An open-ended RPG from a relatively unknown independent company, Wartales seemingly draws inspiration from games like Darklands, having no pre-scripted narrative and de-emphasizing individual characters to focus on group tactics and survival in a war-torn medieval world. But does it prove to be a worthy open ended role-playing experience, or is this one Wartale best not told?
Monday, May 2, 2022
Open-ended RPG experiences have long been a staple of western RPGs, and it's easy to see why they remain a compelling experience - not bound to a fixed role or narrative, you just try to survive against the odds and get by however you can, constantly fighting against circumstance and limited resources as you go. Which only adds to the compelling nature of it - running low on food or money may force your party to resort to desperate means - thieving, robbery, et cetera - to get by, or even taking on dangerous missions they normally wouldn't as a desperate means to gain some security. That uncertainty and moral ambiguity, paired with the inherent challenge of survival in a harsh world, is something rarely seen in more narrative-driven games.
Fittingly, Wartales also gives you a vast number of paths to follow, even opening the game with one such choice. You begin by picking a backstory for your companions, which tweaks your starting party layout and resources accordingly. Beginning as a group of friends seeking adventure will start you with a small amount of Influence, but a penalty to experience, while beginning as a group of deserters will start you with more experience, but also some suspicion to your name. Beginning as a band of thieves puts you in a similar state - though you start with a decent amount of money, your starting Suspicion is also quite high, meaning you'll be on the run from the guards right from the get-go.
Fitting the group-centered dynamic, each member of your party has their own individual (and semi-randomized) stats and traits, as well as two professions - a fixed combat profession which determines what skills, armor and weapons they can use, and a 'side' profession of sorts that lends itself to gathering resources and crafting, earning bonus experience as you use it. Thieves can steal from merchants and pick locks, tinkers craft tools (like said lockpicks), alchemists can brew potions to heal or harm enemies, fishermen can use a hook to catch fish for party meals, and so forth. Each character can change their sub-profession freely, though it's best to stick with one whenever possible, as changing to a new one will cause all the experience earned in the current one to be lost.
Knowledge is another key mechanic emphasizing group dynamics. As you explore the map and locate new areas, you'll gain Knowledge, and after hitting certain milestones you'll be able to purchase "Knowledge Skills" that benefit you in a variety of ways; these can be mundane interface improvements (being able to mark waypoints on the map to follow) to having your party ration food and take lower wages, to even things like letting your packhorses fight alongside you, giving you some decent (and free) support in combat. You'll also unlock more useful crafting recipes, which in turn will aid you in numerous ways. More will become available as the game progresses, and there are quite a sizable number of these perks to choose from, so even if your entire current party gets killed and replaced as you go, you'll still gain the benefits of Knowledge to make life easier for your future recruits.
As one would expect in a game of this type, combat in the game is a pretty frequent event, taking place in turn-based battles. A few mechanics I haven't seen in similar titles do show themselves here, though. One is that the player's turns aren't locked to individual units, instead letting them use any turn they're given to move any unit of theirs, so long as they haven't already that round. Attacking a target in melee range will cause both friend and foe to be 'engaged' in a battle; one can break away from this at any time as long as they have movement left in stock, though the enemy will get a free 'attack of opportunity' on them if they do (this also avoids the player doing so by accident, as they must click a button and confirm they wish to move before doing so). Each character also has special abilities depending on their class and level, which are activated by spending Valor Points, that can help to turn the tide. Whether charging through multiple enemies, hitting a single target several times, or just getting some extra move range that doesn't trigger attacks of opportunity, using your limited supply of these well becomes an essential strategic element. One point of frustration, as in many games of this type, are battles with computer controlled allies; particularly as one of them dying can cause you to have to restart the battle, and the none-too-bright AI loves to run right into disadvantageous situations or even straight into traps that can damage or kill them instantly; I had to redo one fight in particular several times because a character insisted on repeatedly running right into a lightning strike.
Managing one's party and reputation is a challenge in itself, though the game does a good job laying out exactly all of the mechanics in play and what one must do to stay on top of things. The aforementioned Valor points are one; while you only get a handful at a time (necessitating that you spend them carefully), more can be earned by winning battles, completing quests, resting (especially at inns) or boosting the party's Happiness stat. Happiness is pretty self-explanatory - your troops need to be well-rested, fed and paid, which is intrinsically tied to finding sizable hauls of goods or completing quests and getting paid for it. Completing missions also earns you Influence, which serves as another type of currency, earning you more dangerous (but more lucrative) jobs or allowing you to recruit more characters and expand your ranks. The aformentioned suspicion works somewhat like the Bounty in system in the Elder Scrolls games; once it gets high enough, the guards in your area will seek you out and possibly imprison or kill you if you're caught, though this will slowly decrease with time as long as you avoid standing out or venturing too near occupied areas. Finally, each major area in the game has a Fate meter, which will go up or down depending on which factions you choose to work with and complete missions for, which also serve as the closest thing the game has to an overarching storyline. Completing all the quests for a given faction and filling the bar will cause the area to change in a pretty significant way depending on your choice.
All told, I was quite impressed with Wartales. The depth it puts forth in every facet of its design is quite impressive, constantly forcing the player to weigh their options carefully and try to come out better for it in the long run, even if it's not always possible to do so in the short term. There is a fair bit of mission and resource farming involved, but the game gives you enough to do alongside it - exploration, job seeking, skill honing following various subplots - that it never feels like empty busywork. Most games of this type are also infamous for having prohibitively opaque mechanics and interfaces that make them impenetrable to all but the most dedicated gamers, but Wartales offers a simple, intuitive interface and explains its mechanics quite well without ever feeling dumbed-down. It's similar to the modern XCOM games in that regard - streamlined in some ways to cut down on tedious micromanagement and player frustration, but not to the point where it subtracts from the challenge. All told, a game that has a lot to offer despite still being in Steam Early Access, and I only see it getting better once it gets a proper launch.