Wartales is a much better game than it is a port.
Every time I’d play Wartales, I would be engrossed in the mesmerizing atmospheric sounds and sweeping medieval fare, the push and pull of exploration and resource management, and the strategic battles; and then the game would crash.
Wartales is a free-form RPG that sees you in charge of a mercenary troupe. Starting with just a handful of units, you eventually grow into a full war band (as of writing this review, my crew counted 21). Maintaining this war band requires keeping everyone fed, paid, and happy, lest they begin to abandon your cause. But as long as you can do that, you’re free to roam the top-down open world, taking on quests and fighting bandits, beasts, and more in tactical combat.
At the beginning of the game, you get to adjust your difficulty in a variety of ways. Are you the kind of person who gets overwhelmed by resource management, for whom worrying about hunger makes games more stressful than fun? Then you can turn that specific element to Easy. If you’d rather combat was more of a challenge to compensate, then you can make battles harder. You can even limit your saves. My favorite: you can make it so that every area scales difficulty to meet your party, or set it (like I did) so that some areas are lower in level and some are higher.
That customizability expands into party creation, where you can select from multiple classes, give varying, permanent buffing and debuffing Traits, and more. As the game goes on, you can recruit more party members and customize them to meet your needs as well. This extends beyond just recruiting humans. In combat, you can capture boars, wolves, and more, and put them to work for you.
As these party members level up, you can allocate attribute points to stats like Strength and Dexterity, and at specific levels (3, 5, and so on), you can select one of several game-changing passives and abilities.
For example, you can make it so that your horse can carry more goods (tempting, when the weight limit of supplies you can carry is so low to start), or make it so that you can bring them into battle. I made each of my wolves have a +50% critical chance when I had three or more in my party, and turned my Ranger/Archer into a Beastmaster, giving me direct control over the animals in my group, as well as an ability that forces every beast next to the target to attack it again.
All of these levels of customization make progressing in Wartales a delight, as there’s always something to look forward to.
The game features enough tutorial messages to get started, but much of the nuances are left for players to discover. It took me hours to realize that one of the bars at the top of the screen is experience towards unlocking Knowledge points (spent on unique passives, new crafting and cooking recipes, and more), and even longer to figure out I could level up my party without heading into camp. While all the mechanics and management can be overwhelming at the start, I found it wasn’t long until I settled into a groove and had a solid grasp of the game. That being said, someone on a harder resource difficulty might wish food and happiness were given more detailed explanations!
The gameplay loop is simple: head out to complete your bounties and quests until you’re running low on food and funds, and then return to town to collect your rewards, spend your money, and restock. Then, after negotiating new bounties, it’s back on the road.
The top-down gameplay of traversing the world requires keeping a careful eye on your group’s stamina, a constantly draining meter that eventually requires you to stay a night in camp and rest. Slow walking speed means you must be deliberate with every step, going only as far from town as you have the food, health potions, and resources to go. When the stamina bar empties, you can go a little further, but your offensive stats will be reduced, and, eventually, the speed at which you move plummets even further. Therefore, the best thing to do is set up camp by pressing down on the D-Pad.
In camp, there are a variety of things you can manage before you turn in for the night. Every member of your party has a secondary role, from cook to scholar, and while in camp, many of them can get to work. You must first craft different workbenches. Then, your cook can prepare a meal, your tinkerer can craft lockpicks, and other crew members can take a nap. Additionally, you can equip your latest loot, level your aptitudes, and otherwise handle the standard RPG chores.
Then it’s time to eat, resetting your stamina bar and, if you have enough food, increasing your party’s contentedness. If you don’t, or you don’t have enough vegetarian dishes to feed your vegetarians, then your party’s happiness will go down, and you’ll run the risk of losing valuable members of your squad.
On top of food and happiness, you’ll also need to pay wages when payday comes around. It can be a race to complete enough bounties before the next payday to ensure everyone is given their dues on time if you overindulged on the last trip to town.
I often feel like I needed to overindulge just to have enough mutton to make a meal, enough lumber to keep up with tinkering and blacksmithing, and so on. But the more resources you stack, the closer you get to your weight limit. In the first ten hours, this was particularly restrictive, as a cap of 70 pounds fills up quickly when an apple is half a pound. Add to that caches of iron ore, wood, lock picks, herbs, potions, and the rest of the day-to-day stuff, any armor drop was a risk of over-encumbrance.
Fortunately, just a few hours and another pack horse later the weight troubles all went away.
All of the management and exploration are the bones on which the real meat is built, and that’s the turn-based tactical combat.
Battles in Wartales, which begin with making contact with bandits, boars, or ne’er-do-wells on the map, are a tactical affair that will feel familiar to fans of games like Divinity: Original Sin and titles like Fire Emblem. Units move on a grid (effectively: there is no visible grid); melee units must be directly adjacent to their foes, while range units have the advantage of distance.
Each round sees units acting in turn, but not necessarily swapping between player and foe control. When it’s your move, you can select any of your units to manipulate, allowing you to set up your combinations without worrying about your damage dealer going before your support. However, once a unit does move, it’ll have to wait until the next round to move again.
Each unit has armor and health. While armor is up, guard is in effect, causing units to take less damage, but once it’s down, units are susceptible to injury, statuses, and tangible damage. Some units excel at dealing more damage to armor, softening up foes so that your rogues can land easy critical hits.
Positioning is everything in Wartales. Stacking your units together provides them with supportive bonuses, while surrounding foes debuffs their stats. However, keeping close together makes your team more susceptible to AOE attacks, and can make it difficult to maneuver your units in close quarters. Battles can get quite crowded, as your whole squad joins in the fray (At least as many as my team of 21).
When a unit first attacks another unit in melee range, the two become Engaged in combat, unable to move without taking an Attack of Opportunity for their trouble. They also can’t turn around. Knowing which enemy is up next means you can force them to target your unit of choice by attacking them first. Then, your offensive powerhouses can sneak up behind them for a critical chance bonus. Locking down archers also means they can’t fire off their bow, relegating them to dealing pitiful amounts of damage.
But be careful that your units don’t get Engaged in ways you don’t want them to be, as disengaging can be dangerous. Fortunately, there are skills that allow you to disengage without incurring the wrath of your opponent, and utilizing them properly is often the difference between victory and defeat.
On top of those systems, there is also morale at play, which can cause enemies to attempt to retreat or your own team to suffer.
It’s a lot to handle, but I found the battles in Wartales to never be overwhelming. They’re tactically interesting, especially if you’ve built your party in unique ways. I enjoyed running a pack of wolves that caused bleeding on attack with an alpha wolf that automatically hit for critical damage against bleeding enemies. In tandem, the Beastmaster would effectively make them all attack twice in a single round, rending foes in an instant. Meanwhile, my rogues would stack poison and deal bonus damage to units suffering from the affliction.
There are plenty of ways to build your army, from leveling your aptitudes and abilities to unlocking traits (permanent passives that seem to come almost from out of nowhere; a pleasant surprise every time!). There’s no doubt the combat is a highlight of Wartales.
The story is less engrossing. Rather than an overarching narrative, each country has its own problems. On the plus side, every mission has multiple avenues, typically requiring you to pick a side. Unfortunately, these don’t always go down the way I’d like. Sometimes, I wouldn’t be able to afford the alternative to fighting to the death. With no way of backing out, I had to forgo my morals and solve matters with steel.
Other times, whoever I spoke to first would seemingly decide what path I had to take. Unsurprisingly, the ones who request my services rarely tell the whole truth, so when I arrive at the site of combat, I’m loathe to find I’ve been hired to handle some heinous enterprise.
That said, there’s always something enjoyable about picking a side in an ongoing war and having an impact on the world around me.
All of the pieces of Wartales come together for what should be a challenging, rewarding, and memorable RPG experience. But they are really and truly squandered by frequent crashing.
And I mean frequent. Almost every half hour I would experience one or more crashes. Some of them were so consistent, they required me to load an earlier save. Entering the apothecary seemed to be a coin flip on whether or not the game would give up, and battles frequently started with the black screen of death. Some key quests would cause my Switch to crash without fail, preventing me from finishing an area’s missions entirely. Sometimes the game would crash when I examined a foe in battle, requiring me to restart. Once, my cursor appeared to get stuck between space and time in battle until the whole thing glitched out. Not every crash closes the Switch on its own. Sometimes things just don’t load properly, and you’ve got to take matters into your own hands (thanks, home button).
Such frequency is further hampered by the game’s epic loading times, which are especially noticeable when you have to sit through them all over again. Just to crash again, and reload.
It is at the point where I feel comfortable calling the port broken.
Two patches have already come out since the game’s release, which did get me past several dead ends, so I can only hope more are on the way.
There are other, less frustrating glitches, including visual bugs and text that appears as coding that didn’t pull properly, and constant dropped frames and slowdown often make inputs simply disappear, but it’s the crashing that kills Wartales.
Wartales Final Thoughts
Wartales without its problems would be an easy recommendation for fans of open-ended, heavily customizable, Western-style RPGs and the patience required for light-to-heavy (your choice!) resource management. Did I mention the whole thing has online co-op?
But as it stands, it’s effectively unplayable, unless you’d prefer to spend the bulk of your adventure rebooting the game and sitting through long loading times to get back to the action. Which may crash again and require you to restore an older save. If you want to check it out, check it out on Steam, or wait to find out if Shiro Games can patch the Switch port into something worthwhile.
I know I’ll be watching for those patches like a hawk: the game is one I’m ready to get lost in.
Switch Review Copy provided by Shiro Games for review.