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Manor Lords’ new survival RPG cousin is an ambitious master of none

Donkey Crew's new survival crafting RPG Bellwright is trying to do a whole lot, but time will tell if it all combines into a good game.

Bellwright early access review: an armored soldier swinging a sword above their head.

One of the most appealing things about the survival crafting genre is how it asks us to slow down, spend some time in a place, get to know how it works, and settle in. Unfortunately, that’s a double-edged sword: the same systems that pull us into a place and its particular rhythms can suddenly feel dull and onerous, and it becomes clear that a game is holding us back to cover for an ultimately threadbare offering. After spending a solid chunk of time with the Steam early access version of Bellwright, I’ve found that it’s a lot more of the latter than the former.

Bellwright is a medieval survival crafting game from developer Donkey Crew, the studio behind the nomadic MMO Last Oasis. Starting out in a ruined belltower, you set out across the land to clear your name of a heinous crime you didn’t commit – the murder of a prince.

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There are some neat ideas underpinning Bellwright. You can recruit NPCs and bring them to your settlement, either working as laborers in the village or taking up arms to accompany you on adventures or patrol the surrounding area. You’re not limited to one companion, either: the idea is to build up a whole platoon of well-equipped soldiers for you to command in battle.

Unfortunately, in about eight hours of play, I haven’t seen much of this promise. It’s largely been a paint-by-numbers survival game experience, with the added frustrations of critical resources that feel much too sparse and an inventory that feels much too small. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to set out on a lengthy expedition to find more flax flowers, which are called for in many of the early crafting and building recipes, only to return at the end of the day with a couple handfuls at best. Meanwhile, I need to be keeping an eye out for berries and mushrooms to make sure my companions don’t get hungry and wander off on their own. It can take several in-game days just to find everything I need to research a new technology.

Bellwright early access review: the entrance to a small medieval town.

Everything I want to do takes forever in Bellwright. A recipe calls for river reeds, and since I can’t pick them from the pond near the NPC town (the town ‘owns’ everything in the surrounding countryside), I have to walk half an in-game day to a lake and back. A research recipe requires six logs, but I can only carry one or two at a time. Items take an annoyingly long time to craft, and each building I put up requires me to walk around the building site clicking on several dozen individual prompts.

There’s a reason for this: Bellwright wants you to delegate those tasks to your recruited NPCs. This works, to a degree: I can go to my research station, pick a technology to research, and as long as I have the materials in my stockpile, any of my villagers set as ‘worker’ will start transporting the materials and doing the research. They’ll build weapons, split wood, forage in the forest, mine, and even handle crafting. As you move up the technology tree, the requirements for ungainly objects like logs and rarer materials get steeper, practically necessitating the use of this delegation system.

Bellwright early access review: a small band of villagers carrying makeshift weapons.

Even when that’s working as intended, I still have to physically walk to each workstation and wrangle with Bellwright’s clumsy menu system to queue up the jobs I want done. While I don’t have to personally do the research or craft each item, I find that I’m still mostly tied up with admin, organization, and fetching far-flung materials outside my settlement’s borders.

Things are a bit more fun when I get the gang together to go exploring. We’ve taken out a couple packs of wolves and one group of highway bandits, and those encounters have added some occasional excitement to my time in Bellwright. Here again though the game’s early state gets in the way. Movement feels floaty, and every time I jump, my character hangs in midair just a bit too long. I can use different attacks by angling the mouse just right as I click, but it’s hard to judge whether a swing is going to connect with its target or not.

Bellwright early access review: top-down view of a battle with some bandits.

We’ve established a pretty set pattern for fights, too: the name of the game is to isolate individual enemies and take them out one at a time. I have my companions defend me, then we lure the enemies out one by one so that the three of us can easily overpower them. NPCs appear to know this trick too and will often try to swarm me if I pull too many at a time.

There’s also the issue of the story, which is told primarily through interacting with NPCs you meet in the world. Right now, these are all overly generic-looking characters, frequently mismatched with their in-game descriptions (the first ‘village elder’ I met looked like a scruffy 30-year-old) and voiced by AI text-to-speech. Donkey Crew has said this is a placeholder, and that eventually all of Bellwright’s voiceover will be replaced by human voices provided by paid voice actors. For now, though, you have to make do with the jarringly emotionless cadence of a Speak & Spell.

Bellwright early access review: the player character talking to a village elder.

None of this makes Bellwright a bad game, but there’s not enough unique personality here yet to bump it up to must-play status, especially when we’re so spoiled for choice with survival crafting games. If you’re looking for a medieval fantasy setting, there’s Valheim or Enshrouded. Palworld handles combat and task delegation better. I found building my own cabins and forts in Sons of the Forest more satisfying, and the story and setting was better in The Long Dark. When I want to lead an army of medieval soldiers around a map, I reach for Mount & Blade: Bannerlord.

Donkey Crew has already pushed several patches for Bellwright and seems excited about continuing to work on the game. There’s definitely potential here for something neat, but I think the developer needs to use early access as a chance to think hard about what it wants Bellwright to do particularly well – the thing that’s going to make it stand out from the pack. Without that, it risks becoming one more forgotten PC game in the increasingly crowded survival crafting genre.