Sit down, wherever you are. Find a spot beside a campfire, around a space heater or on the 15-year old futon in your friend’s dad’s basement, and get comfortable. It’s time for a story.
Worldwalker Games’ debut bears few of the hallmarks of an overnight success: no jaw-slackening visuals, no Twitch-friendly multiplayer mode, no attractive protagonists. The elevator pitch is fine, if hardly likely to set hearts aflame: a story-led tactical RPG based on Dungeons & Dragons. OK, so what else? Well, plenty, as it turns out. Wildermyth is remarkable: it’s the product of a thousand smart decisions, the kind of game that knows what you want before you do, and gives you what you never knew you needed besides. And it is unapologetically earnest, from the tip of its +1 magic staff to the toes of its leather boots of swiftness.
Adventures here are divided into serialised campaigns (think of them as short stories) with a randomised cast of beady eyed and bushy tailed heroes. Worldwalker Games has no interest in recreating the tedious sixblock Good/Neutral/Evil grid from the D&D campaigns of old. Instead we have a selection of basic traits: Hothead, Goofball, Coward, Romantic. Everybody gets two each, along with a class of warrior, hunter or mystic.
But they aren’t really people, not yet. What they are is narrative scaffolding, a few delicately connected tropes and ideas. It’s your decisions over the course of the campaign that bring them to life, and the same applies to the story. You’ve always got a broad goal and a Bad Thing to stop eventually, but there are a thousand ways to get there: a host of sidequests, interpersonal dramas and little narrative byways to explore. Midway through an interlude, the illustrated panels suddenly split into two or three. Are these characters friends, lovers or rivals? Should you drink from that mystical chalice or leave it be? One spur-of-the-moment choice can send everything spinning out in a new direction. One mistake might close off a certain avenue forever.
Between the story segments, your main task is to open up the map, scouting new land, clearing out pillaging monsters, and expanding the territory of the human race. Time is always ticking in Wildermyth, and if you dither too long the enemy will gain the upper hand. So you divide up the tasks: one hero builds a bridge, one recovers from their injury at home, and the remaining two forge on into hostile territory, encountering sidequests that might strengthen or change their relationship. Every decision is difficult and interesting and ripe with narrative potential.
Typically, you will make it to the final confrontation just in time, with sufficient strength to take on the threat and conclude the chapter. You earn some upgrades and a few ‘years of peace’. This is one of the tools Wildermyth uses to stake a claim to your heart. Instead of skipping to the next big story beat, it shows a montage of everybody in the party keeping busy during the intervening time. Some might start a business, others a family. We see the landscape shift around them. And when you come back in the next chapter, they have visibly aged. Over several breaks and several chapters, this sense of time flowing by is keenly felt. When the characters look back and wonder at how long ago it all began, we can’t help but look back and wonder, too. These aren’t kids with pitchforks any more. Sure, they have cool outfits and crazy mutations, but they’re also battle-scarred and greying at the temples.
None of this would work without consistently strong writing. Neither perfunctory nor self-indulgent, it instead relishes in the atmosphere, the mystery, the plain old fun of a high-fantasy world. Dialogue flows in naturalistic fashion, while the descriptive passages border on poetry. As our hero explores a ruin looking for treasure, the narrator notes that ‘What lodges amid the bones of failure is often the dream that drove it.’
Prose like that could carry a whole game, but happily the combat is just as absorbing. Each character has a distinct weight, blows have impact, and you can take a broad variety of approaches depending on how the party is assembled and what kind of environment they’re fighting in. An oak tree might go from an archer’s cover to a mystic’s weapon at a moment’s notice, and fire can be a weapon or a problem depending on who’s nearby. Branching upgrades will shake up your approach, creating power partnerships with complementary abilities, or forcing sedentary fighters out into the open.
Best of all is how the storytelling bleeds into the battles. After one sidequest, a shy mystic formerly content to crouch behind cover takes a more proactive role in combat, owing to her newly grown wolf claws. A few chapters later that same character leaps in to take a blow in place of her son. If a character is defeated they can either survive at a cost, or go out in a blaze of glory. Either way, the story will coalesce around your errors. Injured characters carry on with a knock to their stats and a fresh eyepatch. Graves remain for the dead.
These graves complete the final piece of the puzzle: the legacy system. Characters who’ve been memorialised (or made it to the end of the journey alive) enter your ‘legacy’, a personal pantheon of heroes who can be reintroduced in different roles in later campaigns. They crop up and vanish like mythical demigods, gradually growing in strength as they weave themselves deeper into Wildermyth’s tapestry. It’s a lovely acknowledgement of the way folk stories actually function. They don’t conclude so much as reform, regrow, adapt like an organism from page to page, mind to mind, enduring like the memory of the people we’ve loved and lost. As long as we keep dreaming them up, their story will never end. There’s always another campfire.
The kind of game that knows what you want before you do, and gives you what you never knew you needed besides