Sunburned Games’ indie Viking simulator The Great Whale Road has left the safer channels of Early Access for the rougher seas of its full release. It has received some tweaks, improvements and additional content since its beta days that are mostly for the better. Moving at a slow and simmering pace with strategic yet simple gameplay, The Great Whale Road is a unique role-playing experience with turn based combat that is sure to entice some and aggravate others.
The well-researched setting of The Great Whale Road explores 6th-century civilizations living around the North Sea. The first available campaign follows that of the Danes as they set out to discover what happened to their leader. The story takes some compelling turns as your band of warriors sets out to sea each year looking for their Jarl. Told completely in blocks of text, the tale is full of interesting bits of historical culture for those that don’t mind a fair bit of reading. There are also more character developing scenarios incorporated into the game since Early Access that really strengthen the story. The campaigns of different groups are planned to be added later on, adding more perspectives on what life on the North Sea was like in the 6th century and giving players more to sink their battle axes into.
Featuring beautiful digitally hand-drawn artwork, the game has a distinctive look that meshes well with the ancient setting. The music also lends a great deal of atmosphere to the title. There isn’t a huge variety of backgrounds to see or tracks to listen to, but what is there is executed very well.
Although the game has received a lot of improvements since its beta launch, it still has some technical flaws. For one, loading times are gruelingly long. Players will understandably have to wait between battles and getting on and off their boat but when all's said and done it can feel like you spent half the game just waiting for things to load. Other little glitches may still be lurking in the game at launch, such as items not transferring to your inventory when selected and other little things like that. The developers have been addressing these type of issues however, so that's a good sign.
The Great Whale Road set out to accomplish a unique and challenging gameplay experience that combines turned based combat, story-driven role-playing, and historical simulation. To do this the game is broken into different phases and stages to capture all those aspects. Overall, the experience leaves a player feeling fragmented, with the different types of gameplay coming off as a bit disjointed and not heavily influencing each other. This doesn’t mean any element is done poorly but that they aren’t as well integrated as they could be.
For example, combat is a key element of the game but isn’t entirely integrated into the other aspects of gameplay. You can upgrade your warriors the more they engage in the turn-based battles and receive rewards and detriments based on how well they perform. Interestingly, combat can often be avoided and players are not penalized for losing when it is crucial to a quest. In a way, this gives the game a more casual feel for a strategy game that may appeal to some, but it makes combat feel unnecessary in the grand scheme of things.
This turn of events is unfortunate because the turn based battles have been refined since Early Access into a much more streamlined and enjoyable strategy experience. The intriguing yet tacked on card system from before has been done away with in exchange for a simple point system. Points can be spent on special “warcry” abilities and more points are accrued when an enemy is defeated. Units each have a pre-assigned round which they can be placed on the battlefield, the more powerful they are the later into the fight they can be placed. These changes are combined with a smoother and easier to click interface to make combat a much stronger and more enjoyable part of The Great Whale Road but there isn’t much incentive to engage in battle aside from the pure joy of it. I suppose that is a very Viking sort of sentiment.
Traveling along the North Sea is another crucial part of the Viking experience but it is also the most tedious. As your ship scrolls along the pretty background players will be presented with a series of scenarios to deliberate over and a string of encampments to stop at. There aren't a huge variety of scenarios players will encounter, but there are more varied responses to the choices you face compared to older versions of the game. In this regard, there isn’t always a right answer and when it comes to these random situations it can feel like it doesn’t particularly matter what you choose.
Stopping at different encampments is where quests get completed and most of the story is dolled out. It’s also where trading takes place, which is the most reliable way to make money to upgrade your gear. Other than money management there are some items that can only be bought abroad that are necessary for upgrading your ship and technology back home. Aside from that trade doesn’t seem fully fleshed out. Some items don’t seem to have any use other than to resell and there isn’t really an in-game economy making certain items more valuable in different locations. So overall trading is a bit of a missed opportunity for some interesting role playing and strategy.
The last piece of the gameplay puzzle is settlement management over the winter season. After returning from a quest players will need to allocate their population to various tasks that will determine not only how much food and goods they produce but also how good at diplomacy and battle they are and their overall levels of happiness. It sounds complicated but it’s a very simple system with an easy to navigate interface. The problem is that there is a potential for complexity that is completely squandered here. I’m not sure it’s even possible to not survive a winter and it’s quite difficult to get your settlement producing above a certain threshold. Aside from how many goods you produce that can then be taken abroad to trade, how well you do during this phase doesn't greatly affect the rest of the game. It then simply becomes a process of going through the motions so you can get back out to sea and further the story.
The combination of all these different gameplay elements makes for the framework of something bigger and grander than what The Great Whale Road ultimately is. There’s so much potential within the bones of this game that could have resulted in a Viking epic, encompassing resource management and turn-based combat under the umbrella of historical fiction. Yet, as this little indie project stands it doesn’t feel fully fleshed out. It is, however, still an enjoyable game. More polished than earlier versions, The Great Whale Road provides fun turn based combat and a well-told story accompanied by pretty art and music, they just aren’t as well integrated with one another as they could be.
The Great Whale Road was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developers.
The Great Whale Road is a unique and ambitious game that will enthrall fans of historical fiction and turn based strategy. However, with its disjointed gameplay elements, it doesn't quite succeed in simulating the life of a 6th century Viking
- Beautiful Art and Music
- Streamlined Turn Based Combat
- Accurate Historical Plot and Lore
- Long Loading Times
- Disjointed Gameplay Elements