Wartales review: a grimy medieval fantasy RPG rife with emergent stories
No long stories about beans this time, promise
‘The Tank’, I’ll admit, is a monumentally uninspired name for the mace-wielding brick privy of a man I’d bestowed the dubious honour of soaking up hits in place of my squishier mercs, but when sandbox tactical RPG Wartales let me assemble a party of 12 mad lasses and tapped chaps, the stash of good nicknames was always going to be the first casualty. So, The Tank he lived, and also died. Questing endlessly in this grimy medieval world won’t cut it. You’ll also need to keep your troupe paid and fed, so when evening fell to find nought but a handful of foraged mushrooms and a single mouldy apple I’d pried from the fingertips of a disemboweled bandit, it was time to get creative.
“Waste not, want not”, said the Earl of Human Sandwich, the inventor of cannibalism (I’m told). With this in mind, I’d invested one of my early ‘Knowledge Points’ into a tech that let me repurpose my dearly departed as delicious drumsticks. Slain friendlies don’t disappear after battle. Instead, you’ll find their tastefully dressed corpses in the loot menu afterwards. Ghoulishly, the ‘loot all’ option doesn’t add their cadavers to your inventory with the rest. You’ll have to manually drag them over, giving you just enough time to consciously make the decision to either bury or eat them. I did not bury him.
Now, here’s something you never want to say about someone you’ve eaten: this was not the last I saw of The Tank. I’d throw him in the pot along with some berries I’d brought at the market, and some fish I’d caught through a minigame fun enough to make me take a note that said “why is the fishing better than Dredge, a game about fishing?!?” My troupe would feast, sleep, and then I’d find The Tank’s corpse back in my inventory again. The boring explanation involves bugs, but I like to think my gang treated his decomposing remains as a sort of communion wafer, nibbling on his flesh with ascetic restraint. I eventually foisted the half-eaten lump on a blacksmith whose face I didn’t like for a single gold piece which I then spent on wine. Welcome to Wartales.
A year and a bit ago, I wrote about the nuts, bolts, and beans of the experience in early access. The broad headline for this 1.0 release is, “Like that, but more of it”, although that doesn’t quite tell the whole story, since even the first area has been refined and deepened. The basic flow of Wartales goes thusly: Go to a nearby village, get some contracts, fight a turn-based battle, level up, kit out your troupe, buy some food, maybe go fishing or foraging or craft some armour or capture a bear with a rope and indoctrinate it into joining your mercenary troupe, maybe progress the overarching quest for the area of the map you’re currently in, go back to the village, get paid, repeat. Basically, every step here seems to have benefitted tremendously from not just the reality, but also the ethos of long-term early access. Namely: How can we make this relatively peripheral system better? And you do that with as many systems as Wartales has, eventually you end up with a really solid title.
A chief gripe of mine previously was the length of the turn-based battles, which started to chafe after a while because of their frequency and because, arguably, they’re not even the main event here. To say that these tactically interesting, tense, and wonderfully animated fights aren’t the game’s main event is more of a compliment than it sounds, since one of Wartales main strengths is how each of its many systems, from party management to economy tweaking, can be gripping in their own right. Anyway, they’ve reduced the number of enemies in a battle, but made the individual enemies tougher, so fights are briefer but more deadly.
One of Wartales main strengths is how each of its many systems, from party management to economy tweaking, can be gripping in their own right
Another new(ish?) feature is the choice to play with either enemy scaling or region-locked difficulty. You know that bit in Dark Souls where you find Havel the Rock at the bottom of the tower in the game’s first proper area and he’s arguably far out of your capabilities, but if you spend time learning a few tricks, you can take him down early? I love that stuff. It’s not just a challenge thing - it gives RPG worlds so much gravitas. Naturally, I played region-locked.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s been introduced in what stage of early access, but camp management also seems to have grown tremendously since I last played. A few hours in, my party ventured into an ancient tomb that had me using a limited stock of expensive torches to explore winding passageways and find runes to unlock a puzzle door. It also had me solve a slide puzzle which, I swear to god, could have been the cut knuckle-chewer from the Resi 4 remake, so profoundly irritating was it. After fighting off some crusty shamblers in the dark, I eventually found a sarcophagus full of relics that needed appraising. The game let me build a lectern at camp, appoint one of my troupe to the ‘scholar’ profession, and accrue knowledge points over time. After a while, your shabby campfire will eventually blossom into a respectable spread of useful spots, each granting meaningful bonuses for combat, exploration, and character growth.
This is all very nice, but the real secret sauce here dwells in Wartales place as what I’ve previously called ‘storybox’ games; your Rimworld and Dwarf Fortress, games that offer sets of character traits and interactions, of nouns and verbs, then allow them to interact with each other in surprising but logical ways, effectively turning the game into a little box you poke at to make stories fall out of. It’s also got something in common with that ‘anecdote factory’ term that Far Cry tried to claim, even if 90% of said anecdotes were some variation on “set fire to X, got attacked by a wild Y” (Yak, Yucatan Squirrel, Yellow-eyed Penguin.) Wartales, though, earns the ‘tales’ part of its name well. Some part-scripted, some personal, but most genuinely successful at sucking you further into its quick-sandbox. No real wars, though, but I suppose ‘six-man rat fracas tales’ isn’t as catchy.
It’s with this in mind that my primary criticism of Wartales is probably a little unfair, but please know that I’m making it of a very cool game that I think could be ice-cold if I felt just a little more momentum to progress through its world. Yep, I’m asking for a main questline. Some central, driving mystery at the heart of this evocatively grimy low fantasy world that, maybe, you don’t uncover anything significant about for hours before happening upon some passing nugget of information or a hint toward something that blows its fiction wide open. I think a lot of RPGs can go super heavy on the main quest to the detriment of world building. In contrast, Wartales is all worldbuilding. Multi-layered region questlines offer insight into class struggle and disease, refugee crises and food shortages, but ruins aside, any real-world history feels ephemeral. All the better to forge your own personal (war)tales within? Absolutely. A little lacking in vivacity if your roleplaying brain doesn’t feel like putting in the work today, and you just want to be barded at? Also yes.
Another non-criticism that might be better described as ‘an understandable annoyance’: the amount of walking you do in Wartales is immense. More like Walktales amirite? I’d estimate at least a quarter of the game is spent hoofing across (very pretty) fields and dales, down dust paths, and up mountain trails. It’s not necessarily thrilling, but it does feel too deliberate to consider a flaw to solve rather than an intentional choice to experience. Everything here has a trade off - it’s somewhat of an economic sim in this sense - whether that’s the economy of actual wages and food, or the economy of fatigue and danger. So even that traditionally rote act of travel is redolent with both friction and possibility. This doesn’t mean you’re an unappreciative fool for getting irked with it though, and you might well do so, so something to keep in mind. You also unlock fast travel later, but it takes a bit.
But it is that same friction and possibility that results in some of the game’s best moments. After questing in the second area, I felt underpowered, so I spent some of my accrued knowledge points of some blacksmith recipes, and went poking around a nearby woods for boars, to kill for leather to make armour. I did find boars, but they were ghost boars. Also, ghost wolves, and a terrifying ghost ram boss called a ‘nightmare’. I lost two of my rogues in that fight, stabby Corhan and stabby Hakert, the stabby twins. Things were looking grim until a rogue bolt of lightning one-shotted the ghost ram. Turns out there is a god! And one whomst bloody loves a bit of stabbing.
It’s workmanlike without being uninspired, fascinating without being flashy. It’s like a loveable cockney chimney sweep with a sparkle in its eye
The presentation is probably a bit nicer than it honestly needed to be across the board. The music is lovely, all driving war drums layered with whimsical, slightly discordant European folk instruments. The minigames are all great aside from that bastard slide puzzle. Also, get this: I once picked two locks on a three lock chest but broke my last pick on the final one. I came back to it about three hours later with a fresh set of picks, and the two locks I did last time were still open! This sounds incredibly minor but I feel it exemplifies a sort of coherence and persistence about the world that I feel is crucial to the soul of this sort of game.
And this here is sort of the key to Wartales, I think. It feels consistent. It’s workmanlike without being uninspired, fascinating without being flashy. It’s like a loveable cockney chimney sweep with a sparkle in its eye. It might be too mundane to scratch the itch for high adventure, but if you’re feverish for a grounded low fantasy ramble with the occasional giant rat, Wartales will cure ya. Also, apropos of nothing: I still haven’t played Battle Brothers yet, so I don’t know. Go away.