Wartales is a gloomy low-fantasy mercenary sim that prides itself on being tough. Because of this, but also because it's in Early Access, it's also obstinately opaque. The dearth of explanations, muted colours, sad people and gruelling fights mean that trying to earn a buck in this depressing world isn't exactly a joyful experience. But happiness can be found in even the most unlikely of places.
Despite the level of difficulty, most of the disasters that have befallen my squad of unlucky mercs have been down to Wartales' inability to even break down the basics, let alone its more complex systems. While I don't think Early Access is a good enough excuse to have a shitty user experience, I'll admit that it has also been the source of some fun surprises. Like when I discovered that I could recruit animals.
My squad started out as a group of boring human pals setting off on their first adventure. They mostly suck at everything, but with every turn-based fight survived and every new item crafted, they get slightly better. As well as having combat classes, they can pick up professions, like fishing and smithing, using these skills to make food, gear and, through hitting up merchants, gold. They're fine, I guess.
At some point, my squad got their hands on some rope. Maybe from a dead bandit. There are a lot of them. Rope can be used for climbing, apparently, which I've yet to do, but more importantly rope can also be used to bind animals. I discovered this randomly when I was beating up some wolves. While one of my lupine foes was engaged with an ally, a new ability appeared on the hotbar of one of my mercs. I could knock out and capture the wolf, it informed me. Obviously I had to do it.
Given that this wolf had been stabbed nearly to death and then kidnapped, it was surprisingly quick to join the gang. It had no complaints. It did have some dietary requirements though. Next to gold, which is required for plenty of things, but especially wages, food is Wartales' most important resource. Your gang will demand frequent breaks to rest and munch, and failing to fill their bellies will lead to desertion pretty quickly. Adding more members to the team means you need more food, and sometimes specific kinds of food. Wolves like meat. As do cannibals and, it turns out, people infected with the plague.
During my first few days in Wartales, I hated needing to constantly concern myself with grub. It's hardly glamorous. But now I'm at the point where I have so much food, I keep having to sell it to wandering merchants or in town. I'm perpetually overloaded with carcasses, pork chops and allegedly edible rats. I had to buy a donkey to help carry my burden. He's great. Fighting a single pack of wolves is going to give you days of food, as well as resources that can be sold, or crafted into stuff that can be sold for even more. Food's no longer an issue for me now, even with more animals joining the crew, but I've yet to reach the point where I'm not desperate for cash.
Wages swallow up most of what I earn pretty quickly, even now that I'm actually trying to turn my loot into profits and not just relying on quest rewards. This is one of the reasons I'm a big fan of critters, as they don't even know what money is. Sadly, they don't know what tactics are, either, and just do their own thing during fights. That's why my little wolf pack didn't last for very long. But I wouldn't let that setback stop me from living out my dreams.
Following the death of my furry friends, I mixed things up a bit by capturing a bunch of boars. They don't seem to be much more effective than wolves on their own, but now one of my humans has learned how to command beasts, designating targets for them. Things are starting to come together. Many bandits have been gored by boars. I don't know if there's a limit to how many animals you can keep—I've managed to capture five so far—but I ain't stopping until I reach it.
The thing is, they aren't even that great in a fight. Their tusks are nasty, but they've got nothing on a massive warhammer, and they mostly just rush at enemies and chip away at their health pool. But the sight of a bunch of dumb boars merrily attacking bandits, knights and wolves never fails to entertain me. Now I just need to learn how to keep them alive for longer—it turns out that not wearing any armour is a real issue.
I should also add that humans can be captured, too, should you have manacles, and then handed over to the authorities for a reward. I'm yet to do this, however, because I ain't no cop. My morals are usually flexible in games, but this world is facing problems evocative of our own troubles, namely a plague and a refugee crisis, which makes being a dickhead a less-than-fun prospect. It's tough though. I immediately decided I'd help the refugees over the arseholes moaning about them, protecting them from thugs and helping them find places to live. But in their desperation some of them have turned to banditry and violence, killing and thieving to survive.
Wartales lives in the grey area, then, where picking the ethical choice is far from easy. It makes decision-making more interesting, but I do wish the options weren't so arbitrary. When I agreed to drive off some bandits who were stealing from and killing travellers, I was given a chance to show mercy at the end of the battle. Unfortunately, my only choices were giving the bandits some items I didn't have, or killing them. I couldn't just let them go. In reality, then, I only had one choice: kill some people I thought deserved to live.
Of all the things I'd like to see developed the most over Early Access, aside from the need for some tutorials or guidance, this is at the top of my list. There are loads of roleplaying opportunities available, letting you become a nasty villain who steals from poor farmers, a Robin Hood-style folk hero or just the owner of lots of hogs, but Wartales seems far more interested in the systems themselves than the stories they might generate.
This is never more clear than when you're managing your mercs, who don't even have the glimmer of personalities. There's a real dissonance when you're ostensibly playing as a group of mates—you can also choose a group of deserters, some bandits and a few other starting configurations, each with advantages and disadvantages—where anyone might quit, never to be seen again, because their wages were a day late. I'd love to see relationships introduced, like friendships and rivalries. And beyond the mercs, Wartales is in dire need of some more colourful writing. It's all just very sparse and very plain at the moment. The world might be bleak, but that doesn't mean the quests and conversations shouldn't be flavourful.
A lot of what Wartales does can already been seen in Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord, but with the added bonus of being able to conquer kingdoms and lead proper armies. And if you're looking for something with a smaller scale and more focus, there's Battle Brothers, which launched in 2017 and has been well-supported since then. There's definitely room for more medieval mercenary sims, and this is a decent start, but I recommend waiting to see how it grows before forming your own band.