Dwarf Fortress review - A legendary improvement over the original

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Dwarf Fortress is a strange beast, a very strange beast indeed. Before we dive into our thoughts on the recently released steam version of Dwarf Fortress, we have to go back to where it all began.

First released for free back in 2002 under the title ‘Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress’, Dwarf Fortress is a construction / management game about keeping a group of dwarves alive in a mythical fantasy land.

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Since it has been in production for 20 years, you may think the game would be done, completed, finito. However, the developers, Bay 12 Games, keep consistently adding new features, ideas, and improvements. It is thanks to this level of dedication that Dwarf Fortress went on to influence games such as Minecraft, Rimworld, and FTL: Faster Than Light.

The original Dwarf Fortress

The gameplay premise is a simple one: keep your group of dwarves alive as you expand your underground base, mining deep into the subterranean world. Even though it sounds like a straightforward task, it is most definitely anything but. The dangers faced by your loyal clansmen are numerous. Starvation, goblin raids, and incomprehensible monstrosities from the depths of the earth itself are all very real issues you can face on a day-to-day basis.

Micromanaging the tasks required of each Dwarf can feel intimidating at first as there is a lot of things to get your head around. Mining, crafting, farming, and base defence are just some of the areas you will have to worry about if your grand strategy is to succeed.

One thing stands out from the original release - the graphics. They stick out like a big ol’ sore thumb. Dwarf Fortress is a text-based game, which means everything from the characters to the enemies and the world itself are made of ASCII characters such as letters, numbers, and symbols such as ! and @.

Image of Dwarf Fortress's original text characters / ASCII graphics
The graphics of the original Dwarf Fortress

This could be off-putting for a lot of people and trust me, a long game session can be migraine-inducing even for experienced players. However, if you can see past it and get invested in the fantasy world, you stop seeing the text and start seeing the respective representation, a la Cypher from the Matrix films.

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The journey begins… again

I’ve played Dwarf Fortress on and off since around 2012 (being the huge lover of obscure indie strategy games that I am) and I’ll be honest with you, I was not overly excited for the Steam release. I assumed that it would just be the original release with a couple of quality of life bells and whistles added. I was very, very wrong.

The main menu is a familiar sight, with you having to create a procedurally generated world before you can begin playing for real. Now this is also something that has fascinated me since I started Dwarf Fortress and it is genuinely one of the most impressive and mesmerising things about the game. You have to decide the size of the land, how abundant the resources are, and how ferocious and inhospitable the world is.

An image showing many different options in generating the world of Dwarf Fortress
The ridiculous level of detail in Dwarf Fortress' world generation

All these rules and selections don’t just affect you, your dwarfs, and how easy things will be for you, they change every single living creature in this world, both friend and foe, and every single civilization, both big and small.

On the topic of civilizations, the other part of world generation is setting how old this world is before you and your dwarfs come along and begin your underground fortress. This can be anywhere from straight after the proverbial big bang, to thousands upon thousands of years later.

How does the Steam version compare to the original?

With my small world, Somthur, created and a one hundred year history generated, I jumped in and was greeted with surprisingly great looking character sprites and backgrounds. It is very reminiscent of Stardew Valley in its aesthetic.

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No animations, no fancy parallax backgrounds, just plain and simple sprite images, and to be honest they work perfectly. Sure some level of basic movement or action animations would be nice, but it is such a drastic improvement over the original text-based graphics, it honestly doesn’t matter.

Image of the graphics of the Steam version of Dwarf Fortress, showing both the overworld and underground graphics
The graphics of both the overworld and the underground of Dwarf Fortress

I was excited to climb back into the world of wonder I had left behind at least three years prior. Then from nowhere, a wave of spiraling anxiety and panic washed over me. I remembered the very reason I stopped playing.

I am not good at Dwarf Fortress.

Even with a few years of experience under my belt, not one of my underground forts had ever been successful, not even slightly. Between starving because farming was never a priority to drowning because I mined into an underground lake, things had never gone well. On top of this, three years is just a perfect amount of time to completely forget every shred of information required to get underway.

Suddenly, I found something completely unexpected, something that left my mouth agape. A tutorial… in Dwarf Fortress. Never in a million years did I think, nay, believe there would be such a thing. After obeying the instructions to start mining and construction, within minutes I had a very basic fort set up, with storage zones, bedrooms and a meeting place for my dwarfs to relax and unwind.

What used to take hours took mere minutes, and it wasn’t just the basics - there was help and advice on every possible subject you could need. The traditional method of learning Dwarf Fortress by spending 18 hours watching tutorials on YouTube was no longer needed, being replaced by a way for new players to get straight into the game and enjoy it from the off.

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On top of this, there’s now a functional user interface. A UI that’s similar to Rimworld’s, so I instantly felt right at home using it. Sure, it felt a little clunky and outdated, and it could use some refinement to really make it appeal to a modern audience, but for a start point, it was great. I’m sure Bay 12 Games, being developers who listen to their audience, will make consistent adjustments and improvements as time goes on.

Is Dwarf Fortress fun?

It may not be a household name in the same vein as Pokemon or God of War, but Dwarf Fortress has had a significant cult following since its original release, and that has only grown and grown since then.

The reason I believe the game has maintained its loyal fanbase for so long is because of the stories the game can tell, and that is what makes it so fun and replayable. The game's Reddit page is full of tales of players' past adventures in the land underground. Some of the greatest of these involve someone losing over one hundred dwarves in a bar fight, two weremoose (yes it is what you think it is), and a necromancer sending over 500 million(!) undead humans to attack a fort in a battle that lasted actual months.

Dwarf Fortress’ mantra is ‘Losing is fun’.

So after running through the tutorials, I was a little concerned that the latest version lowered the rock-hard difficulty the game is famous for. This worry was put to bed not an hour later when a group of goblins raided and slaughtered every last dwarf in just a few minutes.

Second fort up and running… and they’ve all starved as I foolishly forgot to gather any food this time. Ok, third time’s a charm. Everything is going rather smoothly, food and drinks are sorted, a small band of kobolds has been taken care of, all is good - and that is where the game gets you. Mining into the earth, my dwarves had managed to break into the domain of a forgotten beast, a giant mythical entity with two rows of massive, fanged teeth that turned my colony into its afternoon tea quicker than you can say “run.”

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But this loop of build, mine, farm, expand, fight, die, is what makes Dwarf Fortress great. It’s that negative feedback loop, similar to games such as Elden Ring and Bloodborne, where you do ever so slightly better each time and every playthrough throws something else at you.

Tales of legend

Two other features found in the game definitely deserve a mention. Firstly, there is what’s known as ‘Legends’, where you can read about every single sentient creature that has lived in the land you created. When they were born, where they lived, what they did, who they killed, and how they died themselves. One world can contain tens of thousands of these records, which are honestly wonderful fantasy stories in their own right.

Image of Dwarf Fortress' Legends mode
Dwarf Fortress' 'Legends' is fantastic in it's own right

Secondly, there’s the adventurer mode, where you play a single person in the world and make your way how you see fit. Be a hero, be a villain, be an absolute nobody if you’d like. It generally makes you feel like you're in your own little Dungeons and Dragons adventure. This mode isn’t available at launch but the developers have promised that it is coming soon, so keep an eye on that.

Finally, the music and background sound effects deserve a quick mention. The music plays intermittently to add some emotional ambiance to the background sounds of hammers and anvils, or the clashing of weapons. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but each track does match the atmosphere of the unknown that the game brings.

The Steam version of Dwarf Fortress has genuinely been a surprise, and a great one at that. Sure, some rough edges need some tidying up and some outdated interface issues need fixing as a priority, but, the game has got me excited to get my dwarves exploring the world just to see what we can find and create our own epic tales that leave a legacy on the land.

This new release may not win over players who either didn’t like the original or have no interest in the genre. However, anyone who has wanted to try the infamous difficulty of Dwarf Fortress but has always been intimidated by the UI or steep learning curve would find this new version a blessing.

Dwarf Fortress
The steam release may have a few rough edges that need work, but everything from the original has been drastically improved upon and is a joy to lose at.
PC
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We reviewed Dwarf Fortress on PC with code provided by the publisher.