Friday, 20 July 2018

Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf Review (Visual Novel/RPG Hybrid)

While Loren: The Amazon Princess, which I reviewed two weeks ago, if fairly well-known among western VN fans and did a lot to establish WinterWolves studio as a respected OELVN developer, the second RPG placed in the fantasy world of Aravorn, Seasons of the Wolf, flew very much below the radar of most gamers and VN fans. Published on Steam in January 2015, this game pushed the series in a slightly different direction, with a smaller cast, more casual story and far fewer romance options, to a very mixed reaction from the players.
            However, Seasons of the Wolf was also the title that made significant improvements to the core gameplay mechanics of the series and refined the whole experience in a way that created a standard for future WinterWolves RPGs to follow and build upon. How then this “less of a dating sim” (citing the developer himself) looks like three years after its initial release and is it worth attention from VN fans, especially those that are more interested in the story, rather than RPG gameplay?
The smaller cast was a disappointment for many fans of Loren: The Amazon Princess but fits the more toned-down, focused story of the game
While Loren told an epic story of world-ending threats and large-scale battles, the plot of Seasons of the Wolf is much smaller in scale – and one could even say, intimate. It follows the story of snow elf twins from a remote village, Shea and Althea, who after a chain of unfortunate events ends up in slavery, forced to risk their lives as gladiators in a foreign city's arena. There, they find new comrades, with whom they fight for their freedom, and to eventually find their way home. While this might seem less exciting than waging a war against a demon lord, I actually enjoyed this aspect of the game very much – it makes it easier to avoid some over-the-top developments and fantasy clich├ęs, while also the game makes it clear that our team’s adventure leaves its mark on the world, for better or for worse.
            What however gathered a bit more criticism is downscaling of the cast – from 13 character’s in the party in Loren to 8, and from 8 available romance option to 4 (two of which were exclusively homosexual and the others exclusively straight) – this meant that players usually had only one option in their favourite configuration and not always the one they found most appealing – and while this would be a pretty significant variety in other cases, WinterWolves’ fans just expected more. This most likely wasn’t made any better by the fact that Chalassa, the female assassin who has the probably the most interesting and involved romance arc, was only romanceable when playing as a female, which the player could easily learn only after she rejects his advances late into the game. Still, the general quality of the character development and design, both with the romanceable and non-romanceable ones, is actually very high and much more than it was the case in Loren, every member of the cast had a crucial role to play as several points of the plot, never being sidelined by the plot or becoming useless in the RPG portion of the game.
The RPG aspect of the game, very much unlike Loren, is rather well developed, with a strong sense of progression and decent class balance
Another thing has to be said about the protagonist gender choice, which once more is well-implemented, but with a slightly different technique than in Loren. While there male and female protagonists were separate characters, only the one you chose appeared in the story, in Seasons of the Wolf both twins play a central role throughout the game and your choice only decides which of them will make decisions for the group and romance options available to you. It’s a very seamless, but effective way of implementing this feature and with the addition of VN modes, which skips all battles, makes replaying the game for different romances very smooth.
            Talking about battles, while the RPG mechanics in Loren were heavily unbalanced and underdeveloped, here they remained similar on the surface, but changed in a few crucial ways. The first addition, the importance of which is impossible to overstate, is a “time limit” on most quests and portions of the story. You can spend limited amount of days in every zone and between crucial plot-points, and while it doesn’t limit the number of battles or moves you can make on the overworld map, your party does not fully regenerate HP and SP between the fights – your stats can only be recovered through sleeping, which progresses the timer, or paying a hefty fee in a tavern. This makes every fight meaningful and makes you pay attention to gear and resources available to you at all times.
            The second major improvement is a good class and gear balance. Every character has a unique set of properly powerful skills and while still some setups, such as a 1h weapon + shield on warrior, are still pretty inefficient, no party members are stuck with unwanted gear combinations or overly role-specific abilities. There’s also a decent number of powerful passives that were sadly absent from many skill-trees in Loren, adding some actual customization to levelling up. There’s also a very good sense of progression, with gear and most skills scaling properly throughout the game and powerful, unique items being regularly rewarded for special quests. The combat can get slightly repetitive in later parts of the story, mostly due to the limited variety of enemies, but it never becomes unbearable.
Time limits make the RPG mechanics and resource management much more important than in Loren, adding meaning to most fights or trades you make
Obviously, the game isn’t without major flows and, maybe more importantly, will not be to everyone's taste. The visual style of Seasons of the Wolf is a direct continuation from Loren, including a significant amount of reused assets and its peculiarities might be off-putting to some. Unlike Loren, however, there’s no poorly scaled or pixelated assets that would objectively look bad. Elements such as skill icons or the pixelart in the overworld maps are simple, but consistent in quality and as I was already familiar with the general aesthetic, I enjoyed most of them. Sounds assets in battles (including voiceover) and music also did their job well, creating a strong climate – once more, I think more convincing than in the first game. 
            Other possible complains are connected to the story, with underdelivers in a few aspects, especially if you look at the main campaign, without the paid Bad Blood DLC. The main story ends rather abruptly and in an anticlimactic manner, clearly leaving a place for a proper conclusion in the expansion. The romance arcs also feel pretty minimalistic without the peek into them blossoming after the game’s initial conclusion. The full version, however, felt satisfying for me, both as an RPG and as a VN. In the end, I see this game as a major improvement over Winter Wolves’ first title in this style and it made me want more – I’m sure I’ll get to playing Cursed Lands and Reign of War, new Tales of Aravorn titles, sooner or later. For now, I strongly recommend you trying out Seasons of the Wolf if you enjoy this kind of hybrids – with all the complains and controversies around it, I think it’s a very good game, from one of the more interesting veteran devs of the OELVN scene that is definitely worth supporting. And while the game might seem pricey, it offers possibly dozens of hours of good-quality content – especially if you can grab it on sale, you should easily get your money's worth from it.

Final score: 3,5/5

+ Interesting setting
+ Well-developed characters
+ Solid RPG mechanics
- Limited romance options and short romance arcs
- Somewhat inconsistent art
- Repetitive combat

VNDB page
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