Winds of Change is the latest game from developer Tall Tail Studios, whose previous title, 2016’s Major/Minor, I rather enjoyed. Yes, Major/Minor had some stumbling blocks and was an acquired taste, but it was a more compelling visual novel than I would have expected and made me curious about what Tall Tail Studios would roll out with next. It is clear that the developers put in some serious time woodshedding, doing their homework, hitting the gym, or whatever metaphor you fancy over the past few years, because Winds of Change is a tremendous improvement over Major/Minor and a total labor of love.
Winds of Change plays like a traditional Choose Your Own Adventure-style visual novel with some point-and-click sections where you search your environment for items or information. The narrative offers tons of choices that influence several factors, such as event plotting, world building (it’s a good idea to visit the optional areas on the map), and character relationships. Some dialogue choices have icons that determine the emotion of your responses (e.g. joking, flirty, aggressive, neutral, etc.) and can open or close various characters’ dialogue trees.
You may choose to play as either a male or female protagonist, and the potential romance options are not restricted based on gender. You may even choose to eschew romance altogether. Do note, however, that the majority of characters (romanceable or otherwise) you interact with are male. There are few female characters in the game and only one with whom you extensively converse. I would have liked to see some fun or flirty dialogue options with the other female characters in the game, but that’s more of a personal want than a knock on the game itself.
Side conversations between characters are accessible via the “Party Banter” system and are a great way to witness how the characters in your entourage relate to each other. Winds of Change also contains the “Parallel Chronicles” system that allows you to see what’s going on with other characters elsewhere in the world. Sometimes, playing from a first-person perspective can be limiting, so Party Banter and Parallel Chronicles allow forays into “omniscient narrator” mode to see what’s happening outside your field of perception.
Like Major/Minor before it, Winds of Change is heavily driven by moral ambiguity, and there are several difficult decisions to make. The game features a purity/corruption meter, but it’s not a clear paragon/renegade paradigm. The narrative often contemplates the shades of grey between the correct choice and the right choice. These nuances make Winds of Change worth playing multiple times, despite the plot trajectory following similar beats with each playthrough.
The story begins like many JRPGs do. An evil empire has razed your peaceful mountain village of Valinorth, and you’ve fainted in the middle of the blaze. A young woman wakes you up, but despite her insistence that you grew up together, you have no recollection of who she is. But before you can ponder that, a burly guy claiming to be your protector insists you get to safety or risk literally dying in a fire.
Valessa, the aforementioned young woman, enigmatically mentions that your state of disorientation is a side effect that comes from being thrust into a prophetic vision that feels real but may not be entirely true. As something akin to your guide, she also mentions that Ulric, the burly guardian, is unaware that he’s in a vision, so it’s important to exercise discretion, lest the illusion shatter and mess up your mind.
Let’s just say the vision does not end well, and you wake up with a start, as if you had just experienced an intense nightmare. Fortaime, your junior assistant, then knocks on your door and prepares you for your day. From those humble beginnings, Winds of Change simmers into a lengthy, complex, and politically charged story with tons of intriguing characters. This is not a fast-moving game at all, so patient players who enjoy exploring deeply and stopping to smell the roses will be well rewarded here. I spent about 16 hours on a single playthrough because I wanted to explore everything. And yes, subsequent playthroughs allow fast forwarding through previously seen dialogue.
I should probably mention that all the characters in this game are anthropomorphic animals or creatures. Some people may be turned off by that for a multitude of reasons, but it makes no difference to me. A character like Valessa would be cool whether she’s her usual fox-person self or an anime-styled human with reddish blonde hair. Rejecting a game simply because it has “talking animals” or whatnot is silly to me. The 1978 animated film Watership Down was about talking bunnies, yet it was grim, dark, violent, and the complete antithesis of cute and cuddly. Winds of Change is one of those games where it’s best to check your preconceived notions at the door and simply experience it for what it is.
I found the high-definition character portraits creatively designed and very expressive. They look great atop the lushly drawn backgrounds, making for a cohesive-feeling world. The various custom icons in the cleanly designed interface look great as well, particularly those that resemble 16-bit chibi sprite versions of the characters. All in all, Winds of Change is a clean and slick-looking game.
Winds of Change also has a solid soundtrack. Each piece of music fits its intended scene, and the compositions reminded me a lot of classic JRPG music, albeit adapted to fit the more deliberate pacing of a visual novel. Along with the instrumental music are three vocal themes used throughout the game. All three are good, but my favorite is the one that plays when you are traversing the open seas on a ship.
The game also features full voice acting, and the sound quality of the voices is pretty consistent across the board. This is important to note, considering that all the actors likely recorded their lines in their own home studios, and no two studios are exactly the same. I also felt that the timbre of each actor’s voice fit the characters they were assigned to. For example, it’s difficult to imagine the stoic warrior Ulric without that warm and mellow voice his actor had.
The acting itself, however, is inconsistent. Performances run the entire gamut from award-worthy to out-to-lunch. My favorite is that of Fortaime, the aforementioned junior assistant. Everything about his actor’s performance felt genuine. He seemed to truly throw himself into that role with everything he had. From what I understand, he is a fan-favorite character and I’ll bet his spirited performance is the reason why. On the other hand, Ulric’s actor sounds more bored than stoic when delivering his lines, belying the character’s gravitas. Regardless, I’m all about seeing up-and-coming voiceover artists get a chance to perform, and I definitely see a future for some of these actors.
Another inconsistency is that some characters pronounce the same place and character names differently despite being from similar homelands. I’ve seen these kinds of discrepancies from established actors in bigger-budget games, so I suppose I can be forgiving here. However, hearing one particular character pronounce the word “triumvirate” incorrectly bugged me because the rulers of the evil empire call themselves The Triumvirate and everyone else says it properly.
When all is said and done, I enjoyed my time with Winds of Change. I liked its blend of visual novel and point-and-click elements, making it a sort of East-meets-West game. I also found the story and characters engaging and spent several playthroughs exploring new character subplots and decision branches. On the other hand, some of the voice actors were not that great. Winds of Change is a niche game that won’t appeal to everyone, but whether you try it or not, I still encourage folks to step out of their gaming comfort zones and try something a little different or unconventional.