The supremely ambitious indie RPG Wildermyth aims to combine the best of storytelling with the best of procedural generation. It surprisingly succeeds, thanks to great writing, solid tactics, and some very clever design decisions that emphasize how adventure is all about legacy. It may not look like much at a glance, but anyone interested in good stories in games should look deeper.
The grand dream of the role-playing game is combining the flexibility and creativity of having a human game master who can react to player decisions and tell stories with the speed and convenience of playing single-player on a computer or console. It’s a pursuit that has led to some of the great innovations in the genre, like early BioWare’s development of fully fleshed-out companions or Fallout’s responsiveness to our choices.
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It’s also a dream that can never be achieved (barring some terrifying breakthrough in AI), but that makes the ambitious attempts all the more exciting when they make baby steps of progress. Worldwalker Games’ story-centered tactical RPG Wildermyth is as ambitious as games like Pathfinder: Kingmaker or Alpha Protocol – but with far fewer glaring flaws to look past. It’s one of those games that captures that lightning in a bottle.
Roll, Heroes, Roll
Describing Wildermyth in broad strokes can make it sound like a conventional RPG. First, you pick from one of a small set of campaigns, which can either be randomly generated or have a pre-written main plot. This opens with a party of three or four randomized or customizable characters being launched on the path to adventure. These origin stories are usually well-told; the intro in the tutorial with the character who became my spellcasting Mystic, Fern, reading a book and then having that book become part of her life stuck with me through the entire campaign and beyond. After that, they pick their classes, learn to fight, and roll into the main campaign map.
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There’s then a rhythm of exploring a new zone, participating in a randomly selected and procedurally flexible short story that develops the characters and the world, a combat mission assaulting the enemies you find there, and then consolidation of your gains in a way that grants the party upgrades. After enough of those, it’s back to a plot mission to the end chapter. This campaign structure is a solid, if occasionally repetitive foundation for a game – and that repetition is probably my single biggest criticism of Wildermyth. But it’s mitigated by several exceptionally clever and well-crafted elements of the overall design.
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The first of these is that the writing is, well, really good. Each section of the story is told with a little comic book-style cutscene, and Wildermyth uses those creatively to grant the illusion of movement. In a touch that reminded me of the way Metal Gear Solid 5 starts its levels by crediting the designer, Wildermyth includes a title screen for each short story that includes the author’s name. These vignettes can range from the somewhat generic for setting up a fight – a character falls down a hole and the other party members have to decide how to save her – to the intensely mythic, like a mysterious giant shape passing in the night, granting the party a reputation bonus simply for being able to tell the story of what happened in bars and at festivals for the rest of their lives.
Great Hair, Great Personality
More than that, however, the writing is flexible. Each character in your party has three important character traits, like being a dreamer or a weirdo or having potential or carrying a lot of shame. These personality traits are used in stories in ways that have the characters reacting to events in the proper ways, and some stories seem to be set up to only pop up when characters of specific traits are in the party. The presence of certain traits means that even when you’re seeing the same stories multiple times, they can feel different based on which characters are involved.
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Another fun effect is occasional character transformations as campaigns progress. I’ve had characters grow wings from meeting capricious wanderers, start turning into gemstones based on their greed, or commune with a fire spirit and have their body start to turn to flame. Character relationships are important, too – those default to friendship, but Wildermyth can toss some familial relationships at you, and either your choices or random events can lead to romantic entanglements or rivalries, both of which add some fun storytelling spice beyond the preset traits.
That spice isn’t just in the plot, though. Both of those possibilities grant tactical buffs: rivalries cause pairs of characters to inflict more critical hits (called Stunts in Wildermyth’s system) as the two compete in battle like Gimli and Legolas, while romances mean characters deal extra damage after their lover gets hit. Transformations have neat effects too, both adjusting the party member’s stats and giving them exciting skills, like my flame-handed Mystic having the ability to shoot streams of fire from her hands at will.
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Wildermyth’s responsiveness to what happens in its campaigns is also one of its traits that brings the whole game together. Some of this is stylistic; Wildermyth uses a flexible paper doll system for its character models, kind of like a less grimdark Darkest Dungeon, and each face can age, get magically corrupted, or become scarred if characters are defeated in combat. Each body can be customized for height, size, gender and presentation, hair, face, and colors in a surprisingly effective manner given the apparent simplicity of the art style. And the cartoonishly exaggerated items like magical swords or spiked shoulderpads you find along your quest all tend to pop up remarkably nicely, even on the combat screen. It can take a bit to get used to (and paper dolls’ heads tilting to look up never quite works), but it’s a very clever way for an indie game to grant the illusion of having the resources to let you do whatever you want with your party members.
Over the course of a campaign, which is probably about 10-15 hours depending on difficulty, your characters will evolve from looking like some peasants who picked up the most convenient items at hand to defend themselves, to a tough soldier or hunter, to a legendary hero of yore, with billowing capes, colorful armor, magical body modifications, and unique mythic bows or axes. They’ll find themselves fighting alongside similarly decked-out best friends or husbands or children, all for the fate of the world. The progression feels natural, like an RPG should feel, and that goes a long way.
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It’s a rare game where I’d barely mention combat until this late in a review, but Wildermyth is a very rare game indeed. Its turn-based tactical RPG battles feel perfunctory initially; playing the tutorial campaign on default difficulty tends to involve little more than moving to a monster, hitting it, and not overextending in order to win.
But as I played longer campaigns – and increased the difficulty – I found a surprising depth emerging from Wildermyth. One extremely clever aspect of the campaigns is that after every combat, yes, your characters improve thanks to experience… but so do the monsters. A card that gets drawn could add a new more powerful enemy to future battles, or increase the health or armor or damage of an existing foe. As my campaigns progressed, so too did those enemy buffs, in ways that could cascade somewhat out of control.
This, combined with tough-but-fair higher difficulties, meant my autopiloting through combat was replaced by intensely tactical battles. One fight saw my team caught between two large sets of enemies on a town street; it was only a tactical retreat into the nearest building with my best character, a Warrior, in the front, and my fire Mystic tossing dancing flames around that gave me a chance to get out without losing characters. I had gone into Wildermyth as though it were a game where the combat largely existed to help pace a storytelling experience – and it can be that if that’s what you want – but it becomes a strong tactical RPG on its own if you ask it to dance.
Get Off My Lawn
Surprising depth is the name of the game on the plot side as well, with two major conceits providing the rugs that tie the room together. The first is time. Each campaign is divided into several chapters, and those chapters take place years apart. Both within and in between those chapters, characters age and time passes. It’s a similar conceit to Double Fine’s generation-based Massive Chalice, but with far more complexity and nuance between fights.
Play the first chapter and your fresh-faced youngsters will learn and grow a bit, but by the second chapter a decade may have passed and they’re getting some salt-and-pepper in their hair and a few wrinkles to distinguish them. Another chapter later and they’re married with children and ennui about adventuring. They can die, get maimed, or retire during story events – I had one character become a seer who prevented future enemy invasions, but that came at the cost of losing her from my party. And as the campaign draws to its end, they’ll often retire and let the next generation take over – although you can make some decisions or build stats that let them stick around longer than normal.
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The aging creates a double-edged sword in a Wildermyth campaign: playing as a completionist makes your characters stronger, but it also makes them older and more likely to retire when you need them most. It also ties into that visual sense of progress. Yeah, Fern is looking cooler and cooler, and those gray hairs make her look like Rogue from the X-Men, and her entire body is turning to flame, but she may hang it all up after this chapter! This is a tension that could create a certain level of decision fatigue, but Wildermyth has one final trick up its sleeve. It’s a meta-concept that doesn’t just make everything work, it makes it work brilliantly.
The Legend Continues
See, Wildermyth is all about legacy. It’s about stories and the knowledge that those stories may or may not be true, but they’ll ring through the generations regardless. The interface is built around the idea of books, of telling and retelling. Books and libraries and oral history are crucial to many of the cutscenes, starting with that tutorial character getting her powers directly from reading a book. The characters realize they’re in stories, in a sense, but in a way that makes it feel more mythic (most of the time, at least – occasionally an easy joke slips through).
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It’s telling that the main currency in the campaign isn’t gold or some monetary stand-in, it’s “Legacy Points,” which can be spent on recruiting new characters or buying materials for gear upgrades or preventing enemy buffs. More importantly, characters who retire or finish a campaign aren’t simply done: they become part of “My Legacy,” a sort of trophy rack of characters for both examination and for further use.
Characters who die can also be buried in tombs that add them to your Legacy as well – I had one character I’d gone through a long quest to recruit who’d died quickly after, but his daughter showed up 20 years later. She eventually died as well, but she was so cool and the story around her was enticing enough that I added her to the Legacy, and now Yovanna Slenderskirt is a character who pops up in my stories again and again. That’s right: Legacy characters can and will be pulled from that rack to play a role in other campaigns. Their levels are lowered a bit so they’re not overpowered, and they can be de-aged depending on campaign need, but it’s definitely still them.
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The Legacy characters also feel mythic. That sense of progress in gear and their individual storylines tying together makes them look and feel cooler than the newly generated characters of any campaign. They’re given terms like “Folk Hero” or “Local Legend,” and it rings true – not just in how they’re slightly more powerful in a tactical sense, but also in how their stories change a bit every time. In the tutorial campaign, my lead Warrior, Wynbrec, was a boisterous friend to the main characters; in the next campaign he popped up in, he’s an expert warrior where that boisterousness makes him seem like kind of a jerk to the kids he ends up befriending. He was a fun sidekick when I didn’t already know him, but became an inscrutable wanderer once he’d developed a reputation.
This lack of canonicity to the storytelling, the elevated, legendary tone of the stories, and the effects of time, choice, and gear on the character models all add up to your Legacy characters feeling less like straightforward regular people within the game world, and more like folk heroes like Johnny Appleseed or Wong Fei-hung, or superheroes like Batman. It matches how I see people talk about their procedural characters in games like XCOM or Darkest Dungeon. Wynbrec isn’t just “a warrior who can attack twice per turn,” he’s my first Warrior, the guy who defended a barn in his hometown against a horde of giant insects and befriended a critter who stole his lucky coin. Everyone in my game world should have stories about Wynbrec, even if they contradict one another! He rules!