Visual novels seem to work better when they give players (or readers, as the case may be) more to do beyond clicking to advance through text boxes. Some of the most beloved visual novels, such as the Ace Attorney and Zero Escape franchises, blend genres and incorporate elements of room-escape, investigation, and verbal spot-the-difference games. Similarly, Walkerman caught my attention with its fusion of choice-based novel sections and board game styled grid combat. The end result is a fascinating fantasy novel and a riveting logic puzzle game, but it has a notable imbalance between these two identities.
Walkerman is the story of Jorgen, a young man who has decided to take up his father's trade as a walkerman, or "poucher." Walkermen are very analogous to the Witchers of their eponymous series: monster hunters for hire that meet with the distrust of the general populace. In the game's world, loosely reminiscent of Northern Europe in medieval times, monsters only come out at night and behave according to very strict rules. For instance, one monster might have a compulsion to turn any coins on their tails side heads-up, or they cannot face wheels. Walkermen store dozens of knick-knacks in pouches to test the beasts' reactions so they can eventually trap them in their own rules and slay them. Walkerman is an episodic title, so only the Prologue and Act 1 have been released as of now, but if this introduction is any indication, the basic format of each episode will be a novel segment that reveals plot, character, and exposition, followed by an isometric logic puzzle in which you battle a monster using the intel you've collected.
When he's not fighting monsters, Jorgen spends his day's networking. He socializes with new friends and families, goes to church, negotiates new contracts, and debates politics with both foreigners and countrymen. He butts heads with other walkermen in the city, tries (and often fails) to flirt, and judges the crap out of all the irreligious degenerates in Midgard. Act 1 spends the majority of its time introducing new characters and concepts, so there's not a lot in the way of an overarching plot. There is one nonviolent monster who stalks Jorgen at night and beckons him to do nothing more than take his hand, so this creature will likely play into the narrative at large. The game is billed as a fantasy-horror, but despite a couple of "jump scares" I'd probably classify it more as a fantasy-thriller.
Off the bat, it's easy to tell that the script was handled by a very experienced writing team. Each line of narration is poetic, revealing an expansive vocabulary of technical five-dollar words and archaisms you couldn't easily pull from a thesaurus if you wanted to. Some writers may use high prose to cover up shortcomings elsewhere, but here it only helps to reinforce the visceral imagery and distinctive themes. It's impressive, for sure, but it does teeter on a risky precipice. For one thing, it can be exhausting to read some of the longer descriptions when the imagery is abstruse enough to require a couple of readings to grasp the meaning. Fortunately, all the characters are pretty down-to-earth, so their dialogue breaks up some of the elevated language use. Others have criticized that Jorgen's way of speaking is so different from his thoughts, but I accepted it since Walkerman constantly provides examples of Jorgen's difficulty in speaking to people; the one thing I couldn't accept, though, is how Jorgen has vivid, immediate memories of a raid he took no part in against another country.
The dialogue, in general, is handled very well. Characters have individualized speech patterns and dialects to differentiate their personalities. Aside from one character who is given a forced, out-of-place catchphrase ("Aces!"), Walkerman succeeds in using colorful dialogue to reinforce character. There's even a foreign character, Kaula, who believably speaks the local language without resorting to stereotypical "broken English." Still, there is the occasional awkwardness to the dialogue. Name labels in the text box identify the speaker like in most visual novels, however, the actual lines of dialogue sometimes have speech tags attached, like "He said," or "She asked." It's disorienting the first time because there aren't even quotation marks to separate the dialogue from the narration. You get used to it, but like a sore thumb. You can get used to the pain, but it'll still stick out.
Between the Prologue and Act 1, there's a lot of ground to cover in terms of world-building and exposition while also advancing the narrative. In the four or so hours of content, Jorgen meets more than a dozen important characters, has extended conversations about politics and religion, and, yes, fights a monster. This means that certain characters and themes get a great deal of focus while others basically appear in cameo roles or disappear when they're no longer needed. If you blink, you might miss Honora and Aludra. Bror, a prominent character early on, kind of vanishes near the end while Walkerman rushes to impart crucial details in the lead-up to the confrontation. It didn't bother me too much since I know there's more to come from them, but I hope that the later Acts make more economic use of the time.
This imbalance of time really gets at my one big gripe with Walkerman. Even though the novel section and the battle section are both excellent, one is heavily prioritized over the other, and it's pretty obvious which one. The battles work by placing all the actors on an isometric grid. The action begins to play out automatically, then every now and the game will present a choice about how Jorgen can manipulate the monster using the items and knowledge he has collected. For example, at the start of the fight, you can choose to distract the monster with coins, ensnare it with a bone, or use a combination of the two to be safe. The third option is appealing, but it also depletes your resources for later in the fight when things get hairier. It functions similarly in concept to a choose-your-own-adventure Twine game that uses simplistic "if/then" logic and "true/false" checks to offer choices and consequences.
Given the lack of free control, there's a stunning variety of ways that the battle can turn out, making it not so much a puzzle as it is a tactical engagement. I attempted it a few times with different items and information and came up with different results every time. Some of the options could use some reworking (e.g., when a character tells me to plant a stick, I would actually like the option to plant it instead of hurling it away), but that's a small gripe. The real problem is that you spend four hours reading, and it culminates in a ten-minute fight. Hopefully, later chapters feature more encounters to break up the mild monotony of reading.
I also spent about an hour trying to thematically tie together the rules of Act 1's monster to assemble some sort of contextual interpretation to the plot at large or a comparison to an existing mythological creature, but I came up empty-handed. That's not really an issue. It just seems like a missed opportunity. There also doesn't appear to be any use for items outside of combat, although the Steam Achievements do hint that there will be an item trading sequence that will span across all five acts.
Ultimately, Walkerman is both beautiful and a competently told visual novel. There are plenty of intriguing, unique characters and consequences directly stemming from player choices. With few exceptions, all the characters (men and women) are obscenely attractive thanks to the excellent merging of Byzantine and anime art styles, which is a sentence I never imagined myself typing. Jorgen is a complex, multifaceted character whose religious devotions will likely drive most of the interpersonal drama in the remainder of the releases. It's certainly worth a look if you want an original fantasy world with Dark Age waifus to get invested in.
Walkerman was reviewed on PC via Steam using a copy provided by the developer.
Walkerman is an impressive piece of writing in an original horror/fantasy setting, featuring monster hunting logic puzzles that are a riveting albeit disappointingly small part of the experience.
- Strong Narrative Writing
- Deep, Engrossing Monster Combat
- Gorgeous Artwork
- ...But The Vocabulary May Be A Barrier
- ...But That's Less Than 10% Of The Game