2021's Wildermyth promises a lot - a game that manages to have not just a heavy focus on character building and tactical combat, but procedurally generated characters and story beats too, as well as choices actually affecting the way things play out. I was certainly skeptical upon hearing that - a lot of other games with such quests (ie Daggerfall) just begin to feel very samey after a time, with quests just feeling like stiff Mad Libs (go to Dungeon X to get Y and return within Z days) and characters failing to be memorable on any level for the same reason. Not to mention the common problem many such games face - detailing out one intricate story path is a costly endeavor, let alone several, so you usually just get one story that remains 95% the same save for changing a few lines of dialog.
So I was actually surprised that Wildermyth manages to pull off what it sets out to do, and doesn't fall prey to feeling like a stiff fill-in-the-blank. Characters actually feel well-realized and interact in realistic ways, developing rivalries or romances (sometimes depending upon your choices) and their dialog changes accordingly, always feeling surprisingly natural as it does. Story points are randomized to an equal degree, but are written just as well, affording opportunities for storytelling in addition to occasional boons (or disadvantages) for your characters. Even falling in combat affords more storytelling chances than most - characters can sometimes sacrifice an item to get away, survive but lose a limb, or even sacrifice themselves to save one of their allies, which will give them a temporary boost that might just turn the tide of the battle in their favor. All nice ways to avoid the old trope of "just hit reload', and all open doors for future story beats. Characters who manage to survive in spite of everything will also age and eventually retire, (with Warriors doing so the earliest, Mystics the latest) so recruiting fresh blood whenever possible is a good idea. You can even choose to memorialize deceased characters or let them be forgotten, which will shape your world's history and legends in the long run.
Combat itself is a fairly simple affair, with grid-based movement and turn-based actions, though you're afforded the freedom to move your teammates in any order during your turn. Characters fall under one of three basic classes - Warrior, Hunter or Mystic - and gains new abilities upon each level earned, which allow for quite a bit of customization. A few such abilities include getting throwing knives (weak but usable as a free action up to three times per battle), traps to damage and ensnare enemies, or the ability to light tiles (or enemies) on fire to damage enemies that pass through them. Magic also works in a different way than in most games; rather than simply conjuring fire or projectiles from thin air, one must "infuse" their magic into environmental objects, which can then be used offensively in a number of ways - ropes or cloth can entangle foes, braziers can set them ablaze, and wood can send a hail of splinters at them.
Between battles, one is taken to a map screen, where the action unfolds somewhat like a 4X game - moving to new territories, clearing them of enemies, and improving them to gather one of the game's five major resources - ingots, hide, fabric, heartwood and spellthread - on a yearly basis. These in turn are utilized to craft new equipment or upgrade existing gear (by adding magical enchantments). In addition, one has two choices for improving each tile - they can do a quicker job just to get the resources more quickly, or they can do a slower job but have a chance of getting a random item from it. In addition, one can fortify tiles to slow down enemy raids and thin their numbers. In general, one is only given a set number of days to complete a chapter, though clearing out enemy strongholds can extend it to a point, so managing one's time is an important strategic element. This gets further complicated by the fact that your heroes can only heal over time; faster in a relatively safe, barricaded stronghold and much slower while they're travelling. Still, you'll have to enter battle when your characters aren't all at their best, especially on higher difficulty settings where the enemy raids become frequent and aggressive.
Something else to note is that the enemies will grow stronger over time, adding new cards to their "decks" and gaining bonuses to their health, armor, damage, et cetera; the player can spend Legacy Points to avoid this as a timed event, but as these are also spent on other important things (recruiting heroes and improving tiles), this is best done sparingly. They will also unavoidably gain at least one new card after every battle, and a couple of cards will be subtracted when you successfully complete a chapter, though they may gain more during certain events as well.
Fittingly, the player has their own means to offset this; the most prominent of which is the aforementioned crafting system. Between battles, the player can utilize their resources to craft stronger gear than what they currently have. Winning battles and story events will give them a choice of gear as well, though unusually for games of this type, equipment is a one-time use deal - once a character equips something, they cannot trade it to another character or remove it without replacing it with something else (an intentional choice to prevent the game from devolving into tedious inventory management). Still, you're always given an exact readout of what benefits and drawbacks any piece of equipment will give you (as well as an online encyclopedia for all key gameplay elements only ever being a button-click away), so you can weigh risks and make informed choices.
So, while earlier games attempted it to varying degrees of success, Wildermyth is one of the few I've seen that actually lets your choices have a tangible effect on the narrative. Being able to have a character make a noble sacrifice to save his friends, seeing them develop rivalries and romances (and have their children take up arms when they come of age) and eventually have them pass into legend is all stuff I haven't really seen before, save in something like Dwarf Fortress. The tactical and 4X elements of the game are relatively simple, but still engaging; especially on higher difficulties, having to balance your time while continuing your campaign against the enemy hordes is a surprisingly harrowing task. But even in spite of all this, it's surprisingly light on micromanagement and tedium, letting you get fully engrossed in your characters and see the history of your world get built before your eyes. It's got a lot to offer for tactical 4X fans and fans of well-crafted storytelling alike; generally just great stuff.
Developer: Worldwalker Games
Publisher: Worldwalker Games, Whispergames
Recommended version: N/A