by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
A tale of revenge
It’s difficult not to compare The Great Whale Road with The Banner Saga. Both games feature a viking survival adventure theme that you’ll either love for its unique vibe or loathe for being too slow. From an aesthetic point of view, the two could be kin and anyone who hasn’t played either game would be hard pressed to keep the two games apart by sight alone. Yet any similarity ends when you start the game and it is not just in the gameplay either. Where Banner Saga soared, The Great Whale Road gets its feet wet.
If you like your games to come with a thoughtful story and you understand that this sometimes involves reading, then The Great Whale Road should spark your interest. Admittedly, things start off in the most cliché way possible - all the warriors in your village went out on a raid but never returned and, guess what, you are put forward as the new leader of the clan. Didn’t I write that exact same thing in last week’s Vikings: Wolves of Midgard review? Almost. Yet things get pretty interesting after that.
Of course this is a tale of revenge but it is one that is full of twists and turns. The writing is so engaging that the game quickly turns into an interactive story and a real page turner at that. Not all of the subplots reach the same heights as the overall story though, and some are downright confusing. There is one particular moment in which you rush to the defense of one of your own that made my head spin. I lost the ensuing battle and fully expected – something – to happen but the game just threw me back to the town screen and stated that my quest was complete. Eh? You do find out when you next set sail but I felt I had fallen into a story void at the time.
The game is divided into a winter and a summer season. Winter is for planning and resolving minor issues such as squabbles between farmers and disappearing chicken. Summer is for exploration and raiding. I say planning but there’s really not that much involved. You can assign workers to the production of food, goods or to training. If you have traded well over the summer and brought home building materials you can upgrade some of the facilities or your longship. It’s all done on a single screen and lasts all of about 3 minutes.
The summer season is a lot more interesting. You pick either an optional quest or continue the main quest where you left off last season, load up your ship with supplies and trade goods and set sail. On route to your destination you’ll trade, fight and quest until you resolve whatever is waiting for you at the last stop.
The turn-based combat sessions make up a significant portion of the game and they show up even when you don’t expect them. When you read “An old man with a pitchfork stops you, you kill him without slowing down” you don’t really expect combat to start, but it does. The sluggish-feeling battles have precious little variety and some of the variety that is there is mere suggestion. Depending on the weapon that you they equipped, warriors can carry out either a slashing or a piercing attack. One is always more accurate than the other and that really determines your choice - I have yet to figure out any other difference between them. Traits make combat a little bit more interesting. You can raise a character’s ability to evade, crack an opponent's shield or increase combat accuracy. Strangely, though, the “heal” trait does not heal but cure and is rarely useful as a result. Even stranger is that the level of loyalty of your men sometimes prevents them from joining the fray on the first turn. The enemy can bring all of his goons onto the field right away, so they are fully loyal? The only thing this mechanic accomplishes is that you hang back a couple of turns until your warband is complete. Perhaps this was a way to make up for the AI’s lack of battle prowess. If an enemy can hit without moving, he is guaranteed to make the attempt even if it is tactically unsound.
That lack of variety in combat is a common theme throughout every aspect of the game but the writing. Every town uses the exact same artwork for buildings and other objects, there are only a handful of different battlegrounds and the only way to explore is by going on a predetermined quest which is completely on rails. After your first 10 hours or so in the game, you’ll have broken up a dozen on-board brawls, have ran away from a dozen unknown ships and entered a dozen villages of which the warriors appeared to be on a raid. In most of the visits to towns, the only excitement you’ll get is from finding a new armor set or weapon for your crew at the local forge.
Despite spending a good amount of time in Early Access there are a number of common issues that have yet to be resolved. For one thing, the upgrade materials you need are only shown on the winter preparation screen - the one you spend 3 minutes on. You’ll lose track of what you need unless you write it down. The end-turn button lives at the top-left of the screen as if the developers have never played a turn-based game in their lives. Characters occasionally do a spasmodic dance across the battlefield when you move them to a new location and I’ve ran into infinite loading loops on several occasions.
For many turn based strategy titles it is the combat that keeps you engaged. The Great Whale Road has some really great writing but ultimately that is not enough to carry the game. The combat is so intensely unrewarding that this is one story I’d rather have read in paperback format.
Lovely artwork, great writing
Lacks variety, boring combat