It is impossible for me to begin my Dwarf Fortress Review without going into the history of this game a little bit. Developed by brothers Tarn and Zach Adams, Dwarf Fortress is a colony builder and management sim that has been in constant development for around 20 years, and the title was mostly inaccessible to the vast majority of the gaming audience because of its incredibly rudimentary graphics.
But what it lacked in terms of visuals, it more than made up for in complexity, and the tales that sprung forth from this free little title have been nothing short of mind-blowing. For so long, we heard about the emergent gameplay that defined the experience, and the near-infinite scenarios that were created as a result of the rules and numerous systems that govern the game. But again, it all seemed just out of reach for most of us.
So I am ecstatic to report that with the brand new Steam release of Dwarf Fortress, the experience is finally accessible to everyone, and it is as engaging and phenomenal as we all knew it would be. So without further ado, let’s start our review.
Story And Setting
Dwarf Fortress does not contain a narrative, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. It is instead governed by a very simple premise, and within that premise, the stories that come forth are partially automated and the rest is completely up to you. I understand that this all sounds extremely vague, so let me go into a bit more detail.
As the name of the title implies, the entire thing is focused on Dwarves; a loud, brash, and stocky race of half-men that are a staple of so many other properties. There are also cyclopses, necromancers, ghosts, elves, and basically, any race that would feel at home in a standard fantasy setting. And when you first boot up the game and start a new save, it generates a series of land masses and bodies of water as a basis for a world.
It even goes the extra mile and generates a unique series of historical events, and you can watch as hundreds of years of time flash by in front of your face. Civilizations rise, kings are crowned, villains are defeated, and so on and on. And all of this is done with astonishing detail because it will then determine the state of your world, the settlements that exist within it, and how you and your colonies will interact with them.
And that’s the entire point of the game, starting a colony, or a fortress if you will, within your custom world and helping it grow into a successful and self-sufficient settlement. You can pick any location that you choose on the map and a small convoy of Dwarves will arrive there instantly with nothing but a small wagon loaded with some food and supplies. From here, your journey really starts.
But this is not your regular colony sim, and the amount of variation you will see from fortress to fortress is honestly staggering. Because more than in any other sim, Dwarf Fortress players are at the absolute mercy of the NPCs.
Each of your Dwarves has a personality of their own. They have needs and wants, and they have different temperaments and attitudes that almost always get in the way of progress. They can feel happy or sad, they can fall in love and have children or become depressed. They can commit murders for one reason or another, and then pin the crime on other innocent citizens to save their own lives.
There are also numerous external factors that can play a role in the chaos, like traders that become violent because they were slighted, or a necromancer that keeps on reviving the same corpse again and again to attack you.
Or maybe none of that comes to pass, and instead, a flock of sheep gets loose in your fortress and kills all the denizens. Sometimes you simply come to the conclusion that these Dwarves are simply insane, because there are no limits to the absurdity of their behavior, and I absolutely love that.
The possibilities are quite literally too many to count, and no two players may ever encounter the same scenarios over the course of hundreds of hours. It’s a testament to the creativity and complexity of the game that so many unique stories have been told through it over the years, and many more are coming out as you read this review.
In typical colony management fashion, Dwarf Fortress’s central gameplay is focused on creating a home base and then making sure that it has everything that it needs to keep the citizens who live within it safe, fed, and happy.
So when you first start off with a small group of settlers, your first objective should usually be to start digging into the side of a mountain, or maybe straight underground, and start laying down the groundwork for a fortress. You can build stockpiles to store all of your resources, and set your Dwarves to different tasks like gathering plants, cutting down trees, or even simply moving resources from the wagon to the designated stockpiles.
From here you need to ensure that you have enough food for the long run, so you can set up fishing spots and farm plots to grow fresh crops. You also need to ensure that you have enough alcohol for consumption because as Dwarves, your citizens require the drink even more than water, and if they have to go without it for long periods of time they will start to get upset and the work will suffer. So you’ll need to build a still and ensure that it has enough raw materials to produce said alcohol.
For each of these resources that you need to acquire or pieces of furniture and gear that you have to craft, there are workshops that fit the role. Need beds and chairs for the dormitories and the meeting area? Then build a Carpenter Workshop and make sure that the craftsmen have access to enough wood. Need some rock tables and doors instead? Then you better build a Stoneworker Workshop instead and supply it with a steady source of stone.
There are so many different Workshops in the game, and each and every single one can be useful in producing a particular type of item. For example, the Crafts Workshop is an excellent way to make tiny little trinkets out of a number of different materials, and then use them for bartering when traders come to visit your colony. Similarly, the Fishery can be used to clean raw seafood and make it suitable for consumption, while also procuring shells for crafting purposes.
And there are so many more things to do. There is a complicated metalworking system where you have to mind deep underground to find ores, process them into ingots, and combine them into compounds like bronze and steel in order to make weapons and armor. You can train and raise animals, go exploring in underground caverns, and build complex feats of engineering.
There’s even an army system where you can train dwarves in different combat skills and equip them with gear to make them combat-ready. Because as previously mentioned, this is a fantasy setting and you will have to defend your settlement from all manner of beasts, whether they be rabid chickens or blood-sucking vampires.
It can all get really overwhelming very fast, but thankfully the game does have certain tools that it gives you in order to streamline aspects of the gameplay like the production for example. So say that you want to establish an automatic process for making booze, well for that you need to first hire a manager and then go into the Work Orders tab.
There, you can set up simple instructions to always have empty barrels available, and the Still to never let the amount of alcohol in your stockpile ever fall below a certain level. You can even make sure to always stay ahead of your consumption rate so that your Dwarves can continue to indulge without cutting into the stock meant for selling. And this automation can be done for every single craftable item in the game, and there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of them.
I also love the little details of running a settlement, like how you never know the exact amount of your resource stock unless and until you hire a bookkeeper who keeps tabs on them. Or how each office holder like the manager and bookkeeper requires designated offices so that they can perform their duties adequately. Nobles are also individuals with high stations, and they have other needs like personal dining rooms and even tombs.
There is so much to go over that I cannot possibly fit it all into one review. This is a game that can look deceptively straightforward on the surface, but it has more depth than most other sim games you will ever encounter. You can spend hundreds of hours learning how to build and run the perfect fortress, but you will never truly master the game. And that’s also what makes it so incredibly fun.
Visuals And Performance
Now let’s get this out of the way first because I know it is going to be a contentious subject. Dwarf Fortress is not the prettiest indie that you will find on Steam, and by that, I mean that both the graphics and the animations are fairly limited. I do not say this to belittle the game, I am simply pointing out that the visuals are not what an average newcomer to the title might expect from such a high-profile release.
Units do not walk to places, so much as they shift from one block to the other, and actions like crafting and mining do not have elaborate animations attached to them. It’s all really simplistic, and the textures on trees, dirt, buildings, etc. are fairly dull. But all that being said, I do think that everything here works well within the context of the game itself.
First, it directly pays homage to the original release of the game which also functioned much the same way, though that was perhaps more due to actual graphical limitations than anything. Second, with the amount of stuff going on in a fortress at any one time, with hundreds of Dwarves moving around and performing different actions, rendering all of that would really strain your machine more than it already does.
And finally, I just think it looks really neat in general. I enjoy the simplistic art style, and it’s not without its charms either. I loved being able to differentiate between my Dwarves simply by looking at their beards or tell apart different types of wood by their color. Could this game have been much more visually impressive with improved graphics and detailed animations? Sure, in a sense. Would it have retained most of its charm? I doubt it.
In terms of performance, there are some minor bugs here and there that can cause some hilarious problems for your colony, but nothing so bad that your game will be ruined. This is also not a very demanding game as long as you stay on small maps, so even a decade-old GPU should be able to run it easily.
With the release of this new version of Dwarf Fortress, the developers have effectively made their genre-defining title accessible to millions of new players. It will only continue to pick up steam from here and expose an entirely new generation of gamers to the brilliance of this game, and that is the least of what it and its creators deserve.
This game is incredibly complex, endlessly charming, and so unbelievably funny. The stories you will create and experience here cannot be found anywhere else in the medium, and you would be doing yourself a great disservice if you do not play it, and a $30 price tag is the least you should be willing to pay for one of the greatest games in existence.
Pick up Dwarf Fortress, and prepare to fall in love with video games once again.
This has been our Dwarf Fortress Review. While you’re here, consider checking out some of our other articles.
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Dwarf Fortress Review
- Story And Setting
- Visuals And Performance
Dwarf Fortress is incredibly complex, endlessly charming, and so unbelievably funny. The stories you will create and experience here cannot be found anywhere else in the medium, and you would be doing yourself a great disservice if you do not play it.
- Layers of Interconnected Systems
- Emergent Storytelling And Gameplay
- Endlessly Replayable
- Incredibly Funny
- Some Might Find The Visuals Dated