The Great Whale Road (GWR) is a tactical RPG from Sunburned Games set way back in the good old Viking days that seem to be so popular lately (see also: The History Channel…). Your character starts as the newly minted, albeit unlikely, new village chief after the old chief got himself killed off by a group of Saxons while out on some raid or another. Oh, and almost every warrior in town was with him and they didn’t come back home either. Your mission is to guide your people to prosperity and seek revenge against the folks who robbed your village of all of its semi-competent members.
The game moves through various phases as time passes. You do some village management to gather food and produce trade goods and resources. You sail around the North Atlantic and handle random events. Visiting other towns lets you buy and sell goods, engage in combat, and rest up before heading back home to prepare for another winter.
In GWR, village management is primarily concerned with making sure your small settlement will survive the long, harsh Scandinavian winter. You have a set group of villagers to assign to various tasks. As one might expect, food production is a prominent task and takes a few different forms. Farming can grow a lot of food, but you don’t have a lot of people in your village and the growing season is short. Animal husbandry is another option to consider. It produces less food overall, but can provide benefits year round. Of course, hunting is also available, and like raising domestic animals, it can be done year round. The downside is that hunting produces the least amount of food per assigned villager, probably because the deer refuse to stand still. But it’s not all about food! You can also assign villagers to produce trade goods or train as warriors.
As the long, dark days of winter pass random events can happen in the form of choose-your-adventure style text pop ups. A situation presents itself – your chickens stop laying eggs, or people are a little stir crazy and need to blow off some steam. As the chief, you have to make the decisions, and your choices have consequences. Figuring out what to do about your wormy chickens can affect your food supplies for the rest of the winter and have an impact on the happiness of your people.
When spring arrives, you will be using the food and other goods you produced in your travels around the North Sea. You have to make sure to bring enough food for the characters you bring on your stereotypical Viking longboat for the journey. Bringing along some trade goods is almost always a good idea, as you often find someone to sell them to during the expedition. The village in spring time also allows you to check your stores and supplies, buy equipment from the town blacksmith, and manage your party members at the mead hall.
As the game goes on, developing your village allows your RPG party access to better weapons and equipment. But the road to material advancement isn’t always a smooth ride. Your village cannot produce everything you need – some of it comes through trade and missions in the outside world. It is possible, for example, to upgrade your longboat. To do it, you need copper and tin, neither of which your village can produce on its own. If you can’t happen to find those materials for sale out in the great wide world, well… No upgrade for you.
Overall, I found the village management to be fairly tedious. It’s not hard to make sure you produce enough food to survive the winter. Making some trade goods is no big deal either, since there are virtually always enough villagers to go around. I never really felt like I had to choose what to do, never had to forego making something because I ran out of people. Much like the right path to colony management in most early 4X titles, the correct strategy in GWR village management is to do everything as much as possible.
The meat and potatoes of GWR involves loading your RPG squad into your trusty longboat and shipping out to various exotic destinations in the neighborhood of Denmark and the Netherlands. Once you choose which characters will accompany you on the mission (hint: take every person you can fit on the boat), you need to make sure you have enough provisions to complete your mission. Thankfully, the game tells you how much food your heroes will consume per day and how many days away you are from your destination. You will also want to take some trade goods along to make some cash. Since your longboat has a limited cargo bay, so it might look like you need to choose your loadout carefully. Don’t worry, you don’t. Again, there are no real choices to make here. Just take everything you can.
As you sail along, random events can and will pop up from time to time. Normally, these are in the form of a short flavor text description of a situation and a few choices for you to choose how to handle it. Depending on your choice, you might gain or lose food, cargo, hero endurance, or ship durability. While there are a few events that can result in gaining resources, like finding a derelict ship, most result in a net loss. Simply avoiding a loss of resources should be considered a victory most of the time.
After a random event or three, your ship will reach its destination. Most of the time, it’s another settlement. Sometimes the town is Danish (i.e., friendly) and sometimes it’s not. Either way, everyone seems to build the same basic facilities in their towns. There’s a blacksmith to buy weapons and armor that your blacksmith at home isn’t making at the moment. There is the trader, so you can offload the trade goods your people spent the winter making to generate some cash. You will also find a healer and a mead hall, where your heroes can rest and recuperate after the combat kicks your butt up and down the Low Countries (see below…).
One thing to keep in mind is that when you spend the night at a settlement, the food your heroes consume still comes from your ship’s hold. So it’s a good idea to make sure you have enough food to make the trip and stay in town for a few days too. That said, there is usually some way to replenish your food stores in most settlements. The other thing that often happens in the towns you sail your ship to is…
In GWR, combat takes place on a flat, hex-based grid where your static RPG team lines up on one side of the board and the bad guys occupy the other. The objective is almost invariably to kill everything that dares to move that isn’t wearing your team’s color scheme.
Sunburned Games’ style of turn-based combat is a pretty straightforward affair. You move your guys/gals and then the bad guys take a turn. Once you close ranks there are a few choices to be made. Blunt weapon attacks are a great way to bring down the enemy’s defences, like the guys who have the audacity to carry a shield. But when the shield has been battered down, slashing and piercing damage seems to be more efficient. Depending on the weapon your character has equipped, one team member may be able to do both types of damage on their own. If not, you will always have another member of the squad nearby; keeping your units together is a good idea. It allows for multiple characters to attack a single enemy and makes it harder for the bad guys to surround your team members. Most members of the player squad will also have a War Cry ability that serves as a buff to all members of the team for the next turn or so.
Unfortunately, combat isn’t much fun in GWR. At the beginning of the game, it’s really quite difficult. Your party isn’t equipped very well because your village kind of sucks. Also, most of the good warriors are in Valhalla. They were killed off along with your old village chief in some scrolling pre-game text passages. So early game combat is a slightly terrifying process in which you chip away at the enemy’s HP pool, when you can hit them at all, and hope that your pitiful defence ratings are enough to last the whole fight. When you are defeated, and you almost certainly will be early on, your characters aren’t necessarily dead. Instead, they are tired or wounded or both. You usually lose money and other material goods in the process. On the other hand, winning battles brings does bring material rewards in the form of loot. The supremely frustrating part is that combat is rarely avoidable – the game just beats up on you until you get the hang of things. The combat tutorial is seven pages of text, which might have been acceptable in the early 1990s but is anachronistic in 2017.
Later on, once your village is nicely humming along and your equipment is great, you can easily mop the floor with the hopeless AI (it also helps that you have had more practice by then too…). At that point, combat becomes a tedious slog whose outcome is never in doubt. You are going to win, but you still have to go through the motions. There is never really a time when the combat feels well balanced; it’s either stacked horribly against the player or it’s a cake walk.
The other issue is that turn-based combat is a solved problem in strategy games. It can be, and has been, done better. From Age of Wonders III to XCOM on PC and consoles, to the Fire Emblem series and Final Fantasy Tactics on handhelds, there are lots of easily accessible examples of games that made turn-based combat fun and interesting. GWR does not manage to do that and, personally, it was my least favorite part of the game. While I can appreciate the desire to do something original, the developers apparently tried to reinvent the wheel when it came to turn-based combat. And for some reason, they decided on a shape that wasn’t round.
Since GWR is a RPG, I suppose I should spend a little time talking about character development, story telling, and decision making. You know, RPG stuff.
You heroes level up as they gain experience through combat. When they do, you get to choose an upgrade for each character in the form of a War Cry, a short term combat buff. Actually, you only get to choose every other level up. The alternate levels only have one available War Cry, so not as much choice there. War Cries have various effects – some buff accuracy while others buff your evasion or blocking.
There are character classes for your heroes. But you don’t get to choose them either; they are set from the beginning of the game and if there is a way to change a particular hero’s class, I couldn’t find it. The classes are Heavy, Assault, and a few others that don’t matter because Heavy and Assault are absolutely the best classes, hands down.
I won’t go into the details of GWR’s story for spoiler reasons, but suffice it to say that it’s no literary masterpiece. And that’s OK. The story is bare bones, but it’s enough to get the action going. Fans of intricate plotlines should look elsewhere; GWR is not that kind of RPG and doesn’t pretend to be. The biggest problem with the story is that it is painfully linear. Nothing you do or choose for your characters has any impact on any detail of the story – or at least none that I could detect. There are parts of the game that give the impression that your choices in the various story segments matter. But they don’t. You could literally choose any dialogue option you want, or close your eyes and click one, or flip a coin to make your choice and nothing would change.
Visually, GWR is very pretty. The graphics have a pleasant, hand drawn look to them and reminded me of King of Dragon Pass. The colors are vibrant and the various elements and UI features really pop and are easy to parse. The graphics are easily the best and most enjoyable part of the game, despite the fact that they are far more bright and colorful than the grim setting and story would suggest.
Musically, the soundtrack is mostly the guys who sang the main theme from Skyrim, but more grim and with less actual melody. Of course, there are also plenty of drums to go along with the sing/chanting. The music isn’t bad. In fact, it fits the game’s gritty tone rather well. While it isn’t memorable, unfortunately it get so repetitive that you won’t be able to keep from memorizing it if you play the game for any length of time.
The UI is solid and functional, if unremarkable. It manages to get out of the player’s way, which is what most people want out of a UI. The only difficulty I ever encountered was in combat. There were times when I had a hard time clicking on the exact hex I wanted to move a character onto when it was partially behind another character or NPC.
The Full Experience
GWR is composed of several simple systems. It’s a design philosophy that many games have used to great effect. I will go to my grave swearing that what made games like Master of Orion, Master of Orion 2, and Master of Magic into gaming legends is that they took simple, but elegantly designed, mechanics and combined them into something that was more than the sum of their parts. Unfortunately, GWR never manages to replicate that ineffable quality. It never becomes more than the sum of its individual parts.
The game features an interesting save system. It’s interesting because you can’t actually do it yourself. Instead, the game autosaves when it wants to autosave, primarily after winters pass and when your ship arrives at a town. It’s a strange design decision and the reason for it is not immediately apparent. GWR doesn’t feature permadeath. You can load a save when all of your characters die – but it will be one of the autosaves. Why I can’t save the game myself when I want to (i.e., right before combat) is a mystery to me. The current system doesn’t seem to add anything to the game and ensures that you will repeat larger sections of the game than are really necessary.
Another annoyance is that the game launched in an unfinished state. While it had been fully “released” on Steam, the game only featured one of the three promised campaigns. The others have finally been released with their corresponding factions, but I did not have a chance to try them out for this review. The update also adds non-story based “trade missions” to allow some resource gathering to be done between story missions. As well as revised village upgrade trees and lots of event illustrations. Still, it seems questionable to push a game to full release and end Early Access when the game isn’t actually feature complete.
Technically speaking, the game has a few rough patches. GWR crashed to desktop on several occasions during my time with the game. Two times were during the introductory/tutorial sequence and I had to replay that section from the beginning both times because the game had apparently not saved at that point. As the game has been patched post-release, crashes have become more rare but I still experienced poor performance at times despite owning a PC more than powerful enough for the game.
Ultimately, I wanted to like GWR. I really, REALLY wanted to like it and I will admit that it was mostly because of the art style and the promise of running a Viking village to supply my super awesome RPG team. I was hoping for a combination of Banner Saga and King of Dragon Pass. What I played was… Well, let’s just say that GWR wasn’t what I wanted it to be and doesn’t ever quite live up to the games that seem to have inspired it.
TL;DR: The Great Whale Road is a linear, story-driven tactical RPG with some minor village management and a few FTL-style random events thrown in for good measure. The combat is slow, even by turn-based combat standards, and is alternatively way too hard or way too easy. Overall, the game is pretty bland and not very memorable.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You like hand drawn art in games
- You like very linear RPGs
- Theme is more important to you than game mechanics themselves
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You want your choices in a game to matter
- You are a tactical, turn-based combat master
- You like deep character development systems in RPGs
Disclosure: Micah plays on a custom PC with a FX-8320 CPU, a GTX 970 GPU, and 16GB of DDR3 RAM. He received a free Steam key for purposes of this review, and played 21+ hours of GWR.