The first game from the young Sunburned Games based out of Spain, The Great Whale Road is a story-driven RPG that boasts rich lore, decision-making with consequences and meaningful historicity. It’s a breath of fresh air when held up to the light, worthy of the ranks of resource simulators such as The Curious Expedition and Oregon Trail, and brings with its colorful, placid aesthetic a surprisingly deep number of gameplay systems.
A game that claims to be story-driven is naturally dependent on not only the quality of its writing, but the raw amount of story content for the player to encounter. My expectations included “procedural” storytelling, with a handful of situations spit out at random, and linear stories with a few simple responses to droll events. I was pleasantly surprised to become engrossed in each story panel, where scenarios are as authentic and carefully-written as they are genuinely exciting (even dealing with a few missing chickens seemed like a serious matter). Responding feels like a meaningful choice every time, with each way to handle the situation clearly represented – and reinforced by NPCs with distinct personalities – and appropriate consequences that follow. Appealing to calls for sacrifices in the wake of misfortune might improve the loyalty of clan members, for example, while a more cut-and-dry approach might spare resources. Many of these instances occur in the first phase of each year, winter, after the player has distributed some workload parameters for villagers during winter planning.
Gameplay takes place in three separate modes: staying at villages, sailing, and battling. When the cold winter is over, it’s time to pick a quest from the Journal and set sail. Mimicking the game’s story content, its visual art excels in respect to both breadth and quality. Villages like this, for example, abound – each with its own art work and thematic focus – and each location’s beautiful visuals and varying weather effects make it a worthwhile trip. At villages, players can shop for general supplies such as food, purchase upgrades for their warriors’ weapons and armor, recover their warriors’ stats and hunt for a chance to stock up on more food for the journey. This is also where quest events happen once the player has reached their trip’s destination. Villages are my favorite part of the game; I like seeing the new locations with familiar architecture, because every little village contributes to what the game captures most about this time period – a simpler time with fewer people, scattered but united in practical and cultural sameness.
Sailing is much like winter in the home village. The main concern is almost always having enough food to last clan members, and several consecutive decision events and visual differences (time of day, locale, weather) help pass the time between villages. More than just peaceful and nice to look at, sailing gets really boring after a few journeys, with events starting to repeat and wait times becoming increasingly painful. As I began to understand the quest system more, sailing seemed to take longer, and I found myself arbitrarily making decisions in hopes of passing the time faster.
In the third mode of play, the player engages with various enemies in turn-based battle sequences. While it seems the focal game mode of The Great Whale Road, combat is rough at this stage of development (version 0.3.2), and I see it more fit to judge designer’s intent rather than execution. Battles are won or lost strictly on the terms of killing leaders. Three cards are always available to the player, many of which provide boosts to defense and attack stats for certain types of warriors, and a few allow the player to place members of their group on the board. This system of adding group members is difficult to deal with, particularly due to the rareness of receiving more than one or two of such cards. Meanwhile, the enemy places more warriors on the board every turn, progressively stacking the odds against the player. Most victories I was able to garner in around 4 hours with this system (there weren’t many) were won through luck – receiving warrior cards to play – and the strategy of avoiding enemy warriors while surrounding the enemy leader with my units, and hoping that I could kill him before my leader fell. At this time, combat feels slow, unexciting and a bit unfair – but with the frequent and meaningful updates coming from Sunburned Games, I’m confident its balancing issues will be ironed out by release.
This game has more than enough potential to be an epic, Oregon-Trail-esque strategy adventure like no other, and its shortcomings are hugely outshone by a dedicated team of developers. Check it out on Steam, where Sunburned Games promises full stories for three more cultures, more complexity for combat and trading, and much more content all by this winter.
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