Game review: Dwarven Dungeons (Android/Netflix)

When Netflix announced plans to release mobile games as part of the standard subscription service, I got a little excited that finally, I might find some curated games without ads, in-app purchases, or annoying gameplay meant to coerce me into buying items to speed up the game. I’ve now played 6 games, and with few exceptions, I’ve dropped them all the same day I installed them. They may no have ads or in app purchases, but they are all still set up to run almost exactly like freeware games. I expected a similar result for Dwarven Dungeons, mainly because it’s an idle clicker, and I tend to lose interest quickly in games that pretty much play themselves. Instead, I stuck with this game for around a week and a half before rage quitting and deleting it.

In theory, it’s not a bad game, and even makes some improvements on the idle clicker formula. The story goes that a great evil had invaded the homes of the Dwarf kingdoms, and now five brave warriors have volunteered to reclaim their lost homes. That’s the whole plot, and gameplay is similarly easy to explain. Each of the five dwarves is armed with a pick axe  and a weapon. The pick axe is for busting rocks, and the weapons are for the monsters rooming the halls of each dungeon. In order to progress to higher levels, the dwarves need to be leveled up with gold, minerals, new weapons and new armor, which are found in every dungeon by breaking open treasure chests. Lastly, in addition to weapons, each dwarf has an elemental spell that can be upgraded to extend its reach as well as multiplying the damage it can do. The dungeons are randomly set up with a number of rows that must be cleared, at which point you can choose to press a button to go to the boss, or keep mining for gold and loot to raise your team’s power levels.

That’s the whole game right there. It’s a dumb premise, too. This great evil you never face decided that the best use of all this subterranean real estate was to pack it full of rocks, the occasional monster, and random treasure chests full of loot only fit for his enemies. But hey, game logic rarely tries to make even a lick of sense, so let’s just run with it. Or crawl, mostly, because the pace of every dungeon dive quickly turns tedious.

I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me back up. The innovative part is that with each switch to another dungeon, the dwarves spend all their gold and lose all their accumulated power levels, but keep their armor and weapons, which have their own bonus power levels. This means that even though they’re technically starting from zero for each run, they still keep accumulating power. Within a brief time of loot collection, working through the obligatory rows to reach the boss of the dungeons goes by much faster. It’s even possible to play through the whole cycle of dungeons and bosses in ten minutes, and the bosses all die with one hit. Each time a dungeon is cleared, it collapses and reopens with a higher power level requirement. But no matter how high the numbers go, your squad is always ahead of the curve.

The game then introduces two bonus levels, and completing these will reward a rune to increase the percentage of bonus loot for one dungeon. (But not the percentage of how often bonus loot drops, which I will most assuredly come back to later.) One bonus dungeon has you fighting monsters from around the map—rat men, spiders, trolls, etc.—and killing certain green tinted monsters recovers the health of the whole team. At the end, the team takes on a boss, who is usually dead in one or two hits. In the other variant, the dwarves must bust rocks with a dragon in “hot pursuit,” blowing fire on their butts. At the end of the dungeon is a giant treasure chest with a big health bar. This bonus dungeon is always labeled medium difficulty, but it is ridiculously easy to break by having one dwarf spam their spell casting so they fall behind the rest of their squad. The dragon only moves forward when the last dwarf does, and the fire never seems to do any damage to the lagging magic caster. Meanwhile, the rest of the team can safely reach the chest and bust it open long before the dragon has a chance to catch up. Easy peasy.

So far, so good, right? Well, it’s also at this point that the game injects a delaying tactic into the upgrade process by sealing one of the dungeons on a rotating pattern. Let’s come back to this point in a moment and talk about upgrades. Upgrading the dwarves is broken into categories. Higher level armor doesn’t improve defense, but instead adds to the overall power level along with weapons. To boost defense requires upgrading resistance, and the game requires upgrading resistance to every enemy type. Completing the 4X damage resistance list unlocks a free buff of the same amount to all monsters and opens a new list of 8X resistances to fill up, but doing any of these upgrades requires gathering minerals and other loot from monsters. Similarly, each dwarf must upgrade their gauntlet to deal more damage by monster type, and their pick axe by dungeon type. And wouldn’t you know it? All of these require huge amounts of the same overlapping materials.

But here’s the rub: because every dungeon is randomly generated, many runs have either a very low number of monsters, or no monsters at all. The boss will drop twenty of the same item collected from monsters, but when you need 150 troll teeth in three upgrades slot for EACH member of the squad, that kind of stinginess leads to some of your crew being fragile eggs against even low-level monsters. And while you’re doing the circle jerk to try and get those precious resources, the game slams a locked door in your face and goes, “Come back in fifteen levels, loser!”

Let’s put that aside and talk about spell upgrades and daily goals, as they go hand in awful hand. Completing each dungeon run gets you one spell rune. At first, upgrades are pretty easy to do, but soon the number needed to upgrade even one dwarf is like twenty-eight runes, meaning you have to grind for hours to power up just one dwarf. On top of that, the daily goals frequently list “Power up the spells of any three dwarves.” That’s an all day kind of task, which is already bullshit. So, what is your reward for completing all of these goals? A paltry handful of minerals and resources and ONE spell upgrade rune. The game goes, “Great job working all day on this non-paying job. Your reward is useless crap. You’re welcome!”

Obviously one of the points to an idle game is that you walk away and go do something else. Well don’t worry, because that part of the game is terrible too. Yep, if you start a dungeon and walk away for eight hours, you come back to see your crew is hammering at rocks with nigh-infinite health bars, or being one-shot beaten into unconsciousness by uber-monsters. Even upgrading power levels leaves them unable to progress, unlike normal clicker games. Because the dwarves couldn’t go very far into the dungeon, the reward in loot and minerals is pathetic. But okay, say you level your dwarves up a bit at the start of a run, or even a lot, and then you walk away for eight hours. THE RESULT IS THE SAME. The power creep in just a few rows of each run gets so ludicrously high that there’s no point to treating this as an idle game. You have to play actively to get anything out of it.

Now we get to one of two deal killers that led to my rage quitting. First, the buttons to power up the dwarves is located at the bottom of the screen. The vast majority of the gameplay loop is just tapping these buttons over and over, right? Well, how about a nifty “feature” that blocks the buttons every few seconds? That’s right, every time a dwarf busts open a treasure chest, the loot menu pops up over the power up buttons. Better still, the buttons stop functioning a second before the pop-up menu appears. So the “feature” constantly breaks the rhythm of the gameplay loop, often leaving several dwarves lagging behind in power levels. I’ve even had cases where after lowering the loot pop-up, I noticed the button hadn’t been tapped, and when I tried to tap it again, another pop-up blocked me AGAIN. “But surely, Zoe,” you say, “that kind of rage inducing thing never happened three times in a row, did it?” YES, KIND READER, IT DID.

But then we come to my rage quite moment. Remember those loot bonuses I mentioned before? They are absolutely vital to keep upgrading the whole team in a single sweep instead of picking one upgrade after six runs through the same dungeon. (That’s six runs of every other dungeon in between, by the by, with most dropping bonus loot each time.) Thanks to the power of random number generation, the one dungeon that I desperately needed bonus loot on never dropped any from the boss. Every single one of my team needed hundreds of troll teeth for several upgrades, and I could only pick them up twenty at a time. So one night, after getting bonuses between 360 and 480 for other materials that I didn’t need, I started a run in the troll dungeon that had no monsters, and no bonus loot drop. AND THEN, the game slammed the locked door in my face again, and I swear it took every ounce of self-control I had not to hurl my phone across the room. In fact, I’ve had to wait a week on writing this review so every other word in said review wasn’t fucking.

But now I’ll say it. I give Dwarven Dungeon 2 fucking stars because it’s an okay game that fucking ruins itself with some of the worst fucking interface decisions and a terrible fucking grind made even fucking worse by pulling some fucking freeware bullshit. I didn’t just dislike this game at the end. Fuck no, I fucking hated it, and I’ll be fucked before I ever fucking recommend it to anyone.

God, that felt so fucking good.