Friday, January 11, 2013

Gnomoria (PC)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun, complex, Dwarf Fortress-like gameplay, with decent (if simple) graphics
Cons: A few bugs, user interface, incomplete features (it's an ALPHA version afterall)

Note that this review is on an ALPHA version of Gnomoria (specifically version 0.8.24); this version is not the final retail version that will eventually be available. It may be some time before the final version is released, and this review should help you decide whether or not the game is something you might be interested in and whether or not to pre-order it for the pre-release discount price.
So far the gameplay in Gnomoria pretty much screams "I'm a graphical Dwarf Fortress clone", and that's not a bad thing. I've always loved Dwarf Fortress, but the ASCII graphics leave much to be desired and likely turn a lot of people away before they even try it. I can best describe Gnomoria as a strategic simulation game, where you control a group of gnomes as they try to make a life for themselves in the wilderness.
The world is randomly generated based on a seed, and there are a number of options you can play with that effect things like the depth of ores you can mine, the size and flatness of the world, enemy strength, etc. It takes a minute to generate, so I usually start the game and go grab a drink or have a cigarette while waiting. It only takes a minute the first time for the initial generation though, and any subsequent times you play on the same map load quickly.
While the graphics are a vast improvement over the ASCII text in Dwarf Fortress, they are still pretty simple. They are fairly small, isometric sprites and there's not much in the way of animation, but they are kind of cute and the style is neat. There's a good amount of variety to the world, with different types of trees and plants, rocks and minerals, as well as randomly generated caves and water sources throughout the map. You can build up and/or dig down, but one of the most important things to do is section yourself off from the main world to afford yourself some sort of protection against enemies. A game year is divided into four seasons of 12 days each, and during the first season you don't get any real enemies so that you have some time to prepare. You'll still have the occasional wild animal like a bear or a honey badger, and these can do some damage to your fresh little gnomes, but the main enemies aren't around just yet.
You can mine, dig, forage or deconstruct just about everything in the game, and this leaves you with materials you can use to build new things. A lot of people start the game by digging into the side of a hill and forming their main "base" or whatever in the tunnels, and that's a good strategy. I, however, prefer to choose a flat area of the map to start with (or flatten a hill if necessary) and build dirt walls around a big starting area and go from there; I just really like having the extra light during the day time.
You start out with 9 gnomes, and while you can't directly control these little guys, you can assign tasks that you wish to be done and they will work through them. You can, for example, designate an area of trees to be felled and any woodcutting gnomes will start chopping them down. You can designate a tunnel to be dug, and any miners will work at digging it out. You can farm, plant groves of trees, raise Yaks/Emus/Alpacas, and any number of various things that keep the game interesting. You may have 2 woodcutters and have them designated to cut down a pile of trees, craft the logs into planks, carve some wooden trinkets, make some beds and some doors, and have them so overwhelemed that certain things you really need to get finished aren't getting worked on fast enough. Thankfully though there is a priority system for most things that you can raise and lower at will, and this helps a great deal when it comes to making your gnomes do what you want them to do in relatively the right order.
Gnomes have needs like The Sims; they get hungry, thirsty and tired. You can get food from butchering animals, farming wheat for bread, picking wild apples and strawberries, and even making sandwiches from bread and sausage. Drinks are similar -- Yaks produce milk, a well can get water, wheat can be turned into beer, berries can be turned into wine, etc. Usually the easier to acquire food and drinks don't satisfy the gnomes for as long as the ones that take longer, so there's good reason to work your way towards making better things. A gnome will drop what he's doing and go grab food if he's hungry or drink if he's thirsty, so having items that keep them happy longer means they'll spend more time working.
Gnomes have a variety of skills, from mining to carpentry, horticulture to hauling, woodcutting to caretaking. The gnomes you start out with all have pretty good skills in certain areas and are assigned to those tasks by default, which ensures you have a couple of good woodcutters, miners and farmers, a builder and a rancher. You also start out with three Yaks and a few containers containing some initial food and drink, a few tools, a sword and a couple pieces of armor.
Most of the buildings you can build are 9 square blocks and are called "workshops". These take various quantities of wood, stone and/or metal to construct and allow you to build new items when completed. A carpenter allows you to make things like chairs, tables, doors, beds and crates. A blacksmith allows you to make tools, a furnace allows you to turn wooden logs into coal, etc. Kitchens allow you to butcher corpses (animals as well as enemies like goblins -- anyone for an ogre sausage?) while the distillery allows you to make wine and beer. You can even make complex mechanics using windmills, steam engines, pressure plates, axles, gears and switches. Enemy traps made of hatches or mechanical doors are always fun!
The combat system is probably my favorite part of the game, as it's surprisingly in-depth! If a gnome gets his leg chopped off, he moves slower. His arm gets chopped off? He drops his weapon because he can no longer hold onto it. Armor can be broken off of the body, eyes can be gouged out so that you can't see anymore, bleeding to death is not uncommon. A few times I've seen a gnome stab an enemy in the chest, penetrating it's lungs, and causing it to actually suffocate and die right there. Crazy.
Like I mentioned before, the graphics are pretty simple but neat. You have many, many layers of depth so you can mine way down into the ground, and you can similarly build up quite a ways. Occasionally you'll get annoyed because you're working 3 layers above ground, but you'll be trying to build something at ground level and not realize you're still on layer 3 though. It takes some getting used to for sure, but it's not too bad. Things are fairly well detailed though. For example, your gnomes all look completely different from one another. They have various haircuts, beards, etc... sometimes they'll even have a top hat or a monocle. You can see what they have equipped and in their hands as well; a gnome with copper armor and a mining pick can be easily distinguished on the map and not confused for a gnome wearing bronze armor and wielding an iron claymore. Sound effects are mostly non-existent, but the background music is pretty good despite lacking much variety. It's fairly mellow and non-intrusive, but it's a definite improvement to the game rather than a detriment. I especially like the foreboding music that plays when an enemy appears on the map.
The interface could use a little improvement as well, but at least you're give two options to do things. First, there's a popup menu full of submenus full of submenus when you right click on the screen. This is a typical cascading menu like the Windows Start Menu and is fairly easy to use. Secondly there's a hotbar at the bottom of the screen, and clicking a button pops up a sub-hotbar, etc. This is also fairly easy to use, but seems a little less intuitive somehow. Both menus feature the same problem though -- they just don't seem to be sorted well. Things seem to be in weird places and really take some getting used to, but even then I still occasionally get confused looking for something. For example, building a dirt wall is in a different section of the menu than removing a dirt wall. Removing dirt stairs is different than removing a dirt wall. Kind of quirky, but remember this is an alpha version so it will probably get cleaned up and polished long before the final version is released.
Another thing to note is that while the world is built of layers, there are actually "wall" pieces with thin "floor" pieces on top of them in each layer. I'll often get confused as to why my gnome is stuck somewhere, only to realize that he removed the floor tiles and trapped himself. There are still wall tiles all around on the layer under him, but the floor tiles are gone from the top so he can't walk across them. Easily remedied by building new floor tiles, but it happens quite often. The artificial intelligence of the gnomes also has a lot to do with this, as designating a big chunk of floor for them to remove will often result in them trapping themselves instead of removing it in a logical manner that would allow them to leave afterward.
Everything in the game has a base value, and totaling it up gives you your "Kingdom Worth". At the beginning of every season you get "Gnomads" who migrate to your kingdom and increase your gnome population, and how many of these Gnomads you get directly relates to your kingdom worth. More and stronger enemies also appear as your kingdom worth goes up, so it keeps the challenge going for a while. The end game isn't fleshed out too well yet though, as you get to a point after a number of years where your soldiers can pretty much annihilate anything that comes your way and the challenge goes away. It's still fun at this point, but I usually just start a new game instead.
There is so much more I could say about this game, but your best bet is just to try it for yourself. You can download a free demo of the game from and play for 6 game days. It's about 100MB in size, so it's a quick download for anyone short of dial-up users. If you decide to purchase the game after, you can continue playing right where you left off, which I think is always a good feature. All the programming and design for Gnomoria is surprisingly done by one single guy, and he's pretty active on the official forums (username: RoboB0b) answering questions and talking about his plans for the future of the game. He also manages to get substantial patches out to the game regularly, the frequency of which amazes me a little.
If you like Dwarf Fortress, Towns, Minecraft, or simulation games in general then you should definitely give Gnomoria a try. System requirements are pretty modest, needing Windows Xp/Vista/7, a 2GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, 50MB of hard drive space, 128MB of video memory and DirectX 9.0c or higher.

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