There’s not a lot of fun in micromanaging a group of people who would much rather be out drinking with their buds, making fun of your pointy hat. It is exhausting, running around, having to make sure your underlings are maximizing their time because you know that if they don’t, then everything falls apart. You know what is fun, though?
You add magic. Drunken dwarves that might sometimes be vampire dwarves. Add some fireballs, lightning, nostalgic fantasy music, and a cute little pixelated wizard who’s doing all the running around on your behalf. And so Hack the Publisher has brought us Dwarven Skykeep, a strategy game that mixes tower defense, resource management and deck building in a frantic game of hurry-up-and-wait that would be frustrating if it wasn’t filled to the brim with so much danged charm. Dwarven Skykeep is not an easy game to play — but it makes up for it by making sure you enjoy every minute you’re playing it.
It’s an old-school charm that Dwarven Skykeep brings to your screen. Classic pixelated animation, a classic, upbeat soundtrack in the same vein, and an effortless embrace of the silliness that holds all of it up. You play Dr. Sevendar Kness, a wizard of the Nameless Kingdom, trying to hold the land together as goblins, dark sorcerers, and Chthonic Beings try to tear the land apart. It is up to you to build defensive towers to help achieve the various goals you’ll be given while waiting for the poor young Chosen One to grow up and actually save the day.
You do this with “card magic” — every action you take is done by dragging a card to an appropriate spot on the tower. You want to build a room, you’ll need a room card that fits. You want to build something in that room, that’s another card. Magic? That’s right, more cards. The dwarves under your care do most of the actual work, which can be slow going initially. Every order begins a timer, which means poor Kness will be running around collecting rewards, issuing new orders, and hurling magic at the enemies who show up at night trying to tear the tower down.
It’s a lot to get used to. That the game opens with only two difficulty options – Hard and Insane – says a lot. It takes a whole bunch of missions before you feel like you know what you’re doing. Timing is key — your dwarves might abandon a task randomly if there are any others that are pending, so if you want them to focus on one thing first, you better hold off on handing out new orders. The dwarves also tire out — you’ll want to make them a bar quickly, which attracts new workers as well as refreshing them.
However, time is constantly ticking away, and when night falls, you are at the mercy of your foes if you haven’t prepared yourself properly through the day. Given that you draw new cards from your deck somewhat randomly, every game is a mad mix of strategy and luck — I am no strategic genius, and I spent a fair amount of time replaying some maps over and over again until I figured out what strategy works best.
The game certainly keeps you on your toes. New enemies, new locations with their own sets of challenges (cold weather damages dwarves who don’t have a winter pelt, bad weather can be help or hindrance depending on how you use it, and don’t even get me started on the levels that take place on top of a train) — just when you think you’ve got a handle on things, boom, you have new things. It’s not just the challenges that ramp up, however — you gain access to new cards and passive-enabling artifacts throughout the game that can change your strategies in huge ways. The choices can grow to be overwhelming, but enough repetitions of a particular map can help you figure out exactly what you need to beat a map’s very specific dangers.
In between levels, you progress through a surprisingly dense story. While the game starts off highly humorous — barely five minutes in and the game had made me laugh out loud twice — this game is not the farce it sells itself as. There is some extremely lore-heavy plot that moves the story forward. There’s a temptation to skip through it all, but all of it turns out to be fairly key, so I’d recommend slowing down and enjoying the tale that spins out. While much of the game is comfortable not taking itself seriously, the developing story has a surprising number of moving parts, motivated characters, and poignancy that you can miss if you skim through it all too fast. The denseness of it pulls me back to the fantasy novels I read as a kid — the amount of information thrown at you can feel overwhelming, but the characters tug at your heartstrings enough to care about it all.
I haven’t finished the game yet — it can be a bit of a timesink, especially when there’s one level you think you have figured out but where success stubbornly eludes you, where vital cards just refuse to show up, where one fatal mistake means the whole thing’s a wash. I, however, am also someone who has rage quit enough strategy games to make me almost abandon them altogether, but Dwarven Skykeep keeps me coming back. If I could just draw a fireball a little faster, life would be perfect.