The Great Whale Road is an interactive narrative game, with some lite-RPG and resource management aspects which also features turn-based tactical combat that is firmly set - thematically speaking - during the Viking Age.
The Great Whale Road is described by its creators – Sunburned Games – as a story-driven tactical RPG. While that description does a good job at condensing the game’s main characteristics into as few words as possible, it doesn’t really describe to the fullest what type of game The Great Whale Road actually is. That’s what this review will do, so pack a lunch and your favorite beverage, we’re going exploring The Great Whale Road.
An expanded short description of The Great Whale Road would be that it is an interactive narrative game, with some lite-RPG and resource management aspects which also features turn-based tactical combat that is firmly set – thematically speaking – during the Viking Age.
You take on the leadership of a Nordic village and in the final version of the game you’ll have a choice of three major Viking era cultures but in the current Early Access build you only have access to playing the Danes. Which is something that I would’ve most likely done anyway, seeing as how I live in Denmark, so that’s great for me.
Lite RPG and resource management aspects
As the leader you will be in charge of appointing your available manpower to take care of the various aspects of village life each year. Obviously, depending on the circumstances, as well as on what you plan to do in the following year, you can focus more on some parts and less or none at all on some others.
Similarly you are the one who decides how much of anything you take with you on the ship while exploring.
You also decide which other characters, or Heroes, you take with you on adventures as part of your warband. Each hero has a particular type of specialization or proficiency and you need to play to their strengths in order to succeed however, you can outfit them with different weapons and armor.
Combat is turn-based, takes place on a hex grid – thank Odin the Wanderer for that – and makes use of playing cards as a means of buffing your party. Each Hero comes with a set of three cards, which cannot be changed, these are part of his or her specialization. All of the party’s cards get shuffled together and you can never have more than three in your hand at any given time.
Nothing out of the ordinary really, but the thing is, your Heroes are also cards which have to be played in order to have them take part in the action. This means that success in combat is extremely dependent on your luck of the draw, if you don’t draw at least two of your Hero cards in the first two turns, you’re kinda fucked. Your only hope is that the enemy also has had shit luck with his draw and make use of the Shuffle Card mechanic.
The Shuffle Card button allows you to shuffle your cards back into your deck and draw new ones on your next turn. This is a much easier thing to do than you might initially think because all ability cards can only be played from a particular turn onward, so if this is turn 1 and you have two turn 5 cards in your hand then you can, and should, reshuffle them, for a chance at getting some Hero cards next turn, or at least some lower numbered cards.
This being said, the combat itself is very exciting, the main goal being to defeat the enemy leader and keep yours alive. You can end fights where you’re outnumbered as long as you defeat their leader first.
Also defeat doesn’t mean death – despite what the animations show – just a decrease in health for those injured and a decrease in morale.
Healing and regaining morale is then done whenever you get to a settlement and can spend some days feasting and sleeping.
Interactive narrative games, or games that focus strongly on storytelling as a gameplay mechanic, tend to live or die by how well they can impart to their players their choice of theme and how well they create a genuine atmosphere.
In the realm of video games this is done by using sight and sound. In this case, the choice of art style and direction and the music and sound effects.
This is why I am glad that Sunburned Games took their time and created what seems to be a pretty clear art direction, all the various parts of the game fit great together in terms of art style. Not overly-detailed, because I imagine drawing and coloring all of those assets and backgrounds was neither cheap nor quick, but not simplistic either, The Great Whale Road’s illustrations and art style do more than enough in terms of creating a believable visual atmosphere.
But one cannot talk about atmosphere – whether we’re talking about a movie or a videogame – and ignore the other major part of it: sound.
The music in The Great Whale Road does nothing but the best of jobs to immerse the player into the viking era. While the game may lack voice actors overall, the music more than makes up for this. The individual tracks are as different as the various game mechanics are but at the same time they have a clear direction and inspiration, they fit together well.
The instrumental songs, created by Victor Riera, make use of string and air instruments, both of which we tend to associate strongly with the overall Middle Ages. They never feel repetitive or boring, even when the music loops during long sea voyages and I think the Great Whale Road soundtrack would be a good addition to your tabletop RPG session’s background music. In fact, you’ve been listening to my favorite one on a loop all throughout this video.
Now all of this being said, The Great Whale Road just launched into Early Access on Steam so I expect a lot of things to be changed and rebalanced as time goes on and as the devs get more feedback from the community. Not to mention that I’m looking forward to a crap-tonne more content to be added, but what is available at the moment is more than just promising, it’s a pretty solid gaming experience already which can only get bigger and better.