Remarked upon by some for having gameplay concepts similar to The Banner Saga, The Great Whale Road is a turn-based roleplaying game from indie developer Sunburned Games. Taking charge of a Danish village after its previous chief and warriors were killed, you’ll travel the Whale Road — the dangerous sea around the coast of Scandinavia — every year to keep your village alive and fulfil an oath.
The reality of living here means that nothing meaningful can be accomplished during the winter. So anything you need to do has to be done in the summer months, when you can safely leave harbour and start gathering supplies for the long dark ahead. In terms of mechanics, this means gameplay is split in two: winter preparation and summer travel.
Winter preparation is swift and managerial. Starting from a set population of villagers, you assign each to various tasks over the coming winter. Food is the most pressing concern and husbandry, hunting and farming each contribute to this. Farming can’t occur over the winter, though, and neither the tutorial nor gameplay itself makes it clear when summer production takes place. Other tasks produce trade goods or increase happiness, military strength and trade diplomacy.
Once you’ve assigned all of your villagers to tasks, you can upgrade parts of your village using materials gathered over the summer. Unfortunately the tutorial doesn’t explain how to upgrade buildings and the runic symbol used for the upgrade icon just looks like a piece of decoration until you click it. By that point, you may have already done several quests, have diminished your food supplies and, with all the years that have passed, are very far behind. Not only that, but you’ll have missed out on accumulating ship upgrades which would let you bring more warriors on quests.
The remaining days of winter pass without incident, for the most part, but you’ll get a few random events. Some involve your warriors (or heroes) and may trigger new quests for the coming summer, but most are small events that can modify resource levels or lead to battle depending on the option you pick. It may be that the warriors you take with you in these battles are randomised, but you certainly don’t get the opportunity to pick them yourself.
Then the last day of winter arrives and with it, a detailed break-down of your village’s resource consumption and production. You’ll find that your actual yield from all tasks is much lower than your ‘expected’ yield, although it’s never quite explained whether this expected yield is based on fully upgraded buildings or the maximum value of a random number generator. In any case, it makes it difficult to estimate how many people to allocate in the planning stage to keep your food levels up.
Closing the stats screen will take you to your summer village scene and it’s from here that you can check your stores, level up your warriors and purchase new weapons and armour. A glance at your journal will let you know which quests you have available and with those in mind, you can select a destination on the map and set off, making sure to take food and goods with you (limited by weight).
And so you set off on your first sea voyage, accompanied by three of your chosen companions. It’s a little annoying that you can only travel to locations where you have quests (often these places are different than the location listed in the journal because you end up sailing there in the quest chain, but it can be confusing). It feels like it would make more sense to select a destination each time you leave a village and use travel time to decide when summer ends rather than automatically end it at the end of each quest. As it is, you’re forced to travel along the coast until you reach your final destination and finish your quest, then you’re sent back home.
When travelling, you see an animation of your ship moving up the coast as days pass by. Each day there’s a chance to have a random encounter. The response you choose in this situation could affect the morale and loyalty of you crew, diminish food supplies or lead to combat and while there are several different situations, they become repetitive after a while and you always end up picking the same options. The only break in these template events is when you get a quest or companion-specific event, but these are of course rarer.
As you travel you can check the map and your journal and every time you discover a new location on the coast not only will it be added to your map, but you can stop there. In most, you can rest, relax, heal, hunt and trade. Resting and hunting are mercifully free and are the most useful actions to take in villages. Trading is useful, but feels like a weak mechanic. If you go over your inventory limit from combat or hunting while in a settlement, there’s no option to sell the excess and weapons and armour seem overpriced considering the rate at which enemy gear improves.
Quests appear as special markers in the village scene once you reach the right location and you can usually rest before clicking on them to begin the quest stage. Sometimes the events can be resolved diplomatically, but sometimes it leads to combat. In one quest you can even be stripped of all your money and not be able to do much to stop it, which would be fine if you were able to leave some money each time you travelled. It gets particularly confusing because the game never tells you why it takes away something like that until you leave the village, after it’s already applied the effect.
There are currently a few bugs which may prevent quests markers from appearing and subsequently require the loading of previous save villages. When this happens, it often results in reverting back to the end of winter and playing through the entire quest again. The developers are active on the forums, however, and do release patches for bugs like this very quickly.
Combat is without a doubt the best part of this game and although it does have some balancing issues, its core system is sound. Movement works via a hex system, there are several character classes and each has different weapons and abilities. These abilities can be activated using points from a pool which recovers each time you kill an enemy and they feel great to use, especially when you reach higher tier abilities.
Unfortunately, the enemies you encounter can be pretty tough to beat and not necessarily in a good way. Each enemy group has a leader which can call in reinforcements once every round (it may be limited by a points pool) to help in the fight. The tutorial states that the call for reinforcements can be interrupted with enough damage, but experience says that you only solve the problem by killing the leader. In some situations this can get very frustrating — impossible to deal with without getting swamped. And yet there’s only one difficulty setting.
It isn’t helped by the fact that you can only take four heroes with you. Ship upgrades improve capacity, but that’s no consolation at the beginning of the game. Not all of your heroes join you at the start of the battle, either. Whether the character likes you or not dictates what turn of the battle you will be able to call them in. It’s a cool mechanic, but it would be nice to see something similar (and possibly randomised) on the enemy’s side for balance.
Fights don’t appear to be adjusted based on the average level of your heroes, so it quickly becomes a bad idea to take lower-level heroes into combat. Even when some characters are locked into going on missions, many heroes will be left behind the others.
One mechanic that doesn’t make real-world sense but fits in well within the combat system is the ability to instantly restore broken shields. This governs damage protection (DP) and is separate from health. Some weapon types are able to get past this, but keeping an eye on DP is the way to go if you want to absorb damage. The fact that enemies can do the same serves to make battles more interesting, sacrificing the health or life of a hero for a sure kill. Battles where you only have to kill the leader to win are more straightforward – it’s only ‘kill them all’ battles that get really difficult.
The combat interface is fairly simple and the only issue it can have is difficulty selecting hexes behind other characters. Icons are clear, information is well presented and it’s easy to tell how much damage you do. The card deck (with your abilities) is obvious enough not to forget and subtle enough that it doesn’t obscure or distract from combat.
Some other aspects of the interface are less clear – text can appear quite small and resource icons don’t have tooltips for if you forget what the symbols mean – but those are quite minor transgressions. The only major issue is that the option to repair your ship doesn’t seem to work. If it requires more tools than you have, it doesn’t seem to say so. A tooltip there showing the requirements to repair the ship would be useful, but sadly doesn’t exist.
The story itself is quite good and you can tell that a deal of research has gone into it to nail the history, but it feels like there should be more of it. If you were expecting some character creation before you go in, be aware that the only options are male or female. The fact that you can’t choose your own class is a shame, as it would free up options for more varied parties with repeated playthroughs.
The illustrations in this game all blend together into an immersive landscape that helps bolster the atmosphere of the story and it has some catchy music, but it’s not going to make a second playthrough any more appealing. The story itself is quite linear and combat is infrequent, so even playing through for the combat alone isn’t an exciting prospect.
All in all, there’s an awful lot going on in The Great Whale Road but it feels like it’s slipped in its execution. As great a concept as it seems, gameplay soon becomes boring, feeling a drag from one quest to the next. Coupled with the need to revert to much older saves if you haven’t quite done the right thing (or if you encounter a bug), it might be worth waiting for more polish and extra content before forking out £15 for it.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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