Wartales Review: Life as a Mercenary Is Hard (in a Fun Way)

Wartales people on cliff with N4G originals on the top right

Wartales is a mercenary party strategy game released by Shiro Games, the developer behind titles such as Evoland and Northgard. The game had been in early access for a while but is now ready to show its final form with its 1.0 release.

Those who have played Northgard will see some of Shiro Games’ earlier influences at work, with some similarities to the top-down camera medieval-based strategy game Northgard was, but WarTales departs heavily from there. Mercenary life isn’t easy, and the game is prepared to show it with more punishing combat, a darker tone, and a more realistic world narrative, focusing on larger-scale socio-economic problems rather than a character-driven narrative.

Visual Design

A mercenary party in WarTales visiting a village.
Image via Shiro Games

The visual design from the top-down perspective of the world is very good, sometimes even stunning. Weather effects look spectacular, with snowstorms limiting your vision as the snow drives, or fog banks that slowly spread in the dead of night, ghostly howls emitting from within. The world is beautiful as you traverse it, and the interiors of the buildings receive the same attention.

These interiors, while often dimly lit, are very expressive, and incredibly detailed. However, once we get the to NPCs that populate these spaces, the design falters a bit.

In combat, the problems aren’t too noticeable. The models aren’t too bad from afar, and the weapon skills and effects, while muted, are still solid. It’s when we get close to the characters that the game loses a bit of polish. The characters themselves all seem very flat, and it gets hard to distinguish between any of them. The combination of samey-looking faces with outfits that don’t have many design choices means that your party members can all start looking similar fast.

Pair this with the lack of voice acting, and all the NPCs start to blur together. While the world is wonderful and vibrant, the NPCs and armor design drag it down.

Visual Design: 3/5

Narrative Design

While you would think that the sameness of the NPCs would hurt the narrative of WarTales, this aspect of the game manages to succeed despite that.

WarTales tells two stories: The story of the world and the story of your mercenary band. While these often overlap, there are distinct mechanics in place that make you feel like you are being part of a larger world story while still finding ways to endear you to your cast of misfits. The story of WarTales generally deals with larger, non-individual issues.

In the first area of the game that I played, Tiltren County, you are mainly dealing with a refugee crisis where you can choose to help the refugees find a spot to settle, or help the people of Tiltren County defend themselves from the bandits and thieves some of the refugees have been forced to become.

While there are characters that play somewhat prolonged roles in this narrative, the focus is usually on the bigger picture, such as how the refugees as a whole are being treated, and how the village of Stromkapp plans to respond. The sameness of the NPCs doesn’t bog us down because the focus is on the larger-scale problems issued to us.

In this way, the game does a solid job of telling a large-scale story and allowing players involvement in it without it being character driven.

For those who prefer character development, don’t worry. There’s still plenty of RPG goodness in here for you. Several systems directly impact your adventuring group, like group happiness, intergroup relationships, random events for specific members, and more.

The game does a great job of threading in small character moments between gameplay beats. Perhaps your frontline tank got a title for their heroics in combat or maybe your rogue is still nursing a grudge from that one time your ranger hit her with an arrow.

Many systems like these do a great job of making your party feel alive, adding the character that the main story generally misses. Overall, the combination of these two types of storytelling pair together well, and give players a solid narrative experience.

Narrative: 4/5

Combat Design

A mercenary group fighting boar in WarTales.
Image via Shiro Games

The combat in this game is where WarTales shines, a gritty, dangerous dance that can go south quickly for the unprepared. This turn-based game takes influences from TTRPGs and 4X games alike to bring us an interesting, and often difficult, experience.

You command your party members individually, having each unit move and act in a turn order against the enemy units. Fights with enemies become engagements, where units can become focused on one another, and attempting to distance yourself means a free attack of opportunity for your opponent. Characters stuck in engagement must face their foes, meaning their backs are open for critical hits. Valor Points, the resource used for your mercenaries’ abilities, are limited, resulting in a slower-paced, more methodical fight.

All these facets come together to make a combat system that feels incredibly tactical, forcing you to constantly be aware of the ever-changing state of the battlefield to survive.

Add in a good number of characters and classes, each with unique skills to unlock and strategies to try, and you’ll find yourself having a great time. It’s even fun as your mercenaries die, never to be played again.

Combat: 4.5/5

Systems Design

WarTales has several different systems in place to add depth to your journey, from professions and crafting to latent party buffs and destiny paths. There are so many interesting goals to work toward, but the problem here is that the game does little to introduce you to them.

I knew Valor points could be restored at each rest, but I had no clue that valor points generated in battle wouldn’t carry over to the next. I knew that professions were important, but the game didn’t tell me what they were, or that I would have to unlock them each before assigning them to mercenaries.

Did you know that you can promote mercenaries to leadership positions? I didn’t until it happened. Did you know how to catch animals and add them to your party? I had to look it up to figure it out. WarTales is full of great systems that add extra depth and personalization to a journey, but the it’s on the player to find out anything about them.

A little onboarding can go a long way, and its absence hurts Wartales.

Systems: 2.5/5

Verdict – Sometimes Confusing, but Mostly a Good Time

At the end of the day, WarTales provides players with an enjoyable hardcore experience. There are enough RPG elements involved to get you connected to your mercenaries, which makes it hurt all the more when they die due to a small mistake you made in combat.

The game can be difficult, sometimes due to confusion and lack of explanation, but once the learning curve is passed, it becomes a much more fair type of challenge. This game may not be for everyone, but those looking for a highly tactical strategy game with some hardcore flair will find a mountain of content to enjoy.

We received a review copy for Steam.

The Wartales review banner with 3.5 hearts shaded red.
Image by N4G Unlocked

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