created for you. Notable figures and fortresses, stories of legendary people -- it's all randomly generated and directly affects the way your world is shaped. You can choose when you want history to stop being generated; from there on, it's your story.

Once you have your world, you have your choice of game mode. Adventurer mode is as it sounds -– you wander your world performing quests for people and exploring it at your leisure. It includes any and all fortresses you have ever made, and they can all be explored by you. In fortress mode, you build and maintain your fortress with your team of dwarves. There are no tutorials for either mode. There won't be any explanation of how you craft things, how you control your dwarves, etc. -- nothing. There are plenty of online resources, and I would recommend looking at them, as this isn't the kind of game you can pick up and play without some level of confusion.

Adventurer mode is fairly straight forward. It follows a simple RPG style: You create your character, give it stats/skills, and then go looking for quests and enemies to kill. The character you make, however, won't be with you for long. Expect to die often. Expect to start a new character often, too, as your character gets completely erased from existence after death. It's a frustrating mode to play, especially when you start getting attached to your character only to watch him/her get surrounded by 5-plus enemies who pick your limbs apart like twigs. Yet there's fun in failing as you read over the combat log to find out exactly how many toes you lost before succumbing to blood loss.

Fortress mode is unquestionably harder. In this mode, you start off with a band of 7 dwarves and a caravan. It's your task to build a fortress, making it habitable and profitable so that when traders come knocking you have worthy items for trade. This sounds simple, but you have to do this while juggling food and drink supplies (don't forget the drink! Drunk dwarves are happy dwarves!), happiness levels, forming a militia of soldiers/wrestlers, and a whole host of game mechanics too numerous and complicated to list here. Suffice to say, there are simply so many things going on at one time in this mode that sometimes it's impossible to keep up. Any number of things can -- and will -- go wrong, and even the smallest problem can destroy a fortress. Even after your fortress is eventually destroy, you can revisit it either in adventure mode or fortress mode to plunder the items you crafted. So if you are on the receiving end of a disaster that threatens to wipe out your fortress, just remember that yes, the brewer is dead, and yes, the other dwarves are slowly going insane from their new-found sobriety, and yes, they are starting to kill one another, but you have to admit it's incredibly fun watching it happen.

Dwarf Fortress is maddeningly complicated. No review can truly give it justice; it's simply astounding how complex such a simple-looking game is. And it's entirely free to play as well with updates constantly being churned out by creator Tarn Adams and Bay 12 Games, although at the time of writing there aren't any plans for multiplayer. From start to inevitable -- and likely bloody -- finish, you'll be hooked trying to keep your fortress running or finishing quests and exploring your world's history. It will get frustrating at times, but the enjoyment of watching your fortress grow is almost beaten by the euphoria of seeing it crumble to pieces. Almost.

It's the end of the review now, and my fortress is all but destroyed. I kept digging straight down, to the bottom-most layer possible, to let the greatest and most dangerous enemies loose on my world. My militia, some 20 strong, banded together in a desperate bid to hold off the invading armies of hell. None of them survived. Not even the cats living in my fortress. Some would say I failed, but I would say it was a great success. Dwarves and cats alike slaughtered by the monsters of hell? Result.


yamamushi - Jul. 19, 2011 at 3:29:18pm

You really need to mark this article with a spoiler alert :P


JCXanirus - Jun. 23, 2011 at 11:58:39pm

Read about this when searching for Minecraft clones.

Review Score

Not Rated by ESRB

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