Developer: Backflip Studios
Price: FREE
Version Reviewed: 1.2.3
App Reviewed on: iPad 2

Graphics / Sound Rating: ★★★★☆
Gameplay Rating: ★★★★☆
Playtime Rating: ★★★★☆
Replay Value Rating: ★★★★☆

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

I feel like my job of late is taking me on a tour through the core races of Western fantasy. I just covered orcs in the less-than-stellar The Lord of Orcs, and now I’m delving into the depths of the earth with dwarves in Backflip Studios’ Dwarven Den. Any developers want to pitch something elf-related my way? Looks like I’m your guy.

Dwarven DenDwarven Den is an isometric 3D action puzzler that takes place in the subterranean caverns where those squat, bearded folk live and work. Most of the initial missions task the rotating cast of dwarves with finding some stage-specific item – usually a character or tool – that’s hidden away somewhere. But once most of the tools for your arsenal have been acquired, the goals start to vary up a bit more from level to level. Several missions require trapping specific numbers of wandering monsters or, say, mining a specific amount of gold ore, which is used to craft and purchase better gear.

Each level is composed of different types of blocks with varying durability, meaning they require different numbers of pick/axe blows to smash. Each swing robs your dwarf of a little bit of Energy, knocking them out when it reaches zero. Energy can be replenished by smashing red crystal formations. Meanwhile blue crystals provide Tech, which is used to power the various tools and gadgets at your disposal.

The challenge in Dwarven Den comes in various forms: wandering enemies, the structural integrity of the mine ceiling, the semi-random layout of each level, and the “fog of war”-esque limited visibility radius in unexplored areas. A lot of careful planning, judicious tool usage, and a bit of intuition is required to chart a path to obtain the mission’s objectives without running out of energy.

Dwarven DenI’m still kind of shocked at my experience with Dwarven Den. It’s a free-to-play game, but it doesn’t feel like a typical freemium, replete with obvious difficulty spikes in order to incentivize cash purchases. Even thirty or forty levels in, when the difficulty does begin to tighten its grip, it shouldn’t take more than a few passes to clear a level. I had many instances where I squeaked through by the skin of my teeth, but at no point did I ever feel even remotely tempted to hurl my iPad at the wall out of feelings of unfair frustration.

It’s a rare thing these days to find a free game that actually respects the player while still providing a robust, engaging experience. Backflip Studios seems to be doing the right thing, however. With audiovisuals that are cute and charming without becoming dangerously twee, and a challenging and addictive core experience, Dwarven Den would be a solid recommendation even if it came with a price tag attached. The fact that it doesn’t, while still maintaining a high level of quality, makes this even more of a diamond in the rough.

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