The Great Whale Road has a promising setting, but the gameplay fails to deliver a compelling story and the combat system is utterly infuriating.
Featured image via Sunburned Games.

The Great Whale Road Review: Vikings Without a Purpose

Apr 4, 2017
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Featured image via Sunburned Games.

The Great Whale Road is a story-driven RPG from Sunburned Games studio. Whose story are you driving? Well, the Great Whale Road is all about Vikings, and trying to do a good job at being a Viking–you control a faction of Vikings, and your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to lead their village to success. You must keep your plucky band of Nordic plunderers alive and safe throughout the game, dealing with a variety of existential threats. It’s a combination of narrative and micromanagement, at the end of the day, and The Great Whale Road divides your time into two seasons: summer and winter. During the summer, you adventure and travel to other lands. In the winter, you stay home and make tough decisions about how to survive.

I’ll cut to the chase: The Great Whale Road has potential, but fails to perform in many areas. Parts of the game feel polished, but there’s still room for improvement, and certain components of it need to be reworked entirely.

The Great Whale Road: Nordic Storytelling Adventures

After playing The Great Whale Road for around thirty seconds, it becomes clear that the Steam description wasn’t lying: the game is definitely “story-driven.” An hour later, not much has changed. The entirety of Winter is about small stories–you’re presented with situations in text form, and must decide how you want to handle it. Expect to read lots of backstory and long-winded explanations while dealing with things in traditional Viking fashion–whether you’re murdering foreigners, praying to the Gods, or consulting wise men, The Great Whale Road does an excellent job at making you feel like your decisions matter.

This all sounds nice, of course, but after two hours of gameplay, it became apparent that the ‘solutions’ to your problems leave a lot to be desired. Here’s the issue: there’s almost always a ‘correct’ answer in The Great Whale Road.

For example: there’s a sick traveler in town. Do we kill him and burn his stuff or quarantine him and burn his stuff? Just when you’re getting ready to embrace your Viking heritage and break out the Murderin’ Axe, an old man from your village explains that he’s encountered the illness before during his time abroad, and tells you to quarantine the traveler and treat his possessions with limestone.

The ‘correct’ answer is almost always painfully obvious, and these immersion-breaking moments don’t do The Great Whale Road any favors. The worst part, however, is that you’re rewarded or punished based on your decision–if you decide to be a murderous tyrant, you simply lose resources.

Decisions in the Great Whale Road are too simple, and there's no moral depth or ambiguity.
Gee, should I kill the oxen, sacrifice them, or try and heal them?

This strict ‘good vs. evil’ binary is a common video game trope, but I was hoping that The Great Whale Road would understand the need for greater moral ambiguity in a story-driven game about making supposedly difficult choices. Worst of all, there’s not even much of an incentive to make the ‘right’ choice. You might lose a villager or gain five food, but in the long run, it doesn’t change much. If you save the traveler, he gives you 50 gold. If you don’t, he doesn’t. Life goes on.

Your actions might have consequences in The Great Whale Road, but it’s difficult to find a reason to care.

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Combat: The Slowest Vikings in the World

While I can forgive some of the shortcomings of the game’s story, there’s no excuse for the awful combat in The Great Whale Road. The combat is turn-based with a tile scheme, similar to Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics.

The biggest issue with the combat is that it’s simply too long. Everything takes forever.

The early battles in The Great Whale Road serve as a tutorial, and they’re a chore to complete. You know you’re going to win, but the game doesn’t let you skip ahead.

The movement takes forever. The attacks take forever. The AI takes forever. Each battle is about five minutes long, and considering that the outcome of these fights matters even less than the decisions you make about sick travelers, these sequences quickly become a source of frustration.

The AI seems to only go after your leader, but he’s impossible to protect since the AI can usually attack two tiles. Kill a few enemies as fast as possible, then maybe defend for a turn with your leader as you finish off the others. There’s nothing even remotely difficult, strategic, or challenging about combat in The Great Whale Road There are skills that you can use, but especially in the early game, the effects of these are borderline useless. 10% more accuracy for a turn? The chance to land one extra hit for one extra damage? Woohoo. I didn’t even notice the skills on the combat screen until my third battle.

Combat in The Great Whale Road is a clunky and tiresome mess, and battles are a time-consuming chore.
A typical battle. Only one unit is deployed. Try and find the skills on this UI. (Tip: check out the sides.)

The final nail in the coffin for combat in The Great Whale Road is the agonizing deploy time. You start with one unit on the field, and can play your other units over time. Typically, you can play one per turn, including the first turn. By turn three, you’ve got your full squad of Vikings out. In other words, the best strategy is to do nothing. Just sit back and wait for your opponent to approach you while you deploy your Vikings. It’s another tedious part of an already boring system.

Immersion: Death or Glory

Mood and immersion are inextricably linked in The Great Whale Road. When you are immersed, the game’s atmosphere is great and you’re able to look past the lackluster graphics and clunky writing. When you’re not immersed, however, everything starts to unravel.

Your decisions don’t matter, and like I mentioned above, the core issue is that the game pushes you towards “correct” options. The Great Whale Road turns complex moral conundrums into simplistic video game extremes: will you burn the traveler alive or save him?

We love Vikings, but The Great Whale Road failed to win us over.
There was also quite a bit of extremely tedious traveling.

The combat, however, is easily the biggest problem here. By the time you’re actually enjoying the story, you’re usually forced to complete an excruciating combat sequence. You get invested in the narrative, but The Great Whale Road is its own worst enemy here. By the time you effortlessly dispatch the enemies, you’ve forgotten why you were fighting them.

Final Verdict

The Great Whale Road falls flat in many areas. Give us reasons to care about the decisions we make. Make our actions feel meaningful. Maybe there’s a food shortage in your village and if you kill the traveler, the villagers will be able to eat him and survive the winter. Or maybe you want to mount his decapitated head on a pike because you’re a badass Viking who loves slaughtering the innocent. It’s 2017, and The Great Whale Road’s inability to recognize the importance of moral ambiguity is one of the game’s many missteps.

Without immersion, story-based games aren’t worth playing, and the combat system in The Great Whale Road feels like a half-baked attempt to cram more ‘action’ into a game that would be better off focusing on what it does best.

The Great Whale Road does have potential, and it’s clear that a lot of hard work and research went into it. However, in its current state, it’s not a game I would recommend picking up. I’ve checked out older videos and the team has made plenty of big changes throughout the game’s development–I wouldn’t write off The Great Whale Road entirely, but unless there’s a massive update in the next six months, the game might be destined for obscurity.

The Great Whale Road is available for purchase on Steam for $17.99 USD.

Score: 4/10

Esports Edition was provided with a review copy of The Great Whale Road by the developer. As with all of our game and hardware reviews, our opinions are our own, and this article truthfully and accurately reflects our experiences with the product. Please review our Ethics Policy for more information.

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Stephen Draper
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Stephen has a degree in English from Brock University. He grew up playing video games and card games, always having an affection for strategy. He picked up League of Legends in early Season One and has since achieved Diamond rank multiple times. He also picked up Hearthstone in Beta and has since achieved Legend consistently. When he isn’t reading, writing, or gaming, he’s probably watching other people game.
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