Gnomoria by Robotronic Games, is an open-ended fantasy city-management game. You control a troupe of dwarves, having just arrived in a barren square of wilderness with naught but a wagon of supplies and the clothes on their backs, and have to forge a comfortable living for them by constructing shelter, agriculture, and amenities. Things will inevitably go horribly wrong in one of a thousand different ways, with dwarves drowning, being eaten, falling off high objects, or falling victim to a player’s murderous ennui.
You might have noticed that this reviewer accidentally substituted ‘dwarves’ for ‘gnomes’. More on that later.
Once you’ve set off, the initial gameplay loop somewhat resembles Minecraft. You must instruct your gnomes to punch down trees, make tools and buildings in order to exploit yet higher level resources, and so on. Where it separates is the level of imminent threat: Food and drink must be effeciently supplied, a militia and a defensive strategy must be drafted to defend against ever-present hostile creatures, while never letting morale drop low enough to cause mutiny. And of course, one must always delve too deep and too greedily in search of new resources and treasure….
All this requires in-depth management of individual workers, buildings, and supply lines. One thing that can be said for this kind of game is that while it is harder to construct your massive Minecraft creation when your builders have free will and a lousy work ethic, many challenging and creative artifices have practical use in improving the quality of life for your fortress’s citizens. Intricate traps and defense networks may actually be challenged, food and water may require massive civil engineering works (or brutality) to keep topped off. And thankfully, Gnomoria manages to partially demystify complex things like stockpile management and mass manufacturing with very clear user interface and multitudinous automated micromanagement options.
All the more impressive is that the Gnomoria looks fairly good, with a pixel art aesthetic which is both visually appealing and distinct enough for gameplay. Surveying your gnomehold from a distance has a certain gravitas. Since organization and keeping track of what is going on is almost a mechanic unto itself in these kinds of games, this is actually rather important. Which is why it’s unfortunate that the Isometric camera causes no end of issues, as it seems one must constantly rotate the camera to see items in the shadows of walls, and precisely aligning constructions on a grid seems to require a semester long art college class on perspective.
Speaking of perspective, after a few in-game years the player might find themselves facing some. The invading enemies that constitute challenge in this game are very predictable, and have no greater siege capability than running straight for your front door and bashing on it. Once you have a proper military (with ranged weapons) and a few traps set up, there is almost no risk involved, and therefore no thrill. Even though Gnomoria purports to have rogue-like elements, it has very few surprises up it’s sleeve.
This, the lack of depth, is an incessant reminder that Gnomoria stands in the shadow of a titan: Dwarf Fortress. Dwarf Fortress is famous for it’s ASCII (text based) art, story generating ability, psychotic level of detail, and steep learning curve. Every single dwarf has their own quirks, desires, and detailed biology (fat dwarves burn for longer), each player’s world has a randomly generated backstory which reads like the Silmarillion, and randomly generated monsters may rise from the deeps and massacre your fortress. A decade of development without worrying about visuals has given it untold intricacies that Gnomoria cannot even hope to match.
And more importantly, Dwarf Fortress is freeware, which forces this reviewer to make a value judgement. While Gnomoria is more accommodating for a new player when compared with the former’s legendary impenetrability, it is not in fact that much easier, thanks to the more heavily nested initial manufacturing requirements, and having to wrestle with construction in the isometric perspective. The sprite art visuals would be a big draw compared to the Dwarf Fortress’s cryptic ASCII “graphics”, but one-click starter packs that install pretty 16-bit replacements are the norm, and there are even entire isometric visualization engines which make Gnomoria look eerily familiar.
While this is in part making the “mods make it worthwhile” argument, keep in mind that Gnomoria is £10.99/$15, while Dwarf Fortress and all the mods in the world are free. If the learning curve is barely more forgiving, and the graphics can be replicated with 10 minutes and Google, what exactly does Gnomoria have to say for itself when the meat of the game is but a shallow facsimile?
Gnomoria is another in a long line of misunderstandings of how and why some cult classics actually work. The developers failed to understand the continued necessity of many of the compromises that their predecessor made, dismissing them as little more than blights and signs of age. This lead to a milquetoast, middle of the road product, which is still equally difficult to understand, adds very little and subtracts almost everything that was valued from the game it is trying to ape. If you can handle playing Gnomoria,you can handle playing Dwarf Fortress, and your wallet will be 15$ heavier for it.
Unless you have a deathly allergy to ASCII interfaces, modding, and money, it is very difficult to recommend Gnomoria, even though it is perfectly functional and enjoyable in the short-term.
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