This review comes with a necessary caveat that must be said up front and bluntly; I am very, very bad at the type of game Gnomoria is. I always have been, and I probably always will be. There are certain genres, certain games with certain logic paths and aspirations of entertaining others that just do not click with me as a person, and Gnomoria, a procedurally-generated, exploration-focused roguelike city builder that prides itself on being dense and difficult to learn, pretty much clicks every box you can click in terms of things that I do not find fun, interesting, entertaining, or any synonym in any language of any of those words.
Which, of course, presents a problem; How can I distinguish, for the purposes of critical integrity, between the problems I have with Gnomoria that stem from me as a person, and the problems Gnomoria has as a result of its actual quality? How does one criticize something for doing what might be exactly its intention, doing exactly what is totally right by other players and is purely a result of personal taste?
Such is the battle between subjectivity and objectivity in review and criticism. To the cause of preservation of integrity, I am going to attempt to parse this out as simply as I can, detaching as much of me from it as I can; If you are a fan of this specific genre of game, then Gnomoria is probably a game you will enjoy, though I believe there are some things you will be disappointed by in comparison to other, more famous games in this genre like the infamous Dwarf Fortress.
Gnomoria is the story of you attempting to create from scratch, a thriving society in the vast and dangerous wilderness for a group of gnomes that have set off to make it on their own. And that is fucking all Gnomoria gives you to go on; tutorial is not a phrase that Robotronic Games has ever heard of, but its not because it was simply forgotten; no. Instead, its an intelligent design choice. It befits the traditions of the genre’s intense learning curve, and its an apt choice for the game Gnomoria wants to be; that lack of tutorial certainly helps build a certain atmosphere of scrappiness, of adventure, if you will, and those with the massive amount of willpower able to truck their way through the game unguided will eke a great deal of satisfaction from the doings.
However, Robotronic seems to go back on that choice by including an extensive, incredibly clunky text-based guide accessible in-game. It’s a nice inclusion, and is quite the throwback to a bygone era of PC gaming where everything was made in tiny, pixelated font. Some old-habits died for a reason, though. There simply has to be a better way to learn how to play for people who just want to play without the hours of trial and error necessary otherwise.
Once one effectively figures out how the game works, there is a great deal of depth to the proceedings. Imagine Minecraft in isometric form, and you were ordering little Steves around to do your work instead of you building it yourself, and you have an idea of what Gnomoria is striving for. The player controls multiple gnomes at once, all capable of being assigned with a multitude of jobs and tasks for the building of a new gnome society. They, a lot like influencers Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft, have individual needs that need to be met; to be fed, you must embrace agriculture, to drink, you must build a well or brewery.
And if every gnome has a specific need, they need a specific place. You will need places to carve stone, chop wood, smelt ore, cut jewelry, and build armor (there is a multitude of difference between armorer, blacksmith, and weaponsmith). You need people to run your gardens, practice medicine, and engineer new structures that just increase the incredible complexity of your civilization. The attention to the most minute things in these civilizations is impressive, though in your quest for expansion you will occasionally have to fight the dodgy AI pathfinding for the gnomes, who like to walk as the crow flies, mountains in their way be damned. That’s a fancy way of saying they get stuck a lot and you will have to micromanage movements, which can suck away valuable time that you will need preparing for the next crippling force on the horizon.
But something feels missing from all this. Throughout the experience of Gnomoria is this indelible feeling of hollowness, like instead of a puzzle being constructed entirely out of native pieces there’s a few holes where the image has just been painted in. It is a feeling that permeates the whole experience. For example, one of Gnomoria‘s points of pride is the fully destructible environment, which is rendered in modestly attractive pixel-graphics, that can be made to fit whatever your needs are of the moment, including the vast underground regions. But that entire underground region feels entirely empty.There are zombies, and they can kill, but its not necessarily a lack of monsters that makes the underground feel underdeveloped (there are enough on the surface to fill out the quota).
Think of the underground in Minecraft; that feels like a place fraught with adventure and wonders and surprises, where every block destroyed feels like progress that tempts fate, and Gnomoria‘ssimply feels like a hollow afterthought, a case of “We have to do something to fill out the game!” rather than a place you want to go or would enjoy going, but this could be the result of the game’s status in Early Access, under constant renovation. Right now, it feels like a big old handful of nothing, and a colossal chink in Gnomoria‘s armor.
There’s one part of Gnomoria that I know is not purely affected by my skill, and that is the unending unforgiving cold heart at the center of Gnomoria‘s efforts to destroy all that you have built. This game is borderline masochistic in its early hours; your first summer will be spent desperately scrounging every last berry and and fruit in the world whilst trying to get your first farm off the ground and fend off the Goblins that can and will actively pick the worst times to pillage your shit. Amongst all the other positions you have to manage I mentioned earlier, you also have to keep an army prepped and ready to fight at all times. And then there is the added levels of diplomacy needed to trade with other gnome civilizations, a necessity when playing the long game.
Point is, this game can and will screw you, and when coupled with the massive lack of tutorial and information as to what you are supposed to do, you will be forced to restart. That hollowness from the underground returns here, making these restarts feel like the wrong kind of punishment. Ideally, when you fail, and your civilization falls, the punishment for failure would be the loss of a civilization you were attached to on some emotional level, and the loss of all your gnomes (who are all named, ala XCOM‘s soldiers). Instead, the punishment is the loading screen of the lost hours of work you put in. The key word there is work, because that is all building a society of gnomes feels like to me. Work, without the payoff of enjoyment and attachment.
But that’s me. I cannot predict who you are, what you enjoy, or how you enjoy it. I can only offer a warning; Gnomoria feels a bit like the Isle de Muerta from Pirates of the Carribean. Enjoyment can only be found by those who already know how to find it. This is for the hardcore fans of this specific genre and no one else, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just know what you’re getting into.
Gnomoria is in Early Access on Steam right now for 7.99 American.
[+Very deep building system] [+Survival systems add great tension and challenge] [+Challenge is extremely high] [+Hardcore fans of the genre will feel right at home] [+Pleasant if unremarkable art design] [-Lack of tutorial + Extreme difficulty curve = Not friendly to new players] [-What tutorial there is is very clunky] [-Occasional AI issues] [-Underdeveloped underground region] [-Overwhelming odds occasionally suck the fun out of the experience]