There’s a lot to be said about comparison when looking critically at media; it serves as a useful shorthand and a great conversational piece, highlighting what’s new and where ideas have been taken from, but in most cases also needs to be tempered to avoid undue conflation. Still, when a game tasks you with building a “Dwarven Fortress,” comparisons are kind of obligatory. Dwarf Fortress is a beloved classic, and for good reason, but that’s something Queen Under the Mountain designer Michael Todd is keenly aware of. So, how does one liven up such an already-ambitious mix?
Queen Under the Mountain answers this question with “smatterings” of Prison Architect, KeeperRL, and Electronic Super Joy, to the end of making a more user-friendly and combat-intensive dwarflike experience. It’s a solid concept, even in spite of its daunting shadow, and for those of us who perhaps were not the best at Dwarf Fortress – certainly not this reviewer – it’s a welcome change. But a concept is ultimately dependent on its ability to actually achieve what it sets out to do – in this case, making a simpler and more intuitive experience – and that’s where things with Queen Under the Mountain start to go wrong.
From the onset, you can see a defined vision toeing the line between spiritual successor and innovator. Much like in Dwarf Fortress, you interact with the game not through commanding the dwarves individually, but by designating what needs to be done. Next, relevant dwarves will take it upon themselves to complete whatever tasks you’ve laid out for them, and this is where Queen Under the Mountain should theoretically start to come into its own. Rather than the complex considerations of Dwarf Fortress, such as the attributes of your starting location and each dwarf’s preferences, Queen Under the Mountain attempts to streamline the approach; any dwarf can easily be bought for a set amount of gold and outfitted with the right materials, and they’re immediately ready to go.
It’s a great idea in theory, but a frustrating prospect in practice. Though you only have half a dozen menus, each one is a slog to get through. You’ll click and drag dwarves, then click and drag items, then click and drag professions just to be able to get a single skilled dwarf. It’s the same case with virtually everything in the game, the design more reminiscent of a bad mobile port than a solid desktop effort. While that’s not damning in and of itself, more annoyances await you as you contend with the laundry list of requirements to make a proficient dwarven system. More waiting, more clicking, more dragging, and definitely more bugs.
Oh yes, the bugs. If you can make it through the menus without bursting a blood vessel, you’re greeted with game-breaking bugs and design oversights. Reports range from dwarves that mysteriously stop working, requiring you to then replace them until your coffers run dry, to simply running out of wood, thus halting your building process. In my own experience, trying to load my first save after several hours in-game resulted in all of my dwarves disappearing and most of the unlocked content being re-locked, including buying dwarves themselves, making the save unplayable. While Early Access certainly comes with the expectation of bugs, it’s never fun to have hours of progressed wiped away, and the prospect of having to completely restart the frustrating process is disheartening to say the least.
All of this could be forgiven, however (considering the developer’s proactive updates), were it not for the final nail in the coffin: the price point. It’s questionable whether Queen Under the Mountain would be worth $30 even in its fully fleshed-out form, but for what amounts to no more than five hours of dubious-quality content, the price isn’t simply high – it’s outlandish. It could be argued, as it often is with Early Access games, that you’re paying to help make a concept reality, and if ever I could get behind that sentiment this would be the case; the title has clear potential, even in spite of all its flaws. But in its current state, and more importantly at its current price, it’s difficult to recommend to anyone but the most ardent of dwarven fanatics.