Short of Greatness
Before getting in to the review proper, a few word about the state of the game wouldn’t go amiss. This is a press preview for The Great Whale Road which, as of writing, is yet to join the ranks of Steam Early Access. It’s therefore important to remember, when considering this review, the following:
- This is only a roughly three hour preview of what the whole game will, presumably, be.
- This is a very early iteration of the game.
So, bearing that in mind, what exactly is The Great Whale Road?
The obvious comparison is The Banner Saga, and it’s clear that The Great Whale Road draws a tremendous amount of inspiration from the Norse mythology, player-guided narrative and hand-drawn aesthetic for which the former release was widely praised.You play as a clan of Viking warriors from the adorable hamlet of Úlfarrsted. This is your home, and, as the game keenly reminds us, “Everyone is someone at home”. What that actually means is anyone’s guess, but there is something of a confounding warmth and pleasantness to a lot of the game’s more exuberant appropriations of the English language.
Here the game introduces us to clan upkeep: the strategy-light segment in which ‘focus points’ can be spent in various areas including farming and diplomacy. I mention those two because, in all honesty, I saw no real need to put points anywhere else. When the full release comes around, it’s entirely likely that the tactics here may well gain a little depth. As it stands, the clan management seems little more than an afterthought, subsidiary to journeying and battling.Let’s talk a little about journeying. Before setting off, you need to take a group of four adventurers with you and stock the ship with enough tasty morsels to keep them and the crew well-fed. Or, at least, somewhat fed. Other items, like supplies to keep the ship repaired, can also be brought aboard but seem far, far less important.
Once your crew has set sail, it will be a while before you reach your destination. The ship will pass multiple optional stopping off points on the way, where the crew can rest, trade, or hunt for extra food. Apart from these, your sea-faring escapades will be interspersed by random events requiring the player to make a choice. These can involve deciding whether to hail a passing ship or to flee, whether to burn the rat-infested food stocks or to smash the rats with a club, or the resolution of any other high-stakes scenario. The mechanic adds a little tension to sailing along the coastline, and having members of your crew offer up unique opinions complements the character-driven narrative, but as an attempt to alleviate the tedium of long-distance travel, it’s entirely insufficient.
According to Steam playtime figures, this press preview lasted just under three hours, and it has to be said that, for all that I think is admirable about the game, every minute of rowing felt like a lifetime. This was made all the more excruciating when in the midst of a tiresome journey to Hama, a settlement which at times seemed like it was actively retreating due to some tectonic mischief, I had to quit the game and get to some real-life happenings. Upon coming back to the game and pressing continue, I found myself sailing past Trabjerg. In order to understand the considerable consternation with which I greeted this news, please refer to the following map.I had left off somewhere around the town of Oomram, travelling south. I rejoined all the way to the north of the continent, still travelling south. I felt like one of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians – only instead of travelling freely through moments in a lifetime, I was somehow travelling freely between game save states. There’s no way to even go that far north at any point in the preview; how on Earth did this happen?
This is just one of a number of bugs, ranging in severity from slight graphical blurring to periods of a complete lack of UI responsiveness and semi-frequent crashing.
Let’s get onto the game’s combat, which, while far from perfect, is one of its strengths. The only objective is to kill the opposing leader. The two head honcho pawns stand on either side of a hexagonal-spaced battlefield, the player draws three cards, and the first turn begins. Cards can either be additional members of the squad who can be deployed on the battlefield or ‘warcry’ cards, which can power up characters as long as the current turn is higher than the card’s turn requirement. Cards can also be shuffled into the deck, freeing up space for the next hand to include a more useful card.The actual fighting is a simplified, brutal, Viking-eviscerating version of chess, where positioning can be every bit as important as the assault. Characters can either defend or attack and have a percentage chance for hitting. How exactly these percentages are calculated is unclear, although it seems to be purely based on the weapon used and is unaffected by contextual considerations like flanking.
It’s a system which, while easy to pick up, has an element of strategic depth that the game otherwise lacks. There are no customisation options to the deck, and the element of luck means that battle difficulty can vary wildly, but with a some fine tuning this battle system could very well define The Great Whale Road.
Moving to aesthetics, where the Banner Saga inspirations are most evident. It’s a shame when comparing to that high water mark because it’s difficult to see how this game could ever compete. That’s not to say that there’s nothing praiseworthy with regards to the art style. The beautiful hand-drawn scenes can only be disparaged by referring to their lack of variety – particularly the settlements, which change very little from place to place. The soundtrack is also thematically consistent with a slightly brooding, understated melody. That is, when the soundtrack actually works. Sometimes it doesn’t, and there’s just silence. Honestly, that’s probably a very good point at which to end this review.
The Great Whale Road is an immensely flawed release, which, while clearly containing a lot of heart, simply can not be recommended in its current incarnation. The take away from this review? Watch this space.