I didn't realise how annoying I found main quests in RPGs until I played a game that didn't force one on me. That game is Wartales, an upcoming tactical open world game from the developers of Northgard, Shiro Games. It plonks you into a fairly mundane medieval world - in the sense that there are no wizards, magic, elves, or grand dramas for you to fix - where you can just exist as mercenary doing as you please. It's coming out in early access at some point in the near future, and after having a go of the demo, I spoke to game director Nicolas Cannasse about why they chose to make a game that sets you free, rather than railroading you into some giant mission.
In Wartales, you take control of a group of mercenaries making their way through a plague-ridden medieval world. Your goal is to survive, as well as feed and pay your mercenaries, though you can do that in any way you please.
"You'll take on missions, fight, trade - you can pretty much play the way you want. You can explore, fight bandits, or be bandits yourself," game director Nicolas Cannasse tells me.
I quite like the idea of playing a roving pack of bandits. During the demo, I'd often see a group of traders emerging from a settlement, and every time I'd think, "I'm gonna get 'em". But then I remembered I don't like being mean to people in video games, and I could barely protect myself against a single wolf. I still like the possibility, mind you.
Actually, in his Wartales preview, Nate came up against this exact problem too. I really didn't believe him when he wrote that he got absolutely beasted by wolves, but then I was utterly savaged by them as well. So, uh, let that be a warning to you.
Besides the extraordinarily strong danger puppies, the most notable difference in Wartales to other RPGs is that there's no real central storyline. It's something that stood out to me as I played, because I didn't feel bogged down by waypoints telling me where the big drama is. I wasn't a protagonist burdened by a scary problem, I was just a simple merc, roaming around the forest, picking up herbs to put in my bag that I may never know the true use for.
"I've had so much fun playing open world games and going around to see what I can find in the world. But every time, there's alway this main quest waiting for me," Cannasse says. "With Wartales, you're free to do what you want. We have content and stories going on, and you can intervene, maybe fight and kill some guys, but the rest of the world is still waiting for you. It's less epic, but gives a lot of freedom to the player."
Thanks to this, Wartales feels like this blank canvas world that seems mundane at first, but opens up once you realise how much there is to do. Get involved in a bit of infighting over there, some rat murder over here, and likely some frequent plague-dodging all over. Cannasse tells me the Wartales team made sure you couldn't accidentally pick up missions from NPCs too, so you can avoid filling your map with rubbish you have no memory of.
"The game won't tell you that you need to complete a certain number of missions to do something. You have to accept or choose every mission you get, you get to decide," he adds.
It seems Shiro Games have managed to make something that's really unintrusive, and that extends to how they teach you to play as well.
"We think it's important, some players really like this type of freedom where the game doesn't tell them anything at all. I'm this kind of player. I like to discover the game by myself, and we tried to make sure that every gameplay element is really understandable without any need for a tutorial," Cannasse tells me.
There will be a tutorial in the main menu, but progress from it won't carry over into the main game. It exists more as a reference for folks who'd prefer a bit of instruction. Ultimately, the team are trying to make the game fairly easy to get the hang of, especially if you're familiar with the genre. The tough part will be mastering it.
"We wanted to have something tactical, but not too technical, in the sense that we don't want to play chess with it," Cannasse explains. "Sometimes fights can be really tight and you have to really think about your next move, but we wanted to make something where there isn't too much to take into account, you're not overloaded."
That works just fine for me. Heck, I wonder how much of Wartales you could get through without fighting anything? Probably not that much, you do get attacked by various miscreants fairly frequently. But that's the fun of a game like this - while there's plenty there to get you involved in the world, you very much get to do your own thing with it.
"That's the most important part for us," Cannasse tells me. "A player can start in one region, do some activities, and maybe get distracted by a merchant being attacked by fantastic creatures, and your story grows from there. It's not our story, it's a story that the player creates themselves. We hope to see players sharing their stories together too."
If you fancy giving Wartales a go, the demo is currently available on Steam. It's set to release in early access sometime soon, and will stay there for around a year while the devs add new regions, enemies, modes and more.