Yes, I suppose it’s fitting that it is, once again, the prospect of reviewing a mercenary management game that rouses me from my months-long torpor. I like mercenary management games. I think they have a lot of really interesting gameplay decisions baked into the core concept in ways that other tactical strategy games struggle to justify, or which they omit entirely. Jagged Alliance 2, Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries1, Battle Brothers, BattleTech – no matter what the setting is, if you show me a mercenary management game the chances are that it’ll be a hit with me. And sure enough, I liked Wartales, too.
For the first 10 hours or so, anyway.
Unfortunately Wartales has a very immediate problem to overcome. It’s a mercenary management game set in a low fantasy2 world where you control a company of 5-20 mercenaries travelling around the land taking contracts and slaying bandits. You equip them, you feed them, you level them up, you decide where to go next and what you’ll do when you get there. Armour acts as an ablative extra layer of hitpoints that must be depleted in full before you can start chopping body parts off; damaged armour needs to be repaired after every battle using tools you carry around in your party inventory. Your attack abilities are determined by the weapon you have equipped – so a one-handed mace can be used to bop a single target over the head, but a two-handed mace swings in a wide arc in front of you that can hit multiple people. Your mercenaries need to be paid regularly; if they’re not paid, or you don’t feed them, they will get upset and leave.
Now, this all sounds perfectly fine on the face of it, and is pretty much what I expect when I play a mercenary management game. The problem Wartales has, though, is that this is also exactly what Battle Brothers did 6 years ago, almost to the letter, in almost exactly the same kind of setting. Battle Brothers is an excellent game that I keep meaning to put more time into, and in hindsight I’d rather have spent 40 hours replaying that instead of ploughing more and more effort into Wartales to try and see if it was actually going anywhere — but we’ll get to that in due course. The point is, the release version of Battle Brothers outclasses Wartales in almost every respect, and it’s only gotten better since then thanks to some unexpected DLC support. It has a much wider variety of equipment, giving you many more options in combat and choices around how to build your mercenaries. It has a much wider variety of enemies which require distinctly different approaches to defeat, ensuring that the repeated tactical battles are less likely to become dull. It has a much wider variety of contracts, and a much wider variety of music — in fact it has one of the best strategy game soundtracks of the last 10 years, which is really really important when you’re going to be listening to the battle music in particular for hours on end. (Wartales, by contrast, has 3 completely unremarkable battle tracks that you’ll be thoroughly sick of by the end of the first region.)
In the areas where Wartales can be directly compared to Battle Brothers, then, it feels incredibly basic. Some of this is the result of intentional design decisions, like the combat being a much lighter affair than the individual unit morale stats and armour penetration mechanics of Battle Brothers — I’ll break down the combat properly towards the end of the review, so for now I’ll just say that it’s much more along the lines of something like Expeditions Rome, or Original Sin 2 without the magic. Mostly, though, it feels like the result of a particularly scattershot game development approach, where the development team wanted to do a lot of things, did not have the time or resources to do all of them well or in a particularly joined-up way, and instead of cutting scope to focus on the most important ones they instead just decided to do all of them anyway and push them out of the door in a barely-MVP3 state. As a result Wartales comes across as a not-particularly-focused grab-bag of stuff, some of which works but a lot of which doesn’t, and which has no great unifying vision behind it — and so of course it comes off worse in comparison to Battle Brothers, which was built around its combat system from the ground up and so had a very clear mission statement: give the player interesting fights. (And I’m slightly shocked that that wasn’t also the priority for Wartales given how heavily it does end up leaning on the combat.)
As wasteful as this development approach might be, though, it does also mean that Wartales can come up with an answer to the question “Why should I play Wartales when Battle Brothers exists?” Because while it might be a grab-bag of features that don’t feed into each other in particularly interesting ways, it is a much larger bag than you might expect from one of these games and the chances are you’ll probably find something in there to hook your interest — at least to start with.
The camp is probably the best place to start when describing what else Wartales is doing to try and justify your time. When you’re walking around the world you have a fatigue bar at the top of the screen that’s ticking down. When it runs out, you need to rest; you need to feed your mercs during every rest period and pay them after every 3 rests. You can rest at any time by hitting the “Camp” button, which takes you to the camp screen. This starts out as just a simple fire with a workshop next to it as the only two pieces of equipment in your camp. Mercs can be assigned to each piece of camp equipment to get minor bonuses – the fire gives a happiness bonus for each merc next to it, while the workshop passively generates repair tools for fixing up your armour after a fight. Your mercenaries have set combat classes that determine which weapons they can use, but they also have a second gathering or crafting profession that you can pick and which they level up separately. If you have a Tinkerer in your company you can use the Workshop to craft minor sundries (lockpicks, ropes etc.) as well as other camp equipment – a Cooking Pot to reduce food requirements and which allows a mercenary with the Cook profession to produce more satisfying meals from the raw ingredients you acquire on your travels, or a Tent that grants more action points in battle the more mercenaries are sleeping in it, or a Hitching Post that increases the carrying capacity of your pack horses.
Adding new equipment to your camp and upgrading it to give bigger bonuses is key to building and supporting a bigger mercenary company. It’s not a massive part of the game beyond that as you basically just assign one appropriately-skilled merc to each piece of equipment and then put any excess into the Tent, but it is nice to see your progress as a company visually reflected somewhere as all of your mercs and horses and animal companions will be somewhere on the camp screen. Crafting and gathering is similarly basic-yet-impactful; you can find small amounts of raw materials while walking around in the overworld, but if you want big payoff of iron (for example) you visit a mine and get your Miner to play a clicking-on-the-circles minigame ripped straight out of an MMO circa 20104. If you want to catch some fish, you visit a fishing spot and get your Fisherman to play the exact same keep-the-bar-between-the-two-red-zones fishing minigame you can find in literally every other title with a fishing minigame out there. If you want your Bard to sing in a tavern, you get them to play Guitar Hero. (I am absolutely not joking about this.)
Now, obviously none of these things are at all innovative, but visiting dedicated resource nodes like this does add an extra level of consideration to your overworld travels beyond just beelining for the next contract marker, especially since the equipment that you can craft using these gathered resources is the best equipment available for whatever your current level is. Enemies do drop weapons and armour after a fight, but it’s invariably just placeholder stuff that will get you by until you can outfit everyone in Ghost Brigandine and give them Ghost weapons. They might be mechanically uninteresting, but engaging with these systems does lead to real, tangible increases in power for your mercenaries on the battlefield — it’s the bare minimum I’d ask of crafting/gathering in a videogame, but I see enough games completely fluff it that I’m nevertheless pleased that the Wartales implementation hits somewhere close to the mark.
Continuing on the theme of “mechanics that have been outright stolen from other games”, the way Wartales deals with the more criminal side of being a mercenary is straight out of Skyrim. If you have somebody with the Thief profession in your company you can send them in to steal expensive items from merchants in lieu of actually paying for them; Thieves are also the ones who open locked containers via the standard Elder Scrolls lockpicking minigame. Stealing items in this way raises a Suspicion meter, and once you go over 100 Suspicion you become Wanted and the previously-friendly guard patrols you find out in the overworld will start running up to you and challenging you; it must have been very difficult for the Wartales developers to not have these dialogues start with “Stop right there, criminal scum!” but they’ve somehow managed it. If you fight it out with guards your Suspicion rating goes up further to 200, 300, all the way up to 600, with each threshold spawning more guard patrols, and I’m similarly surprised that Shiro Games didn’t represent this visually with some kind of star system. Still, the fact that you can engage in some criminal activity without immediately triggering a response from the law is welcome; a Suspicion meter that’s completely empty is a resource that’s going unused, and so you might as well engage in a little bit of petty larceny just to save some money.
I like that Wartales succeeds in encouraging the player to be a bit of a dick, regardless of the mechanics used to get there being totally derivative; historical mercenary companies were absolutely infamous for this and so it’s part of the experience as far as I’m concerned. However there is a related mechanic that is entirely Wartales’ own that makes me a different kind of concerned, and this is the Prisoner mechanic. Each region on the world map has a Jail you can visit, either to recruit the prisoners already there or to buy sets of heavy chains; if you have chains in your party inventory you can attempt to capture wounded enemies during combat; if successful, you can take them back to a Jail and turn them in in exchange for a reduction in your Suspicion rating. Since most of the enemy mobs you fight are bandits and outlaws this does make a certain amount of sense, but the more I looked at this mechanic the more my own personal Suspicion rating started to creep up.
You see, there is not a single contract type that revolves around capturing enemies; it’s never a mission objective, and in 40 hours of playtime I’ve only been required to do it once as part of a region’s main questline. This was a bit weird, because there are dedicated structures you can build in your base to make prisoner management easier — but why is this necessary when you’re never asked to do it and you’re only going to be handling any prisoners you do take for a brief period until you dump them in a Jail? It took an embarrassingly long time for this to click, but became too obvious to ignore once I got to one of the later game regions and one of the NPCs in the Jail there was selling utility items you can give to prisoners to increase their carrying capacity as well as a schematic for a whipping post to improve their “performance”: these are supposed to be slaves. They have implemented slavery in the game and are hoping people won’t notice because they’ve changed the name. There’s even an achievement for whipping a “prisoner” to death, for crying out loud! The overriding obsession that developers of low fantasy games have with including dedicated slavery mechanics in their games5 continues to astonish me, as does the fact that not a single review of Wartales that I’ve read has seen fit to mention it.
That omission is probably more understandable in light of the game’s overworld design, though, which is the final way Wartales differs from Battle Brothers: instead of being randomly generated, Wartales’ world is entirely hand-crafted. Unfortunately, because Wartales really doesn’t have an original bone in its body, the design principles that Shiro have used to do so have been ripped straight out of a late-stage Ubisoft open world game like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and are therefore deeply tedious. The game world is split into regions, each with its own set of points of interest — denoted by the ubiquitous question mark icons — and main questline that you are strongly encouraged to complete before moving on to the next region. The points of interest are almost all incredibly shallow, being structures like windmills and farms that require you to do nothing more than a couple of conversation interactions with the NPCs there before the inevitable green tick appears indicating that the location has been completed; the one exception are the Tombs of the Ancients, which are a mix of dungeon crawling and puzzle-solving that I really did quite like, but there’s only one of those in each region. Meanwhile the main questlines are a series of five missions that each invariably involves killing a bunch of people, and your main goal in each region is to bulk up your mercenary company to the point where you’re capable of taking on all of those fights plus the the “bossfight” at the end (which is just a regular fight where one unit has a special weapon or something). And then it’s on to the next region, where…
…you get to do exactly the same thing all over again. The first three regions of Wartales — Tiltren, Arthes and Vertruse — are literally identical. They have the same terrain type of endless rolling fields and forests interspersed with the odd bit of mountain. They have the same points of interest; the same set of windmills and farms and mines and fisheries and abandoned towers, over and over again. They have the same enemy types — the fact that you only ever really fight human enemies is an absolutely massive problem for the game, as we shall shortly see when I get onto the combat — and you’ve seen all of them by the time you’re done with the first region. The only real difference is in the content of the region questlines, which are not substantial enough to make them in any way distinctive. I can’t really blame game reviewers who didn’t get far enough into the game to see all of the prisoner mechanic when it took me nearly forty hours to finish fighting my way through these three identikit regions. Then I dragged myself into the fourth region, Ludern, which was finally, finally somewhere different; I actually let out a sort of involuntary crazed half-laugh when I saw exactly what I was dealing with there, because it turns out Ludern is the game’s Swamp Level. I hate swamp levels. I did try to persevere, but the swampiness of it all, combined with the extreme repetitiveness of the game’s combat, had finally broken me.
The thing is, somewhat ironically given how much I’ve mentioned it, there’s not actually all that much to say about Wartales’s combat as the actual combat mechanics themselves are pretty spartan. Not bad as such, just very, very basic. Your mercenaries each get a movement allowance and a basic attack ability granted by their currently-equipped weapon that they can use once. They might also have an additional attack ability granted by their perk tree, but you’ll have to spend a Valour Point in order to use it; this is a global pool of action points that is used across your entire company and which is only replenished when the party rests in the overworld, and it would have introduced some moderately interesting resourcing decisions if the game didn’t also have about a billion ways to generate “temporary” Valour Points that ensure you’ll never not have access to your bonus abilities. Still, one set of movement and two attacks per turn, per mercenary, is not much – especially when your enemies all have bloated health bars (an equivalent-level enemy will have around 20-30% more HP and armour than a mercenary of the same class type outfitted in best-in-slot armour). You can have up to 20 “companions” in your troop, which can be mercenaries, pack horses or various types of animal that you’ve tamed, but I’m reasonably sure at this point that Wartales is adjusting enemy group sizes based on the number of human companions in my mercenary band, as they are almost always the same size as my group plus or minus one – so you’ll never be able to bring a numerical advantage to bear. And trading damage on equal terms with enemy patrols is a losing proposition; even if everyone survives, you’d lose so much armour that the repair cost would massively outweigh any benefits from winning the fight in the first place.
This is why the key aspect of Wartales combat isn’t about leveraging ability combos in clever ways, and neither is it about applying any of the numerous status effects available to you. Instead, Wartales combat is all about abusing the turn order to make sure that the enemy takes as few turns — and thus causes as little damage — as possible. I’ve yet to figure out how exactly the turn order works when one side does have a numerical advantage (which can happen in the enemy’s favour in some Hard contracts or main scenario battles, or in your favour in the later stages of a battle when you’ve killed most of the enemy), but since the sides are almost always equal to start with it’s quite easy to describe: you move one mercenary, then an enemy unit moves, then you move another mercenary, then another enemy unit moves, and so on. The trick is that the enemy turn order (i.e. the order the enemy units will move in) is set in advance, remains static throughout the turn, and can be viewed by you at any time — but you are not bound by any such restrictions, so when it’s your go you can move any mercenary you want.
So, here’s how a typical Wartales combat plays out (for my party, anyway). Enemy parties are usually split into two or more distinct groups on the battlefield, so I set my company up surrounding one of them – this means the other one will probably not be able to move into melee range on their first turn, effectively wasting it. In the group I have decided to kill first, I check which enemy is moving first. If it’s an enemy with too much armour to feasibly kill before they can move (usually a tanky shield unit of some kind), I send in my own shield users to Engage them; this locks them down and prevents them from attacking anyone else except my shield user, who has both passive and active damage reduction from the shield and will take only a few points of damage where one of my squishier units would take 20 or 30. This effectively removes them from the fight until I’m ready to deal with them. If the next enemy to move is a lightly armoured enemy, such as a rogue or an archer, then I kill them with a high-damage unit — archers are ideal for this, and axe users have a devastating area-effect alpha strike ability that can kill two or more enemy units with their first attack of the battle if the positioning is kind. If an enemy is killed before they can take their turn, they simply drop out of the turn order and it skips back to my turn again. I then repeat the process. As long as I haven’t fucked up my positioning on the initial deployment none of the lighter enemy units will ever survive to take their turn, and this makes fights much more tractable.
But it’s also substantially less interesting. Optimising my party to produce the devastating alpha strikes required to keep control of the turn order was a decent metagame problem for the first 10-15 hours of Wartales, but then I solved it. From that point on every battle has played out effectively the same way; it is a strategy that works against all equivalent-level human enemies and all roving packs of animals (wolves, boars and bears), and because there’s only ever one battle objective — kill all of the enemies — I never need to change it. All I need to worry about is making sure my equipment doesn’t become obsolete to the point that one-shotting weaker enemies is no longer possible. And the thing is, I’ve seen nothing to make me think that playing the game any other way is actually viable. The enemies, on the rare occasions when I am caught out of position and they manage to hit me properly, hit hard enough to convince me that I’d lose quite quickly in a stand-up fight – and it’s not like I’m wearing low-level armour, either! As far as I can tell this is how I’m supposed to be winning the combats.
So this is already not ideal; not only does the game have extremely limited enemy variety to start with, but there’s a one-size-fits-all strategy that’ll deal with every one of the few enemy types that it does have6. Here’s the kicker, though: my mercenary party is currently level 7. To get from level 7 to level 8 requires 3,500 XP. Fighting a group of level 7 enemies grants 60-70 XP. Quests and contracts do not grant XP rewards, and so there are no other sources of XP outside of random camp events (and those bonuses are only applied to one or two mercs, not the whole group). This means that in order to get to level 8, I need to fight 50-60 combats. And that’s just to advance one level; from the perk tree I see that it goes up to at least level 12, so if I stick with Wartales there are hundreds of these repetitive, solved combat encounters in my future.
(I just read this back over and just realised I didn’t mention the battle UI, which is absolutely awful. It doesn’t tell you which enemies you can hit from a position you’re thinking of moving to; it doesn’t allow takebacks if you’ve have moved somewhere and it turns out you can’t actually hit your desired target; it doesn’t have mercenary nameplates or any ability to zoom in or out, making it impossible to tell your mercenaries apart when they’re all dressed in the same best-in-slot armour sets; and the Move and End Turn buttons are 1) right next to each other and 2) exactly the same colour, making it very easy to accidentally end your turn instead of moving on to the next target. This is all really basic stuff that even full fat RPGs whose focus isn’t wholly on tactical strategy have had figured out for at least 5 years now, and a large part of my deciding to drop Wartales was not being able to face the prospect of dealing with these UI issues for another hundred combats.)
This means that I’ve very much reached the point where I decide that a game is no longer worth my time. I had some fun with Wartales in spite of everything; I’m never happier than when I’m untangling a set of systems, and Wartales has a lot of systems to untangle, no matter how derivative they might be. The novelty soon wore off, though, and it was a horrible disappointment to discover that the second region was basically the same as the first one, and that the third region was the same as the first two, and by the time Wartales had decided to show me something different it had completely burned through any currency it had built up with me; I was thoroughly sick and tired of nearly everything that it was doing, and I simply could not face the idea of playing it any more. If you want a satisfying low fantasy tactical strategy game, you should avoid Wartales and play the far superior Battle Brothers. Yes, even if you’ve played it already. Don’t make the same mistake I did of thinking Wartales might be meaningfully different in some way, because while it might have a few semi-interesting ideas around the edges it ultimately leans more heavily on its combat than Battle Brothers does — and here it’s far too insubstantial to support the amount of repetition demanded of it, to say nothing of the amount of repetition to be found in the rest of the game in general.
- We don’t talk about Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries. ↩
- “Low fantasy” is an increasingly nebulous distinction from “high fantasy” where the major dividing line seems to be around how much magic is involved. High fantasy worlds have a lot of magic – friendly elves, unicorns hanging around on street corners, magic talking swords, that kind of thing – while low fantasy worlds have very little and it is almost never in the hands of the protagonists. Game developers being game developers, though, they invariably read this as a directive to reproduce yet another tired knockoff version of 14th century Europe. So it is with Wartales. ↩
- “Minimum Viable Product”. Not “Most Valuable Player”. This confused me immensely when I got into software development a decade ago. ↩
- The reason I say this is because it’s literally the mining minigame from the original version of Final Fantasy 14. ↩
- Wartales is in good company as the last Battle Brothers DLC also helpfully included a Slaver origin for your mercenary outfit. It’s all fine now, though, since after some prerelease uproar they did a find-and-replace for “slaver” with “manhunter” and “slave” with “indebted”. ↩
- I did come across a few zombies in Ludern that released clouds of poison gas when they were hit, which I thought might have the potential to defeat this strategy because it made them quite difficult to lock down with melee units. Ultimately this just meant I took a bit more HP damage, though, and HP damage is cheaper to heal than armour is to repair. ↩