In a heavily fictionalized version of the 1980s exists an elite boarding school called Wintermoor Academy. Think of Wintermoor Academy as something akin to Hogwarts but without magic. Your avatar at Wintermoor is Alicia, an aspiring fantasy writer who’s part of the school’s Tactics Club where she and her friends Colin and Jacob play a tabletop RPG called Curses & Catacombs. One fine afternoon, while the three are playing, Principal Enfield calls for an assembly in the auditorium where he informs the student body that there will be a mandatory snowball fighting tournament to determine which school club is Wintermoor’s Ultimate Club. Snowball fight winners move up in the tournament and losers have their clubs disbanded. None of the students want to participate in this farce, but declining to participate also results in club disbandment, so it’s basically eat or be eaten.
Alicia and the Tactics Club win their first snowball fight, against all odds, but she is not happy about it at all. On the one hand, she’s glad that her club lives to play another day because she’s a misfit whose club gives her a sense of belonging. On the other hand, she’s upset that she played a part in causing another club’s disbandment. Sure, the opposing club consisted of mean-spirited elitists in the vein of Draco Malfoy, but they too were misfits whose club gave them a sense of belonging. Something is clearly rotten in Wintermoor Academy and Alicia is determined to both save her club and figure out the truth behind Principal Enfield’s enigmatic actions.
Wintermoor Tactics Club may be a strategy RPG about playing tabletop RPGs, but is described as a “cozy SRPG” where combat is fun and accessible, yet still has some depth. I liked that combat wasn’t a complex endeavor where I spent more time reading menus and fiddling with stats than getting out there and playing. I also liked that the party and battlefield sizes were small so I could get right down to business instead of wasting a kajillion turns simply walking my battalion across vast landmasses. The default settings are skewed easy, but the game features multiple parameters for players to scale and customize the difficulty settings to their liking.
The only aspect I didn’t like about combat is that characters can only move before performing an action. For example, if it’s my turn and an enemy is in front of me, I cannot attack first and then move out of the way. Once I attack, I cannot move. I’m used to SRPGs where I have the option to move characters either before or after they perform an action. This doesn’t take away any enjoyment from the game, but was a limitation I had to get used to.
Battling is important, but the gameplay outside of battle is often the most rewarding. Between battles, Alicia explores Wintermoor’s campus, talks to the student body, does sidequests for people, and all that good stuff. As in Grandia II, the NPCs all have multiple lines of dialogue and don’t simply repeat one line ad nauseum. There are some interactive activities as well, such as guiding Alicia to write effective tabletop campaigns to help newly recruited club members with their own personal hurdles. It’s no secret that I loved traipsing around the school, getting to know the other students, and doing the “teen beat” sidequests between battles. Not only did this make the Wintermoor campus feel more alive, but it resulted in a lot of battle bonuses as well.
I absolutely adored the character designs. The large dialogue portraits were detailed, vivid, and expressive. I don’t know whose art style I can compare it to, but I know the art in this game is fantastic and I want comic books and an animated series with these characters. Part of why the character designs drew me into the world is that each person at Wintermoor also has their own unique sprite. There are no paper doll look-alikes here; each denizen on campus has a distinct body shape, fashion sense, posture, gait, everything. Both playable and non-playable characters fall into clear archetypes, but they have personalities and undergo a believable amount of development over the weeklong course of the game’s narrative.
The isometric environments are artfully done as well. The places that Alicia explores are lush, and the Wintermoor campus felt like home the longer I played the game. During battles, the graphics are more simplistic, resembling square tabletop game boards with characters and enemies represented by game pieces. Lost or missing game pieces hit close to home for tabletop and board gaming enthusiasts, so the characters’ improvising with everyday objects like salt shakers to make up for lost pieces was visually apt and added heart to the narrative.
Controls, on the other hand, were inconsistent. I preferred using a gamepad to walk Alicia around the school but preferred using the mouse during battles. WASD + Mouse would have been the best control scheme here, but a WASD option was unavailable to me. It was either 100% mouse driven or the mouse + gamepad hybrid I adopted. Though switching between favored modes of control for various aspects of the game did not hinder my overall enjoyment, options to map keyboard and gamepad controls to my liking would have been nice.
The synth-based soundtrack takes cues from several music genres. All the music presented is rather good, but if you asked me to hum any of the tunes for you, I couldn’t. I would tell you about my favorite pieces of in-game music that had me grooving along, but doing so would give away massive game spoilers. The game features no voice acting, but I’m fine with that. If you watched cartoons as a kid, you can easily imagine how each character would sound. The music and sound effects fill up enough sonic space that I certainly didn’t miss any voice acting.
Playing Wintermoor Tactics Club gave me the same feeling as curling up on the couch with a comic book and a blanket. It wholeheartedly lived up to its billing as a “cozy” game and I loved the 12 or so hours I spent with it. The entire play experience felt smooth and I enjoyed immersing myself in this game’s world without overwrought menu hopping and stat gathering interrupting my reverie. Wintermoor Tactics Club is far from perfect and may not please hardcore SRPG fans, but I thought it was a great game and I hope to see more like it in the future.