Roadwarden Review Title

Roadwarden Review: A Modern Classic

Roadwarden feels like something that should have been part of the canon of great text based RPGs. A modern classic of the fantasy genre utterly confident in its players.

The peninsula is unknown. At least, to you. The Roadwarden. 

Sent out from the city by the guild to chart the region,and understand what awaits the guards, tax collectors and engineers who will follow in your wake in the spring.

As the Autumn chill and rain soaked roads crack into a Winter frost, the people, creatures and settlements of the Peninsula might argue it is in fact, known.  

And so you set out, with the freedom to choose how you’ll approach your task on the deeply forested landscape.

You must chart the roads, gauge the reaction of the villages to the encroachment of the city, find allies who’ll back your goals.

And also search for evidence of where the last Roadwarden has gone. 

Or maybe you’ll do none of that.

Maybe you’ll choose a different path to tread.

Regardless, the winter comes, the nights darken and the roads become more dangerous still. You’ll have forty days to achieve your aims. (Or you can have less, or no limit at all, spending on your desire for challenge)

Fantasy RPGs in Games often feel heavily like opening a tabletop RPG sourcebook for the first time.

There’s a wealth of wondrously deep lore and world building to enjoy, but it’s presented in a scattershot manner, not unlike reading a textbook. It’s especially the case in games when the many gameplay tutorials and guides kick in and you find yourself swept along in the opening teachable moments. 

Roadwarden is not a textbook. Roadwarden is a fantasy novel, illustrated with sketches, drawing you in with the narrative and characters before referring you to the appendixes and footnotes when you have additional questions.

It helps that this is not a mechanically complex interface.

On the left side of the screen, a pixel art rendition of your current location. In the centre, the text description as well as any dialogue. Below that, your potential responses, either in discussion or action. On the upper right, your menu interface including access to your inventory, glossary, journal and map.

Below that, the resource management element of Roadwarden. 

  • Vitality – How much energy you have for physical tasks, how much damage you can take. 
  • Nourishment – How much you’ve eaten recently, and influencing what you’re capable of doing.
  • Armour – Your gambeson will keep you safe from some harm, but you’ll need to maintain it where possible.
  • Appearance – Your clothes, your hair, your general hygiene will all impact how people take to you. 

As you move through the world, sometimes an option will be highlighted with a dice. These changes will be weighed against your characteristics above, your traits (you start as either a fighter, mage or scholar with one trait) or your equipment.

You don’t necessarily know the systems or the inputs, which means there’s always a sense of thrill to the roll. It could go any way, and you need to make the call based on your knowledge of yourself.

On a few occasions, I found myself looking at four or five options for an encounter. I’d check my inventory, I’d look at the journal/bestiary and try and work out how this information applied. And then I’d make a call based on what I knew.

And sometimes I was wrong.

Failure rarely feels like the end, merely another path through the narrative. 

In fact even dying means replaying a scenario/combat immediately, which feels incredibly friendly from a design perspective.

Then there’s one final element of roleplaying that really matters, you’re allowed space to develop your own thoughts. 

You’ll be provided with instances to react to character’s actions and words, deciding whether an Old Man’s speech patterns are because he needs time to gather his thoughts or he’s just trying to control the flow of conversation.

And having those moments gives a chance for reflection. You get to decide what you want your Roadwarden to be like, not just in action but in thought. 

It’s a trend that starts from the first moments of the game, where you’re provided with the opportunity to define your goals for the season ahead. 

Are you here for wealth? What type of wealth? Is it for your family or yourself?

Otherwise, you make conversation, you make choices, you’re presented with new dialogue. And sometimes the pixel art map will expand or change in reaction to all of that.

Sometimes you’ll be given an entry field and told to investigate the area. At that point it goes full use pulley on chicken as you try to parse what you’ve been told and what the pixel art suggests might be around. 

But while the art helps your mind visualise, it’s the writing that brings the world to the reality of your mind’s eye.

Everything comes back to the strength of the writing, which, it should be no surprise I enjoyed. The world of Roadwarden has some fascinating conventions and beliefs to dig into around life, death and souls especially. It’s often entirely unsubtle in areas, but not necessarily to the detriment of the narrative. For instance, there’s threads of a village expand too rapidly, disturbing nature or slaying too many animals. And then nature rises up in a herd of hooves and teeth to punish them. 

This is, obviously, an entirely unsubtle natural balance allegory. Easily identified.

And then Roadwarden keeps coming back to it in so many scenes. 

It becomes ubiquitous within the narrative, the way in which a parent might warn a child of some everpresent danger. Characters have different views on it, ways to ward it off, concerns about what happens. 

At a certain point, the sheer enthusiastic engagement with the idea meant it mentallh passed from preachy metaphor to just another aspect of the fabric of this world. 

And that’s Roadwarden at its best. It simply presents its world and narrative as absolutely earnest. Which means that it runs with its concepts and fully expects you to keep up. There are constantly references to queer characters of all stripes. They’re no more out of place than the long sequences on the nature of your faith or how your character reflects on the undead. Because in presenting this fantastical world in such an straightforward, compelling, mud under the fingernails manner, Roadwarden makes you believe in it too.

Images Provided by Moral Anxiety Studio and Assemble Entertainment

Roadwarden is available now on Steam, GOG and for ~£8.29