When I first saw The Great Whale Road’s amazing comic-book styling and saw a few short clips of the journey scenes – rowers rowing in a side on view, to whatever their destination – I immediately thought of The Banner Saga; 2014’s tough-as-nails tactical RPG. There’s certainly similarities between the two games, the art style, tactical combat, and a oft-desperate feeling forcing you through a world which could sate anyone’s wanderlust if their weren’t places to be, and people to save. The Great Whale Road however offers a lot more freedom, and also ties in a cool town management element which manages to separate, structure and create alterior motive to the story and your travels..
Over the last couple of days I’ve spent just over four hours playing through the three year segment of the Danish campaign that’s currently included in the pre-early access build. That’s been ample time to thoroughly replay through the story experience that this small snippet of the full game will offer, while also getting plenty of time to dabble with the town-management, trading, quests, and combat sections of the game.
At the moment the only campaign that can be played is that of The Danes, in the full game you’ll pick from one of multiple; the developers have recently said four of the eight races in the region will be playable, however back when they -unfortunately unsuccessfully- tried their hand at crowdfunding there was talk of seven of them having campaigns. Each race has it’s own storyline, and that storyline always starts you out of a specific hometown, as a pre-generated character.
The currently three year long plot of the Danes sees you set out from Úlfarrsted as either Flóki -the non martially-minded nephew of the Jarl- or Bera – a wizened axe wielder who has provided for and secured the safety of her family for many years. Whoever you pick is then cast into the leadership duties of the village, immediately inducted into the Winter preparation talks, and expected to form up a warband for the Summer sailing season. The reason for this? The former Jarl, a successful diplomat with great renown, was ambushed while performing a favour for a neighbouring leader – and is almost certainly no longer alive.
The weather at land might still be pleasant enough, but the whale road turns into an angry and fickle beast once the leaves change colour.
The setting is absolutely fantastic, as tightly grounded to the mid 7th century as can be afforded what with the limited records available from back then. Towns, villages and hamlets with their historical names dot the coastlines, diseases risk ravaging the lands, the church is pushing into the land of the Anglo Saxons, and the Merovingians are reshaping into the political structure that will eventually give way to the Carolingans – just one of many ways that those of the North entirely shaped the world as we know it today.
The story as it stands plays out like episodes, with each year starting with a decision-making period where you assign points to various disciplines of your village ranging from farming to crafting, this focus can result in population shifts towards the focused field, as well as relevant yields for trade. It’s a very similar system to the ‘clan magic at sacred time’ component of the fantastic King of Dragons Pass – a game that you should definitely look into if you’re a fan of management and divergent storytelling.
In this early form the effects of the focus system certainly don’t seem to be as robust as they will be in the finished game. I completely over focused on traditions and hunting in order to get more pelts to sell (easy money if you ask me) and attempt to buff up my population as to work towards a listed ship upgrade. As it turns out the ship upgrade is a lofty goal, doubling the tribe craftsmen means transitioning them from other professions rather than plucking them out of the air, getting the population up from the starting amount to the required 55 is to require you to double the population, and it seems like the ability to do that isn’t currently implemented into the game.
As I said earlier, I focused on Tradition (which pleases the population, and decreases child mortality) and hunting (which gains food and pelts) which left me completely swamped in food, nearly a decade’s worth, but didn’t actually increase my population at all. It’s something that’s on the tables to be fixed as the game develops, as well as adding in Winter raids on the homestead, requiring a more balanced on the domestic and martial practises.
All the pelts need to go somewhere, and as you set out from your village you’ll load up your ship’s cargo hold – in the full game, of a varying size – with food, tools and luxury goods on your mission. Food is consumed at a steady rate each day you spend travelling, and often you’ll need to stop and camp, or trade, to get the food carried up enough to keep your crew happy, and, well, alive. There’s many towns, all starting with a wonderful pan-down down from an introduction screen, and all seem to have traders, taverns (a place to hear rumours) and town halls (for resting) within. You can also camp when near land, in which case you just set up camp on the shore, giving your crew a chance to rest and recuperate.
The Great Whale Road has an absolutely amazing amount of potential
Events, multiple-choice challenges tend to occur most times you arrive at a camping location, and several times as your boat journeys from location to location – these come in many different flavours, from warm welcomings, through ambushes to wild animals attacking. They even have an equivalent while you are in the harvest season at home, with possible plague bearers, bad weather, and local arguments disrupting the day-to-day live of your village folk. There’s a decent selection currently included in the game, and a very nice variety that I hope is massively expanded on for the full game. My favourite part about them, however, is that your crewmembers – the heroes you have selected to journey with you – will interrupt and butt into the briefing with their opinions, sometimes in a nonsensical way, and sometimes in a way which makes you question the option you were going to take before, this is a great feature and adds even further depth to the character-driven parts of the game.
The missions that advance the story, companion specific missions, and the rumours you hear in taverns are all compiled within a journal screen, one you can select and access at almost any point within the game, there’s also a map screen which gives you a look at the setting, as well as some information on which services are available in which town – and the time it would take to row there. Both screens are extremely useful, however, I do wonder why they are separate screens, as the journal entries could easily have been tacked onto each of the relevant locations.
I’ve mentioned the hero characters who serve as your crewmen and companions a few times now, the roster is made up of a variety of classes (the game operates a class system, four-strong), assault, skirmisher, heavy and support. Each class comes with it’s own warcries, and relate to the hero in question’s statistics; statistics which encompass defence, hit chance, hit range, movement, attack damage and hit points. The character has also got a set of morals which influence how they react to certain situations, among the eight are duty, humility, and bravery, An original part of the Kickstarter pitch included the fact that disloyal characters might be willing to play the turncoat, or even sell you into slavery if given the chance. While this hasn’t manifested at the moment, it’s certainly going to be an interesting twist on the current content when it’s added. Each character has two slots, one for weapons and one for armour, both serve to buff statistics, but they all increase – or decrease – the chance of inflicting damage to specific body parts as part of your attack – these afflictions will haunt your characters if you lose a battle and can’t get them to a place of resting, as to heal them up, within a certain time. On that, I suppose, it’s time to discuss the game’s combat sequences.
It’s hard not to grin as Bera gets 11 or more attacks against the enemy leader in one turn…
Combat along the Great Whale Road is fought from ship to ship, while on land it’s across a variety of environments, all illustrated the same wonderful care as the rest of the game. Combat is fought on a hex based grid with each unit on a team getting a go before the other side then takes their turns. It’s a card based combat, with your deck comprised of all of your team’s additional heroes (your protagonist is already in play at match start) and all of your crew’s (heroes & protagonist) war cries. You’re given three cards at the start of the battle, and can lay any units immediately (and use them immediately) as well as any war cries that do not have a turn restriction on them. You can also discard any of your cards that you don’t feel which will be beneficial, or which might clog up your hand (as you only ever draw back up to three). It’s actually surprisingly well balanced, and the strength and turn restrictions on most of the cards actually ensure that any combat rarely lasts over seven or eight turns, especially as the only enemy you need to defeat is the leader, and the only unit they need to defeat is your protagonist.
This does spell some issues. I played Flóki on my earlier plays and he is a support class, this means he is especially… squishy. More often than not my starting hand would not include another unit. After all, if each character has 3 war cries a squad of four you will only have a 25% chance of any card being a hero card. Even worse, I had maybe 5 skirmishes occur where it took until the enemy were basically at Flóki’s feet (about three turns) before I drew another unit to defend me and distract the enemies.
When it does work though it is absolutely brilliant – especially the seven or eight turn long matches, as you arrange your assault unit on the enemy leader’s flank, and drop two cards that give them +4 attacks each. It’s hard not to grin as Bera gets 11 or more attacks against the enemy leader in one turn, and when you know she’s got a 75% chance to hit then you know that it’s going to almost certainly be the end of them.
At the moment combat has little in the way of rewards. You don’t receive any loot, you don’t seem to get any silver, and the game’s experience and levelling system isn’t yet implemented. There’s also going to be a renown system, that’s also not in at the moment. I do suspect that will come into play more with the other planned races, Picts, Northumbrians, Franks, who may be able to call up commoners as heroes to buffer their ranks. Indeed some of the Kickstarter pitch images showed squads with eight or so heroes in them, vastly more than the four my measly ship can accommodate. The renown system tied to the morale and injury system in the game could really be the edge the game needs to tighten up the difficulty balance. Without renown in there, though, and with the game’s long story missions and without ability to loot or steal ships, I ended up often skipping out on battles when the opportunity presented itself – especially on my later replays.
The Great Whale Road has an absolutely amazing amount of potential, and from everything shown it looks as though it’s going to benefit in a big way from community engagement regarding balancing, especially as the discussed features are bolted on to the game. The game as it stands is an absolutely brilliant foundation for that. There isn’t a flaw in the artwork, and the music is outstanding; plenty of drums and horns as one would expect from the setting, but the amazing sense of depth that I mostly experience through Paradox Interactive’s soundtracks, and anyone who knows my well will know how high praise that is.
With a Winter 2016 launch, and an extensive road map, the team have certainly got their work cut out for them. I’ll be happily watching and playing along as the game develops.
The Great Whale Road launches into Steam Early Access on July 28th.