OPINION | GAME ON: Your grizzled ‘Wartales’ mercenaries seek fortune in post-plague open world

WarTales is an open world role-playing video game in which players recruit and lead a band of mercenaries in post-plague medieval strife. (Courtesy of Shiro Games)
WarTales is an open world role-playing video game in which players recruit and lead a band of mercenaries in post-plague medieval strife. (Courtesy of Shiro Games)

I'm totally a sucker for open world role-playing games where you control a medieval mercenary group, and a recent entry into this genre, "Wartales," does a pretty good job at scratching that itch.

In "Wartales," your fighters are neither noble heroes nor chosen ones with epic destinies. In a very low fantasy world, your men are little more than brigands, wielding poorly made bows, spears, axes, hammers and knives. But that's only for now — fight bandits, collect resources, ransom prisoners, trade, complete bounties and solve problems, and soon you'll have a grizzled, veteran band of stone-cold killers ready to meet any challenge.

Your band is striking out for themselves in a time of great upheaval. The Edoran empire has fallen victim to plague, and refugees and bandits are flooding the land. While still in Early Access on Steam, "Wartales" is a mercenary management game that shows a lot of promise.

There's a lot to do in "Wartales," and a lot of freedom in how it gets done, but nothing comes easy. As you move around, your band will become tired and need to rest. Camp, and they'll need food. And of course they need to be paid, too. Damaged armor needs to be mended, injured soldiers need to be healed. What sets "Wartales" apart, though, is the freedom it gives in how players approach the game.

There are many classes to play -- your soldiers can be swordsmen, spearmen, rangers, archers, brutes or warriors, and each class has three subclasses to choose from as they level up, with immense customization available. The combination of weapon load-outs, fighting styles and skill-tree selections means there are many approaches to the game.

As far as I can tell, there's really no limit to the size of the mercenary band, but each new recruit costs wages and eats food (which costs money, too).

Combat is a satisfying tactical, turn-based affair, with an unusual mechanic where directly attacking an enemy locks it into combat with your mercenary, allowing your other units to flank and deal extra damage while the enemy's forced to focus on a beefier unit. But of course, the enemy can do the same thing to you.

A turn counter lets you know the order in which units act, adding to the strategy needed to win fights.

Fights can run too long in "Wartales," especially if the "free" (and not "region-locked") campaign setting is turned on. In region-locked, enemies are weaker in the place where you start and get stronger the farther you travel. Go into a neighboring area too soon, and you'll be overwhelmed.

In free mode, enemies will always scale with you. The more units and levels you have, the tougher the foe, which can lead to protracted battles where the AI brings dozens and dozens of enemies at once. The fights aren't unwinnable, they just take a long time to finish.

As your band levels up, you'll select a captain, who will gain special abilities, and also lieutenants. You can also add nonhuman members to your war band. Your starting four also have a pony, and as it levels up, you get a choice between keeping it strictly noncombat or turning it into a war pony that fights in combat with you.

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And that's not the only animal companion possible -- the game lets you discover this on your own, but if you have rope in your inventory when an enemy animal, such as a wolf, boar or bear is low on health, you can tie it up and then add it to your team. There's a beastmaster subclass designed to synergize with having animals on the team.

"Wartales" is still a work in progress, but the developers have laid out a road map of what changes are coming, such as new areas, more ruins to explore and arenas for your team to fight in. Coming soon is also the ability to play with friends in a cooperative mode.

It's hard to wholeheartedly recommend buying this game right now, when some in-game ability descriptions still say "Coming soon," but I'm still having a lot of fun playing, and it's got a lot of promise.

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