I’ve always been a fan of fantasy (low, high, Final) and as a kid I obsessed over anything set in the middle ages, especially the medieval tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round, or the stories of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men (Kevin Costner, baby!). I also gobbled up any games I could find, like Capcom’s epic beat ‘em up Knights of the Round and action-adventure King Arthur & the Knights of Justice, published by Enix. Remember Enix? I ‘member. Anyhow, not much has changed since then, so whenever a really interesting game with a medieval setting pings my radar, I get excited. Enter Wartales: a non-linear open-world sandbox type of game that puts you in control of a custom mercenary company roaming the medieval war-torn kingdom of Edoran.
Before you can get down to business, you need to answer a few questions to customize your ragtag group of mercenaries. First you choose a destiny from a list. Whichever option you choose determines the classes of your starting companions, as well as granting one positive and one negative effect. Next up, you select a positive descriptor. For example, picking “Your companions are cunning fighters” would grant you a 10% bonus to experience gained from combat. The next list forces you to choose a debuff, such as having your critical hits reduced by 3% or the danger risk during rest time increased by 10%. Lastly, you get to adjust the difficulty and select a starting region. For now, you are restricted to starting in Tiltren County but you will unlock new regions whenever you reach them during your time in the campaign. I appreciate how Wartales offers two separate difficulty options: one for the combat difficulty and one for the simulation side of things, meaning your companion's hunger, wages, and tiredness levels. It’s a smart move, since people who may enjoy really challenging combat may not want to lean too much into the management side of things, and vice versa.
And just like that, you are plopped onto the map with no pomp and circumstance. There is no intro, no tutorials, no hand-holding whatsoever: it’s definitely a “figure it out as you go” style of game. Wartales uses non-linear progression in an open-world setting, so there is a sandbox feel to it where the player’s choices and playstyle go a long way to determining the path you’ll carve out. There is no overarching story being told here, instead taking an environmental narrative style approach as you wander around the region and speak with the local denizens to get a feel for the political climate of the region. The local tavern is usually the best place to start. Here you can talk to a liaison to gain access to job contracts, as your mercs will need to be paid daily. It’s never a smart business decision to owe money to a group of shady people who are used to killing people and know where you sleep. The tavern is also the place to pick up new mercenaries, assuming you can cover their upfront cost of gold and influence. Influence is another type of currency that has a few uses, chiefly being used to negotiate contracts and hire new mercs. It is a bit harder to come by and can be earned by completing quests, contracts, and through the way you and your troupe conduct themselves. In addition to the contracts you find at the tavern and jobs you receive from other folks, there are special region-specific quests to be found, and they must all be completed before a resolution can be found for the region’s troubles. Not only will you get a decent reward, but you will also receive a border pass, so that you may enter another region without paying the hefty crossing fee. If you have difficulty finding these quests, an informant in the tavern can usually point you the right way at the cost of precious influence.
If you want to have a better idea of how to proceed with your band, you can check out the “Path” menu. There are four different paths to follow; Power and Might; Trade and Wealth; Crime and Chaos; and finally Mysteries and Wisdom. Each path has a progression system and by completing actions pertaining to them, you gain PP until you level up. Each level up grants you a permanent bonus, although due to Wartales’ early access state, these bonuses aren’t all available currently. Each path menu also contains numerous titles that are awarded by completing the feats described within. Earning a title grants you pretty good rewards as well: in the form of permanent perks from what I’ve been able to unlock so far. They say knowledge is power and Wartales takes this age-old saying to heart with their Compendium system. There are a handful of incredibly useful professions for your mercenaries to learn, each with its own level of mastery. A merc can only learn one profession at a time and while you can switch them to another one, you will lose all your progress made so far. By exploring and making discoveries (among other things), you will earn knowledge points. These hard-to-come-by points can then be spent in the compendium to learn new perks for your squad or to unlock new recipes for one of the crafting jobs. Recipes can be found in the wild but they’re expensive a rare to find. I cannot stress how important it is to master a wide range of professions across your merry band of scallywags. Blacksmithing especially paid off for me as good weapons are hard to come by, so it becomes necessary to make your own. Hunting down dangerous wild boars and wolves is a satisfying way to get the leather you need for crafting and meat to feed your troops without having to loosen the ol’ purse strings.
Tactical, and I DO mean tactical, turn-based combat is what you’ll be engaging in every time you run into roadside bandits or decide to go through a nice stroll through the woods. Enemy groups are displayed on the overworld map, allowing you to confront them head-on, avoid them, or try to sneak up from behind for an ambush. You can place your allies in certain locked positions at the start but they won’t always be close to one another in one convenient group. Wartales has a habit of trying to break up your party, forcing your attention to different parts of the map at once. The placement of your team during battle is vital to succeeding. Once two units end up beside each other, they are considered engaged, meaning you cannot move away without exposing yourself to an attack of opportunity. Unless your soldier is a tank, fighting two foes at once is a bad idea, and once three foes are engaging the same unit, it gains the surrounded effect. It is a death sentence almost every time. Conversely, if you have two allied units butted up against an engaged ally, he gains a defensive bonus by way of the supported status effect. If you want to disengage an enemy without a penalty attack, you can always hit them with any attack that has knockback. Ideally, you’re going to want to fill up your ranks with mercs of differing weapon types. Spears and bows are useful for attacking at range, while there are two-handed weapons that strike in a cone-shaped radius, walloping friend and foe alike if not aimed well enough.
Wartales can be quite punishing, with enemies often outnumbering you and having better gear. Any armor you have equipped can only take a certain amount of damage before it breaks, so think of it as two separate health bars. Once it’s busted, you need to either repair it with scrap or head to the nearest blacksmith and pay to get it fixed. So if you find yourself heading into an encounter with shoddy armor and fewer party members, it’s a big problem. Not to mention dying is permanent and fleeing a battle can result in potentially having an ally captured. Your troop’s morale can be the turning point in your battles. If you fill up your morale gauge to a certain point, your troops will be galvanized, giving their next attacks a big damage bonus. If you max out the gauge then you will be prompted to either let the remaining demoralized enemies flee or strike the rest of them down. You can increase the happiness level of your men by feeding them good food during rest, but if you can’t keep them happy, you run the risk of people leaving. To keep the company in top fighting shape, you need to keep them well-rested, well-fed, and paid.
All mercs begin with a set class that cannot be changed and it determines their choice of weapon type and which abilities they’ll be able to choose from the progression tree as they level up. As of this writing, you can only reach level five so I can’t say for sure how things will play out at later levels, but early on their roles in battle are fairly well-defined. My hatchet-wielding berserker can wreak havoc on enemies with his fury attack, while spearmen and archers support him from close and far range. My high health, heavily armored brute can manage a couple of enemies at once, landing heavy hits while keeping weaker allies away from the front lines. Running a diverse group to try out different tactics is one of the high points of Wartales. You also gain some extra stat points to assign each level up, so you have even more control over how your characters grow.
Even though it’s a Steam Early Access title, Wartales offers up a lot of gameplay to love while feeling like a fairly polished experience. Even in its current early access state, I can easily (and highly) recommend this medieval mercenary sandbox to all you tactical RPG enthusiasts out there. Whether you decide to try your hand at brigandry, mercantilism, or just picking up stuff off the ground for money because you’re too scared to fight but still need to make a living, Wartales offers up an engaging open world for players to explore and challenges to overcome while trying to eke out a living. Time to go make a name for yourself, captain...or die an ignoble death by the roadside.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 8.5/10
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