If you like your fantasy with world-ending stakes, powerful wizards, fireballs, stories of destiny and chosen ones then Wartales may not be for you. There are no chosen ones here, no-one is special. Well, I suppose somebody will be chosen by the plague rat to be the one that’s bitten but that’s not really the same thing. Wartales is a grimy, bloody, violent trip through a fantasy world that is aimed squarely at survival and struggle more than glory and legend.
At the start of the game, the player is in control of a mercenary company; although that might be exaggerating slightly. It’s four nobodies and a pony. Wartales drops the player in a vast open-world, near a town, and near some bandits and then lets them have at it. The first thing likely to happen is that said bandits will accost the fledgling fighters-for-hire and thrust the player straight into turn-based combat.
Battle is a smooth and very satisfying experience in Wartales. There are some pre-combat decisions to be made about which soldiers will stand where but then you’re right into it. An easy-to-read initiative tracker in the bottom-left of the screen shows who will be acting when with the player’s turns being interspersed with the enemy’s. Interestingly, Wartales does not go the route of giving the player’s individual soldiers turns, instead, there are generic player turns and any friendly soldier that hasn’t acted yet can take it. This is not true for the enemy, who act in a set order, and the first step on the path to tactical mastery of Wartales is making use of this tracker. Looking at which enemy’s turns are coming up and stopping them from being effective is key to victory. By the way, stabbing them in the throat is the best way to stop them from being effective.
If you’re a fan of people being stabbed in the throat, by the way, then Wartales has you covered. When a friendly soldier delivers the killing blow to an enemy soldier it is sometimes delivered via a brutal and violent cut-scene. The array of ways to brutally send an enemy to their early grave is rich and deep in Wartales. As well as basic movement and attacks each friendly soldier has one or more special abilities that come from their class, or are just inherent to them (there is an element of random generation to each soldier that can make recruiting an interesting mini-game in its own right). These special abilities range from single attacks with an extra effect; perhaps weakening the enemy’s counter-attacks or knocking them off guard, to multiple single-target attacks, area of effect attacks, supporting abilities for allies, defensive buffs and more. There is a real depth and variety to these abilities that make recruitment and levelling choices really important. A good build will give you an incredibly effective soldier, or you can end with a jack of all trades that doesn’t have the requisite specialization to be truly useful.
Apart from initiative, another main concept to be aware of in Wartales is engagement. When a soldier walks up to another soldier and clouts him about the head with his sword, those two soldiers are then engaged with each other. What this means, practically, is that neither is allowed to attack any other targets until they disengage, either because the other party is incapacitated or otherwise removed from the fight, or by taking the punishing disengage action that basically gives your opponent a free hit. This concept of engagement plays throughout all the skills and abilities with some being more effective when engaged, others not being possible at all while engaged and still more only being most effective against targets engaged with someone else.
All of these fancy abilities are not free, however. The final cornerstone of the combat in Wartales is valour points. This pool of resources is spent to use friendly soldiers’ various abilities. Resting at camp or in an inn will restore valour points to a certain amount but it is also possible, vital in fact, to be able to replenish during a fight. This is done in a variety of ways and one of the earlier levelling decisions to be made for each soldier is how they will contribute to replenishing this vital currency. Whether a soldier reclaims them from killing enemies, from engaging with enemies, from supporting allies or in other ways is up to the player and it allows for some interesting refinement in battlefield roles for each soldier.
Outside combat, the world of Wartales is your oyster. There are multiple provinces, each of which has various points of interest and a town that acts as a central hub. In the towns players can visit the blacksmith and apothecary for supplies or to craft and go to the market or inn, the latter of which is vital as that is where the quest board for each province is. These quests are procedurally generated and of various difficulties. While many of them are combat focussed they certainly aren’t all and Wartales gives the player the choice about how they want to make their way in the world. This broadly breaks down into three approaches; bounty hunting, crime and trading. There is nothing that sets the player on one of these paths though and mixing and matching is both viable and necessary. One week the company might be delivering spices to a neighbouring town, the next they might be clearing a plague rat infestation and in the last week assassinating a high profile guard captain. Quests can even be completely ignored with time spent just trading, robbing merchants in the wilds or hunting animals and gathering resources from the map.
The common thread really is just that the player’s mercenary company needs to be paid every few days and fed every day. That means a constant supply of krowns (the game’s currency) and food is required. How those things are obtained is an open book. Playing into this is the occupation system in Wartales. As well as a combat class, each soldier can be given an occupation and many of these can earn money in their own right or contribute to survival. Having an angler in your company will ease the food requirements, particularly if you also have a cook to make the most of what you catch. Miners and thieves can obtain resources from nothing (watch your suspicion if you go around stealing too much though or you’ll have the guard after you). Blacksmiths, apothecaries and tinkerers can turn whatever resources the player finds into goods to boost the company or just to be sold for a profit.
All of these systems in Wartales blend together wonderfully and lend a real air of freedom to proceedings. It really does feel like a variety of approaches are viable and, whilst combat is inevitable to some degree, the amount the player engages with it is somewhat up to them. For those who like a story and a bit more forced direction in a game, Wartales has you covered there too. Each province has its own plotline which can be pursued by engaging in specifically marked quests that contribute to a fixed overarching narrative. These can, however, be completely ignored if it’s not your bag. Like I said, your company is not chosen, nobody’s forcing you to do anything, it is simply a land of opportunity.
Wartales is an early access title at this point but it really feels like it’s not far off a full game. More depth in equipment, skills, enemies, quests and the like is always welcome and, perhaps, necessary for a game that has the scope and length that Wartales is aiming for. I have played for about fourteen hours and only just finished the first province. If Shiro Games expect the player to feel motivated to head out and explore their world then the variety needs to be there to keep the player motivated to move forward. I don’t feel yet like I’ve got to a point where I’ve seen all the game has to offer but whatever can be added down the line to make sure that point remains in the distance will be key to whether Wartales is a game played for twenty hours or two hundred.
Having said all of that, there is plenty here to keep players invested. Wartales is not one of those games that feels like a bare-bones idea that has just reached stability and been released into early access; it feels 70% or 80% done. It is probably the most complete and deep early access release I have played since Valheim.
In terms of a recommendation, Wartales has planted its flag firmly in the territory between XCom and Battle Brothers with perhaps a little Mount and Blade added in for good measure. The combat is deep and strategic but it is comparatively slow and can be punishing. If you’re the kind of player who enjoys that then you probably know that already but this isn’t the game for a novice to turn-based combat to get into. It’s also not for those who like strong characters and deep stories. The world-building in Wartales is decent, but, even with the province quests, the narrative is light-touch with the focus being on freedom of choice, exploration and forging your own way in the world. If any of that sounds appealing though then take a chance on Wartales. It is wonderfully executed and comes with a deep strategic layer and polished delivery, all things that hopefully continue or even improve as it gets closer to a full release.
Wartales is in early access and is available on Steam for PC now.