Wartales is an open-world role-playing game set in a medieval world, where I control a band of mercenaries as they get on that grindset mindset and make some tough moral choices. That pitch sounds pretty good in and of itself – I’ve rarely found a big fantasy world full of treasure that I haven’t wanted to loot. But the real draw of Wartales is its excellent co-op play, scratching an itch I haven’t had scratched since Divinity: Original Sin 2.
In Wartales, I pick a humble origin for my party. Perhaps we’re a bunch of farmers trying to find a better life, or some deserters fleeing an abusive captain’s lash. Luckily, we’re in a war-torn land full of refugees, property disputes, roving gangs of bandits, and nests packed to the brim with plague-ridden rats. Someone has to take care of all these problems, and I’m happy to do so in exchange for cash, reputation bonuses, and better equipment.
In a single-player game, I control every member of my party. In a co-op game, we split the load. In a game with my husband, we divvy things up half and half; in another game with three other pals, we each take control over one mercenary to start. It’s easy to start a game of WarTales, which is generous about saving progress and making restarts simple.
While things have occasionally bugged or the host dropped, it would only take seconds to get the group back together. It’s not exactly a drop-in and drop-out kind of game; we gotta get the whole crew together before we can start. But that’s OK. It gives Wartales the feel of a regular tabletop campaign without the stress of having to rustle up a DM. We can set out on the roads with some new quests in hand, ready to kick ass and cook boar... and we’re all out of salt.
From there, we chat amongst ourselves, occasionally stopping to make a decision. Should we recruit this new archer from the tavern, or save the gold for a rainy day? Is the landlord who wants to keep his lumber mill in the right, or should we beat him up and let some kindly refugees take over the place? Should we pay for that valuable ore, or steal it and risk earning the ire of the law?
The game expects some level of cooperation and accord; you’re bound to your partners as you travel across the overworld. When a choice prompt comes up, or when the players need to leave a menu, everyone needs to click. A rogue agent can force the party’s hand by clicking and holding for a few seconds. In the interest of harmony, our group of friends stops to consider every choice. This is where the role-play comes in, as things are usually a little more nuanced than “punch a villager” or “rout a mean bandit.” Instead, we have to consider whether to respect the local folklore, determine the morals of property rights, and decide the fate of each region in turn.
These garden variety troubles escalate, turning from grumpy serfs and property right disputes to challenges more befitting a band of fantasy heroes. The first couple of zones are relatively tranquil, which felt a little slow in single-player – but the curve makes for a perfect pace for co-op. There are also options to make the game less linear by switching the difficulty to scale based on your exploration; two runs can feel quite different, depending on your choices.
While trading and talking work, sometimes you just gotta scrap it out on the battlefield. Each fight is a top-down battle on a grid; moving each mercenary into the right position is critical. We can flank enemies for bonuses, time our turns to dish out the most amount of damage, and dodge environmental effects like falling rocks or bolts of lightning. If we’re not careful, we can lose one of our mercenaries, who are valuable investments as they pick up experience, talents, and specializations.
There are a few annoyances – going to town with a full load of cargo and 10 small tasks can turn into a headache as everyone clicks around, trying to complete their business. You also have to get everyone loaded up into the same lobby to play, so it can take some time to figure out an exact group. If you start a game with friends and another pal wants to join up later, you’ll have to start over to add them in. I had to play through the intro zone three or four times as I figured that out.
But co-op RPGs are a rare treat, so these mild hurdles are nothing compared to the delight I’ve found in Wartales. The story’s a little thin for a single-player game, but it’s the perfect amount of voice acting and text to read through while chatting on Discord with friends. I’m excited to see how our adventures develop when we hit the trail next.
WarTales is available on Steam for $34.99, and a good deal of game has been added over the course of its early access period. It’s worth checking out, especially if you have a hankering for a social game with a reliable group of friends.