Early Access is always a bit of a gamble. While it can lead to a new or renewed interest in a title, making a game available through the service also puts it on full display whether it's ready for play or still littered with issues. Every once in a while though, a title is able to put its best foot forward and show just how much promise it harbors even at an early stage. Such is the case with Stray Fawn Studio's The Wandering Village, a management sim that already has the creativity and potential to be a new favorite for those who enjoy the genre.
The premise the game is built around is a novel one: After having to leave their original home due to a poisonous miasma engulfing it, a community of wandering nomads happens upon an Onbu. A massive creature that wanders the world and can support living creatures via the landscape on its back, this ancient being has reawakened due to the poisons ravaging the Earth. Taking it as a sign, the villagers decide to create their new home atop its back, supporting the behemoth in an attempt to create a bastion of hope in their decaying world.
It's an interesting concept that makes for a great narrative hook. The graphics and sound design do wonders to build upon it as well. At any given time, players can choose between a few different points of view. One is on the level of the Villagers and depicts them in a 2D art style reminiscent of a Ghibli film. Another is a traditional top-down 2D display of the village, and yet another shows off the Onbu in full 3D as it lumbers through the wider world. All of this imagery is matched by relaxing melodies accompanied by occasional low tones that vibrate through the air, giving the game a sense of rustic relaxation.
Even better, though, is that Stray Fawn Studios has found a plethora of ways to incorporate The Wandering Village's core concept into the gameplay. In addition to cultivating crops, building new homes and facilities for one's Villagers to use, and other mainstay management sim mechanics, the player is also tasked with caring for the Onbu in a variety of ways. They'll need to feed it regularly, manage any poison build-up it accrues, and build up a relationship of trust between themselves and the creature.
At the same time though, they'll need to balance prioritizing the needs of the Onbu versus the needs of the Village. Several opportunities will prevent themselves that ask the player to harm the Onbu in some way so that their Village can thrive. Sometimes it's as simple as annoying the creature by using its spikes for building materials. Other times, the actions are more severe, with the villagers harvesting blood or other parts of the creature in rather painful ways.
These choices become all the harder as one goes through poisoned areas. Doing what's best for the Onbu can actively harm one's village, and might even leave them too sick from poisoning to properly take care of themselves and their massive cohabitor. As a result, a cruel action in the long-term can prevent immediate disaster and ensure both parties can reach an understanding later.
Adding to all this is the Onbu's Trust system. For every choice one makes, the Onbu's trust in the community is also impacted. This in turn affects where the creature travels and whether it works together with the Village for their collective survival.
It's a blending of systems that can seem a little two-dimensional on its face, but makes for a simple yet effective moral dilemma to weigh as one's Village expands in The Wandering Village. I was torn at several points between being as kind as possible to the Onbu and harvesting materials or forcing it toward an action it disliked; almost always because I desperately needed to improve or prioritize the lives of my Villagers.
It never felt entirely wrong no matter which choice I made - save for the especially cruel ones, which seemed tilted in favor of siding with the Onbu's feelings - and the practical approach to these choices' impact on the wider game was a welcome twist to the usual management sim elements.
What's next for The Wandering Village?
The only real downside so far is that there's even more The Wandering Village could have provided but doesn't yet offer. In particular, there's a lack of direction that plagues the game once you reach the latter portion. Even though I had a blast creating my community and balancing the care of the Onbu with that of my Villagers, I felt lost as to what all my work was building toward other than maintaining the best status quo possible.
It definitely saps the momentum out of a playthrough and makes it feel more like an experience you get bored with as opposed to one you complete. The developers at Stray Fawn have already said they're planning on incorporating a story mode though, so this is a temporary gripe at best. All the same, it's something to consider if you're looking to dive into the current build of the game.
The Wandering Village has a lot going for it. While certain parts of what's available right now feel more like blueprints for what the game will become, others already feel fully realized and primed for further improvement. With more polish and features, it's sure to be a favorite for management sim fans. Give this game a look if the concept hooks you, and keep an eye on it as future updates bring it toward the must-play status it could very well achieve.
TechRaptor previewed The Wandering City on PC with a copy provided by the developer. It is currently exclusive to PC via Steam through Early Access.