Open-source, indie, flash: when people hear these words coupled alongside “game,” wide-eyed, Christmas-esque joy isn’t exactly the initial response. Many come to a conclusion sort of like, “If it’s so good, why isn’t it a commercial title?” Who can blame them? Certainly, that’s a rational response. However, in Battle for Wesnoth’s (BfW) case, this would be an assumption made in error.
Despite its generous price tag, BfW offers more quality and quantity than almost any commercial title available. Even with seven years of work put into BfW (the game launched in “beta” form in 2003 and reached 1.0 “official launch” status in October 2005), accessibility and taste are the core issues, if you would call them that. For some, its demand on the player’s time, as well as the grueling difficulty and thought required in some of the campaigns, is a blessing, since it keeps the game free of immature players in the online-multiplayer realm, and in the forum community. If nothing else, BfW relies on a niche caste of gamer.
Don’t expect to beat BfW in one sitting. Or in six months. Staggering, to say the least, the content available from the main campaign alone will demand at least a hundred hours of gameplay. Although fifteen campaigns may not seem like a lot, with all of the losses added up (and you will lose – continuously), the time it takes to complete the entire compilation requires staggering determination, bouts of depression, fits of anger, and, finally, acceptance.
After completing an excellent tutorial containing two well-written and designed battles, you know all that you need to know about BfW. The game very much follows the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) philosophy, and, if you ask me, more games could afford to try this style of design, but I digress. Very simply: you receive an objective, start at your main camp site with a leader, recruit units of varying types, end your turn, and move around the map on your following turn. As you move around the map, you capture villages in order to earn income, since your units aren’t working for free. They gotta eat, too, you know (before dying a horrible, ill-strategized death). Of course, along the way you’re bound to run into mean ol’ orcs or undead, or whatever, and you battle. When you complete your objective within the allotted amount of turns, you win. It’s just that simple.
So, you may be thinking, “Bob, this is dumb, I’ve played games like this before. What’s the draw?” Well, I’m glad you asked, inquisitive reader of RPG-reviewing goodness. It doesn’t do anything different: it takes everything that works and uses it in harmony. Nothing new gets introduced here: time of day affects your units’ strength, troops level up, portions of income carry over between battles, optional objectives are available from time to time (i.e. survive as long as possible, make character X escape as soon as possible, etc.), hidden goodies can be obtained throughout the map, hidden objectives can be met, and so on. Players will also get to revisit the infamous “Slade Maneuver,” a tactic that involves weakening an opponent with already-powerful units, only to finish it off with a potential dynamo. So, yes, the game is a bit more complicated than what’s described above, but these are all just tiny bells and tiny whistles. However, what sets BfW apart from major titles is that it’s constantly being worked on, oftentimes incorporating input from the community. Of course, by now, the base has been established, but the game has been made by gamers, for gamers. While Atlus or Square Enix might complete a product in one fell swoop before releasing it to the public, BfW has been a work-in-progress for seven years. Though, despite its constant trek toward perfection, the game has its flaws. For even the most hardcore of gamers, the game may seem out of the bounds of reason for one solitary reason: luck.
Please don’t misunderstand me; the game does not rely on luck. However, this isn’t chess – chance is, indeed, a factor. I also don’t want to confuse this for a flaw, but it’s definitely one of the most complained-about aspects. At the end of the day, sound strategy triumphs over bad luck, and relying on risky tactics may land you in a tough spot – always have a pawn protecting your bishop, etc. That said, even the novice campaigns can feel cumbersome and frustrating if you are a novice. Now, this seems to make sense: if you’re a novice, you should be appropriately challenged by the novice campaigns. However, when a unit attacks three times for ten damage with an 80% chance of hitting, only to lose to a unit that hits once for twenty-four damage with a 30% hit rate, frustration begins to set in. Immediately: “The random-number-generator is FUBAR,” “This game relies too heavily on luck,” “No wonder this game is free; it sucks.” The way in which damage is dealt and dished out can seem unfair. Combine this with ambushes that a first-time player of a campaign gets caught in, and the game seems to be taunting you. However, there are ways in which a thoughtful player can keep track of how he’s playing and fix his mistakes.
Battle for Wesnoth is not just a compilation of campaigns with an online-multiplayer feature. Within the game, you can find various tools to help you, like an encyclopedia that offers stats on all of the units you’ve encountered, what they can promote into, what terrain they fight best on, and much more. The numbers are not hidden from the gamer – anything he wants to know about his opponent or his own units is available to him. Aside from this, the game also offers a statistics option which lets you track just how much bad luck you’re dealing with. If the player has a high positive percentage of damage inflicted, he’s actually getting pretty lucky. However, if he’s getting the raw end of a deal, the game shows this as negative statistics. This keeps the player honest, making sure that he doesn’t focus too much on his misfortune. Like any game with an element of chance, we tend to remember failures more than successes. Thoughtful implementations like these are what sets BfW above and beyond its commercial counterparts, along with powerful customization tools and vast multiplayer content.
Customization and Online Content
For those who wish to play god, Battle for Wesnoth is your oyster. If you see something done in the main campaigns that perks your interest, chances are it can be done in the editor and Wesnoth Markup Language (WML), the lightweight coding language that BfW offers its users. Indeed, entire campaigns have been made by hundreds, maybe even thousands of gamers, some of which have exceptional quality from my personal experience. Admittedly, I have not toyed with the customization or creation tools, but the good word is that it’s easy to learn if given the time. Don’t worry, though – if you don’t want to scour through campaign after campaign, only to have to endure more error than success in your trials, the Add-ons server lists all of the content available along with the amount of downloads each content add-on has received. If that’s not good enough for you, a quick visit to the forums can offer insight into what’s available. Looking for a cooperative campaign with a friend? Someone will point you in the right direction. Want to fly solo in a long, epic quest? You’ll never find an exhaustive list – there’s just too many available.
The community’s absolutely fantastic, for reasons I alluded to above. This is a thinking man’s (or woman’s) game. Running head first into three enemies solo isn’t going to cut it. With that said, few immature kids are likely to troll their way onto the forums, so the community is usually eager to comment or help even the newbie with one post to his name. The online community has much of the same feel, though a few exceptions can be found here and there. All will agree that occurrences of trash talking and slurs are minuscule compared to the rest of the online gaming world.
Quick play is encouraged, and by “encouraged,” I mean that if you don’t take your turn fast enough for Picky McGee, you are likely to find yourself sitting alone in the near future. While the game requires a degree of patience, almost every game is likely to take at least an hour, so people don’t want to waste more time than they need to waiting for a new player to make erroneous moves. What’s worse, in games with three or more players, some people go AFK or move on to another window in order to pass the time, not realizing when their turn comes up. A timer is available in-game, but you also have to offer a reasonable amount of time for the climax of the battle when victory can be determined by one hexagonal move on a 30×30 board. This puts new players in a tough spot, forcing them to play with friends or by themselves. However, if you hone your skills well enough, you can compete in a ladder. As a cool little side note, the top 10 of the ladder usually contains someone from a different country in each slot; Battle for Wesnoth is popular throughout the world, and North America isn’t usually number one.
Battle for Wesnoth is, at its heart, a strategy RPG that weighs heavily on the gameplay aspect. Oftentimes, gamers will find the story to be an excuse for certain types of map designs, predicaments, or unconventional objectives. However, a world, or, rather, a continent, has definitely been carved. Wesnoth has its lore, containing epic tales of altruistic, perfect heroes, as well as antiheroes. In fact, one of the best plots follows the plight of peasants, and how they revolt, rising up as a possible new power in Wesnoth’s future. While each campaign tells a very different tale about the history of Wesnoth and its people, they successfully weave into a sort of chaptered book of the land’s history.
The game doesn’t contain amazing cinematics to tell the story, instead opting for pieces of artwork hovering over text when the appropriate character speaks. As one would expect, the formula usually goes as follows: the campaign starts with a brief introduction about what’s happening, battle ensues, quick bits of dialogue are spoken after the battle is won, the next battle begins with some storyline, and so on. Occasionally, longer segments appear between battles, but these aren’t common. Most exciting are the times when secret triggers are discovered in battle, causing a couple protagonists to talk to each other, or for the main antagonist to trade barbs with the hero. Battle for Wesnoth definitely plays like a game with story, rather than a story with gameplay.
Like the various tools available to the player in-game, the controls are catered to the people who play the game, by the people who play the game. Every functionality and hotkey you could want is in the game. And, after seven years, if it’s not – go to the forums and make your case. Chances are, if it makes sense, they’ll implement it, but I’m sure by now everything’s been considered (I mean, these are controls for cryin’ out loud). Handy hotkeys make the game quick and easy to play, like the ‘n’ key, which automatically centers on any character you haven’t moved yet for the turn. Of course, hotkeys are available for pretty much any other command you could think of in the game, but if you’d rather just use your mouse to right click and access menus, that works just as well. Some people complain that they can’t undo moves when they reveal parts of the map, but it wouldn’t make much sense to undo parts of the map after you’ve already revealed them.
Really, there’s nothing to nitpick here. Intuitive.
Graphics and Sound
This section should be read with consideration for the review’s age. While elements like gameplay and story will remain untouched for the most part, the graphics and sound are always being improved. I’ve played BfW on and off for two years now, and through that time, I’ve witnessed grand strides made in the realm of graphics and sound. This should be taken as a positive sign, as the lead developers are always looking for artists to add content. Although some of the older artwork looks “okay,” to put it politely, the drawings for the new campaigns have gotten a lot better. However, these are largely unimportant, since you’re not looking at them most of the time.
What’s most important are the sprites and animations on the battlefield. The stills, themselves, are attractive, similar to the style of PlayStation Strategy RPGs like Tactics Ogre. However, what’s most impressive are the attack and death animations. Whether burning down a living, breathing, beat-you-in-the-face tree, or casting down lightning on a wraith, the visuals are sure to impress in their tiny, detailed simplicity. Some animations have gotten complete overhauls, despite how basic and satisfactory they originally seemed, like the human mage casting a ball of light that now slings itself at the enemy, rather than just flying at the enemy straight away. The constant drive to improve upon the game should be applauded and commended.
The sound department is no different. Lightning crashing down on an enemy from a level 4 Elder Mage sounds powerful and destructive, while a fallen orc sounds about as woebegone and pitiful as one would expect. Nothing amazing has been done here, but that’s part of what makes the sounds so great – they are what they should be, with not an ounce of exaggeration to be found. As for the music, you definitely won’t find yourself as moved and charmed by the tunes as you might have in Final Fantasy Tactics (Antipyretic – oh man). Battle for Wesnoth’s music should be considered atmosphere; it certainly comes off as professional and expertly put together, but it’s simple. In fact, the game, in its entirety, is simple.
The Dramatic Conclusion
I’m amazed at how addictive and engrossing such a slow-paced, mentally demanding game can be, while at the same time relying on such simple game design, when commercial titles often rely on gimmicks to base the entire game around, like pushing or throwing your allies around the battlefield. Through my years of playing independent games, I’ve come to realize how much is lost when money gets thrown into the equation – when an executive is breathing down a developer’s neck to create a game in a certain way, with an impossible deadline. Perhaps this is why David White created BfW as a free, open-source game.
Battle for Wesnoth is one of, if not THE, best independently developed games I’ve encountered. Even the older campaigns are constantly rebalanced in such small, seemingly meaningless ways, so that the game can appeal to everyone, novice or High Lord. The developers have even made it so alternative coding languages can be used to create Wesnoth campaigns. A near-obsessive attention to detail, and pure, untainted knowledge for what its audience wants make Battle for Wesnoth one of the best strategy RPGs available, commercial or otherwise. Just make sure you have a lot of time set aside to explore the yellowed pages of Wesnoth’s history.