They don’t make many games like Wartales anymore. The rambling RPG sandbox from French developer Shiro Games is situated firmly in the lineage of certified classics like Divinity: Original Sin, Baldur’s Gate, Mount and Blade, and, ultimately, Dungeons and Dragons—a family of games most RPG aficionados would label CRPGs. But as storied as this particular tradition is, these complicated and often arcane games have nearly disappeared in favor of games that are faster, more direct, or more easily approachable. As such, new entries are worth their weight in looted gold.
Wartales’s spin on the established format comes in the form of its relative open-endedness—essentially functioning like a game made up entirely of side quests. This isn’t groundbreaking, as it hearkens back to the old-school way of playing Dungeons and Dragons (what kids these days call a ‘West Marches’ campaign,) in which a rotating cast of mercenary adventurers takes on a wide range of unforgiving missions, some of which may affect the world around them, but none of which necessarily move along any kind of overarching plot or narrative. Missions in this type of game are, largely, disconnected from each other and are primarily worthwhile in terms of material rewards like gear or money.
Wartales functions much the same way, with bounties selected from a rotating list of options, ranging in difficulty from easy (which is still pretty hard) to hard (in which someone will probably die.) These short-term, loot-based rewards are bolstered by a set of less immediate goals in the form of the game’s Paths system. This acts as a leveling system for your entire party, which progresses along different archetypes based on reaching milestones related to each. A selection of four Paths ranging from the brash, combative Power and Glory to the efficient Trade and Craftsmanship suggest possible playstyles without funneling you into anything too specific.
There are a few drawbacks to this style of RPG in the case of Wartales. Specifically, anyone looking for an engrossing story or a firm sense of direction will find little of either here. Ultimately, though, the large decision space works in concert with a tough, often slow grind to deliver a cycle of challenges and rewards that feels both hard-earned and uncommonly personal.
This sense of progression is deepened by Wartales’ ability to impart the feeling that your party itself is a community that grows and evolves over time. This happens most obviously in the game’s well-executed if well-trodden take on tactical turn-based combat, where party members of certain classes and builds work most effectively in tandem, incentivizing you to add new mercenaries with diverse skill sets. As your party grows, though, (to upwards of a dozen members) you’ll also feel this progression in the game’s numerous survival elements. Notably, stopping to camp (which you’ll need to do every so often to avoid losing party members to exhaustion) gives you the option to assign companions to various tasks based on their careers. This means that after a while you’ll have a cook preparing necessary meals, an officer strategizing for your next fight, a scholar researching an artifact, and so on, until your humble campfire is surrounded by something akin to a burgeoning, self-sufficient village.
While the game’s visuals are often surprisingly polished, the slickly realistic style initially comes across as conservative bordering on stodgy. Over time, though, the benefit of this more grounded fantasy world comes into view. This is particularly evident during overland travel, where wide panoramas effectively convey the feeling of a small, scrappy troupe of adventurers contending with a vast environment that isn’t antagonistic so much as it is ambivalent to their continued existence.
It’s unfortunate then, that this ambience is hardly expanded upon. The story of this world, insofar as it has one, involves the fall of a once mighty kingdom ravaged by a rat-borne plague, leading to a period of instability defined by the rise of mercenaries. On its face, this has all been done before, with Wartales’ own spin feeling particularly uninspired. Worse, you might miss the story entirely. In part, this is because Wartales lacks much in the way of direct storytelling, either in cutscenes or NPC interactions. Even occasional references to the world and its history are likely to go unnoticed, though, as the game’s flat, wooden dialogue never conjures up an air of mystery or strangeness that might otherwise spark even the slightest curiosity.
Similarly, it’s a letdown when you finally begin to travel outside the game’s first major region, Tiltren County, only to find that the game’s other areas feel disappointingly similar. To “complete” each region, you’ll need to resolve a major conflict or story. In one place you may need to decide between aiding a group of refugees or siding with the farmers who’d rather the refugees left, and in another you may need to choose which side to support in a civil war. Sadly, these distinctions are barely noticeable, as progressing each story boils down to completing a series of tasks that look nearly identical to tasks you’ve already completed dozens of times. Fight some enemies, deliver a note, give some wheat to a farmer—it’s all basically the same.
It also bears mentioning that, for a game that’s been in Early Access for quite a while, this full version still feels suspiciously early. There are a host of small annoyances, from frequent stutters of lag to occasional crashes to snippets of in-game text that show up as file names rather than actual descriptors. Even more jarringly, you’ll sometimes come across map boundaries that aren’t contextualized in game at all, so that instead of a path running into an impassable mountain range or a river without a bridge, you’ll simply bounce off an invisible wall of fog-of-war. It seems reasonable to expect that most or even all of these issues can be ironed out over time, but a 1.0 release comes with certain expectations, and there are undoubtedly areas where the current version of Wartales falls short of them.
In a sense, Wartales misses the mark of an easy recommendation in two ways. Its slightly inspired variations on the CRPG norm would be enough, if only the finished product was solidly built and free of any glaring holes. On the other hand, a few rough edges would be easier to overlook if something in Wartales’s tangle of systems was truly revelatory. Instead, it falls into an awkward middle ground where it isn’t quite reliable enough to be a surefire appetizer for genre fans awaiting Baldur’s Gate 3, and isn’t quite unusual enough to be mistaken as either a visionary evolution or an exciting excursion into the RPG weeds.
Wartales leaves early access on April 12 for PC.
Wartales walks far enough off the beaten path to be interesting, but it isn’t quite bold or elegant enough to be essential.
- Openendedness lets your pick your own path
- Maintains a sense of persistent challenge
- Building your party feels like building a community
- Eventually feels repetitive
- The world and NPCs are dull
- A few too many hiccups and dead ends for a full release