The Great Whale Road was a hard call to make in terms of did I like the content or did it bore me? Did its layout and managing a village keep me engaged? Half the time I felt certain elements didn’t mesh well with the overall atmosphere and other times they seemed to go together with each other. The positive and negative factors vary from small annoyances to being pleasant experiences or aspects of gameplay I wished to see more of over time.
The game combines aspects of a visual novel, turn-based combat, and a story-driven RPG in one package that overwhelms as it impresses. Considered an interactive historical fiction, the story begins with the current invasion of the Saxons having just raided a village. You sail across the ocean to go to the village and to help rebuild it from the ground-up by managing the folk there and the tasks they’re set too. The ideal strategy is to strike a perfect balance of keeping warriors on hand to defend against bandits and raiders, but also making sure there’s ample food to last everyone through winter.
Alongside running the village, how interactions between other villages play out depends on how they’re treated. The story can sway from one extreme to another and there are preparations to make if you have any chance of bringing your village back to its former glory.
The gameplay is a mix of several elements, including visual novel-styled branching forcing you to make choices about the type of jobs your village folk focus and actions they should take. Do you throw a feast when you discover your chickens have worms or kill them off? Honor the gods or take the smart route by defying tradition to solve a problem using your brain? There are choices aplenty and the end results may lead to more issues down the line.
There is an assortment of ‘Heroes’ assigned to you from the start who offer their views on certain situations and advice on the action to take. Their advice can be invaluable, but other times it can be unwise to follow their sage wisdom. You must make the right judgment calls and making the wrong one could lead to a bigger loss.
One aspect of The Whale Road I had a hard time wrapping my head around was the turn-based combat that felt clunky even at the best of times. Heroes can be outfitted with better weapons to make them stronger while earning their loyalty means they’ll perform better on the battlefield and completing tasks. While on paper this, all sounds straightforward, at times it can feel underwhelming to wait for the avatars of each hero to move around the battlefield. Waiting for them to attack, ending a turn, and then waiting for the enemy to make a move for their round. While I didn’t find the battles too hard to overcome with some basic forethought and planning, it felt like a chore every time I had to participate in one.
Managing the village, making decisions, and furthering the story were the highlights of The Great Whale Road I enjoyed immensely. I focused on keeping an even balance between everything and trying to make smart decisions like putting garlic in the water trough of the chickens kill off an infection of worms. When it came to other decisions where I tried to err on the side of caution by going to shore when a few spears were thrown at my boat during my journey, it turned out to be an ambush.
This is an odd complaint to make, and trust me I’m surprised to even mention it, but it felt like The Great Whale Road had too much going on from the start. To its credit, there are brief and in-depth explanations for every aspect of gameplay from how to manage a village population to explaining how the turn-based combat works. There are even brief suggestions given on how to excel at these tasks so players can improve over time or ignore them completely.
While over the course of the campaign I began to understand how all these elements worked with one another, from the start it just felt overwhelming. Learning how to manage the village, trading, what it meant to set sail, trying to figure out how to earn loyalty from my heroes with each decision made, and other elements just felt like a laundry list of tasks to complete. In hindsight, perhaps the combat mechanic had been implemented to give players a break from the story, but I never enjoyed playing this mini strategy game. If anything, I wished I could have skipped over each skirmish to go back to managing my village or participate in a different mini-game.
The layout of elements would have been easier to deal had they been spaced out more rather than all shoved into the beginning at once. While I understand the need for tutorials (and appreciate them most of the time) here, it felt like being thrown into one situation after another. There were a few times I had to step away from The Great Whale Road for a breather and to process what was taking place onscreen.
The other downside (and highlight) of the game ended up being the art style. My favorite example to use is the opening sequence which features airy watercolor paintings of boats traveling across the water and trying to reach the village. When traveling to different villages and areas the player isn’t presented with the same generic picture over and over. Each area has its own dedicated watercolor picture with pastel colors mixed in with a homely feeling.
Compared to the anime-like appearance of the character’s avatars and the on-screen icons for navigating each town, these stood out like a sore thumb. While I didn’t mind them too much, it felt like they were taking away from the natural beauty of the story being told. Even the combat system felt like an entirely different game on its own and didn’t feel as if it fit in well with the current set-up.
The Great Whale Road has good elements and bad ones that contribute to its overall spirit and yet take away from its best features. If it had been handed to me as a pure visual novel with the combat system eliminated, I might’ve adored it. The writing is good, the artwork, for the most part, fits in with the story being told, and combining elements of Norse Mythology into the main story (I’m looking at the name ‘Floki’ here) provided a nice backdrop to flesh out the world. There are even a few fantastical elements being hinted at like the undead scratching at the outside of the great hall during one night and an old woman chanting spells to drive them away. I positively adored being able to manage the village and balance out resources while playing diplomat and trading when visiting other villages.
Going to the other side of the spectrum, other elements just didn’t mesh well or felt overwhelming. The combat system and how it works could’ve been a standalone game all on its own, not to mention having to manage the heroes’ stamina if they’re taken with you to go questing or you need them to complete tasks. Being given a lengthy tutorial explaining different aspects of gameplay is helpful, but the amount of information given to the player every ten to twenty minutes just didn’t feel like it had a chance to sink in. Most of the time it felt as if I was being rushed through these explanations instead of being given enough time to absorb the information before putting them into practice.
The Great Whale Road isn’t necessarily bad, but as presented in its current state, I can’t say it’s great either. The elements for a rousing good time are all present, along with a decent story that takes advance of the best parts of interactive historical fiction. But the game lays everything on players at once, overwhelming them with options and little sense of wonder. With extra polish, fine tuning, and just some general streamlining the experience to make it a little more player friendly, this could’ve been one adventure worth the undertaking.