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Wartales gears up for Early Access as a more accessible version of Battle Brothers

Shiro Games says it's hoping players find themselves challenged by and immersed in Wartales low fantasy world

A band of adventurers climbs a snowy peak toward an abandoned stone lookout tower in Wartales.

Wartales has a charming look to it: the isometric perspective has a tilt-shifted appearance, making its grassy hills and stone inns look like parts of a model train diorama. But this open-world game is also about role-playing as a person without any magical superpowers – your band of grubby mercenaries is made up of largely normal people, who may or may not have to resort to cannibalism before all this is over.

Developer Shiro Games is also responsible for the charming but challenging Northgard, an RTS game that de-emphasises combat micromanagement and has an almost storybook look to it. So it’s surprising to see the early hints of much darker themes in the opening hour or so of Wartales, which you can experience yourself in the free demo on Steam.

After the first tutorial fight, you can root through the valuables left behind by the bandits you’ve just killed. Their bodies can be carried with you, if you like – Shiro Games explains that with the right skill, your characters can use them for nourishment.

It’s a grim world, and Shiro Games head of marketing and publishing Adrien Briatta says it’s meant to be challenging – but perhaps a bit less punishing than Battle Brothers, another open-world medieval tactics game, whose similarities with Wartales we noticed right away.

Briatta says Shiro Games loved a lot of the ideas in Battle Brothers, but felt it was just too punishing to be enjoyable.

“I really tried, and to be honest, I really wanted to make it work, but it’s not fun,” Briatta said.

The Mount & Blade series is another point of inspiration for Wartales, as you’ll be managing a mercenary band and keeping them fed and paid up using the spoils of your battles. But it’s adding a few ideas cribbed from around the RPG and survival game spaces. Since you’re not a famous hero or anything, Briatta says you’ll have a hard time making ends meet without resorting to stealing.

That’s where the profession system kicks in. Each time you’re confronted with the need for a new class, you’ll have the opportunity to start a member of your party along that line of professional development. Instructing a member to steal some cabbage, for instance, will set him down the road to becoming a master thief.

The same goes for cooks, medics, and the rest of the potential careers party members can take up along the road. Each party member can only have one profession, so as your needs grow, you’ll have to think about recruiting new members you encounter at inns.

Read more: The best medieval games on PC

Combat is turn-based and straightforward. You’ll select starting positions for each unit, then use action points to move and perform attacks and other battlefield feats. Your characters’ skills are tied to the equipment they’re using – holding a bow might enable a vicious shot, while a dagger could be used to ‘stab’ or be dipped in poison. The skills available to a character will change when you give them new gear, and will depend on the quality of the gear you’ve picked out for them. Injuries are important to keep track of, and if left untreated they can severely impair characters’ fighting ability – suffering a concussion, for instance, might cut a mercenary’s constitution in half until he’s seen to.

“The characters are basically designed as classical tabletop character sheets, you have six different attributes that you can level up however you want,” Briatta explains. “Whenever you reach a big step – level 3, level 5, level 7, or level 9 – you have to choose between specialisations.”

For a character who’s spent their time swinging a sword, that might be the choice between a protector, a knight, or a sword master, and each of those specialisations has its own unique skill to add to weapons that you can find in your travels.

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There are no wizards or sorcerers in Wartales, but the low fantasy setting does have a kind of ambient magickal weirdness to it. In the trailer above, you can see the spines on the back of a huge beast appear above the canopy in a distant forest.

Wartales will head into Steam Early Access this year, and Briatta says Shiro Games expects it to spend a year there prior to full launch.