Winter Wolves’ series of RPGs set in the fantasy world of Aravorn, starting with the highly-appreciated Loren: The Amazon Princess, have a long and rich history, with three “mainline” games released over six years and many visual novel and dating sim spin-offs, and a direct sequel to The Amazon Princess, Reigns of War currently in development. Combining expansive, turn-based RPG adventure with compelling VN-style storytelling and multiple romance options (including sex-same ones), they were a particularly ambitious and notable additions to the EVN market – especially in 2012, where the first title appeared and the Western visual novels were still at their infancy, they had few serious competitors within the niche and gathered enough attention to establish Winter Wolves as a major brand within the niche.
Still, while many VN fans have been charmed by the epic story of Loren, a lot of them also expressed their disappointment towards the different tone and smaller cast of its immediate successor, Season of the Wolf. While I personally found that game much more competent when it goes to RPG mechanics and having a different, but very interesting appeal story-wise – rather than a grand adventure, it was a very personal story of two elves twins living on the fringes of the world of Aravorn and overcoming hardships with a small band of companions – it undeniably underperformed both when it goes to sales and reception by the players. The third game in the series, Cursed Lands, was released in may 2018 and quite visibly aimed to return the series closer to its roots, at least when it goes to scale and climate of the story. With a main intrigue that can decide the fate of whole kingdoms, a set of locales already well-known from Loren and the player leading a team of up to 9 companion (5 of them romanceable), it looked like a project that could recapture the magic of the first game and convince the previously-disappointed fans to give the Aravorn RPGs another try. And considering the developer’s claims about its sales and my impressions, they might’ve actually pulled it off.
The numerous call-backs to Loren: The Amazon Princess will make Cursed Lands more enjoyable to those familiar with the original game, and especially the extra stories from the Castle of N’Mar DLC
Story-wise, Cursed Lands is a prequel to Loren, taking place around a decade before the events of first game and unlike Seasons of the Wolf, it’s strongly connected to the original story, happening in the same areas and featuring some of the same central characters (notably the human archmage Apolimesho and the Amazon queen Karen, who we can for the first time observe in her prime). It’s also full of smaller cameos and references, which will make it significantly more enjoyable for people already familiar with the series – it’s not by any means unplayable when going in without context, but the full meaning of some scenes and conversations will be lost on new players. The main intrigue features our highly customisable player character (you can choose their race, gender and profession, which all come with their pieces of backstory and unique dialogue) by chance stumbling upon a group of imperial soldiers escaping from swarms of undead in the lands around the cursed Castle of N’Mar. After helping them to leave the area with their lives and fighting off a vampire that pursued them, our PC is hired by the Empire’s Council to gather a team of adventurers and infiltrate the undead’s fortress – at first to gather intelligence, but as the vampire threat escalates, to vanquish them once and for all.
At first look, the layout of the story is not particularly unusual, but features some interesting elements – the protagonist acts very explicitly as a mercenary and, to a large extent, relies on cooperation from people on the fringes of Aravorn civilisation: shamanistic nomads, universally-despised naga, pirates and assassins being only some of his associates along the way. While gaining renown during the game due to their successes and receiving a more formal position on behalf of the Council, they’re still mostly an expendable hireling, that have to thread carefully every step of the way to not get sacrificed for the Empire’s interests, or even being silenced for knowing too much about the threat of N’Mar. This theme even extends to the professions you can choose when creating your character (which even includes a very “respectable” craft of a debt collector), and the ability to become a vampire – not necessarily as a way of abandoning your mission or turning against your allies, but a source of additional power and a path to follow after the antagonists of the story are vanquished.
Mutually-exclusive recruitment opportunities in the first chapter add a good deal of replayability to the game, while the “visual novel mode” makes experiencing alternative story paths convenient even if you get tired of Cursed Land’s RPG gameplay
The companions, as I’ve suggested above, to a large degree escape the typical VN tropes, with the two naga exiles, Sylrissa and Enok, being probably the most unusual elements. Still, even beyond the rare chance to romance snake-people, the personalities and backstories of most of the characters managed to surprise me at least to some extent and I enjoyed the small-talk happening between them and the protagonist. This is, by the way, one of the most contentious elements of the game, as many players were bored to death by long, casual conversations that usually are only very vaguely connected to the main intrigue, but are meant to both explore the backstories of the companions and create opportunities to gain affection points with them, if you lead the conversations properly. The topics vary from the meaning of leadership to the bread-baking much-ridiculed in many reviews (that part will be appreciated by all that tried baking their own bread and failed miserably, which was my experience multiple times), but I don’t think I’ve found an instance in which I’d really dislike those interactions. Most of the conversations were really well-written and led me to understanding the characters better – the amount of this casual dialogue might be overwhelming to some, but I think it fitted the story and played an important enough purpose to be justified.
The companions are also an important source of the game’s replayability, as they can be recruited in different orders (those you skip on in the first chapter will only be available after completing special missions in the second one) and these choices often influence their stories quite significantly (this especially applies to the female dwarf Dalsyra, who might feel like a throwaway character if you recruit her late, but has a very interesting secret you can uncover by teaming up with her earlier). There's also, in line with Winter Wolves' tradition, six different romance arcs – two gender-specific, one exclusive to elves and three with bisexual love interests available for any PC. All of them are pretty minimalistic, with three scenes and a short epilogue after finishing the game for each (mostly nicely-written and featuring some very pleasant-looking extra CGs), but considering the overall number of romance options, it’s still quite a lot of content to explore. Checking out all these alternative paths is made significantly easier by the “visual novel mode”, which let’s you very conveniently skip through most of the gameplay sections of Cursed Lands and focus exclusively on the story content, nearly turning the game into a pure VN – as there’s nearly no story bits or meaningful interactions showing up during the fights, there’s very little you can actually miss by choosing this option.
The romance arcs are the most minimalistic out of all three Aravorn RPGs, but include some rarely-seen variety (such as naga love interests) and fun scenarios
Cursed Lands’ turn-based RPG gameplay is a very direct continuation of what was done in the previous two games, and while it’s way more polished than in Loren (there, classes and gear were extremely unbalanced and the sense of progression very weak), it forgone some of the more compelling elements introduced in Season of the Wolf. The latter featured very limited health and mana regeneration between fights (you could only fully heal by eating expensive meals or progressing a day in the overworld, with every major goal placed on a timer), forcing you to use your time and resources very carefully and making every encounter meaningful. Cursed Lands features time progression, with three chapters (moon cycles) of 30 days and a difficult quest at the end of each one of them. However, considering there are no limits on health/mana regeneration and only very few quests force a time skip, for the most part, this system is meaningless – and especially so in the first cycle, as you have only a handful companions and there are relatively few story events popping up during the whole period. This is actually a major issue, as after the very decent introduction, the game shows itself from possibly the worst side in those first hours, which I think is one of the reasons many people dropped it with a somewhat negative impression of the whole experience. The other downgrade is the possibility to only use four characters at in combat, compared to six in the previous games and the elimination of row-related mechanics – in both Loren and Season of the Wolf you could pace the more squishy characters in the second row and shield them from certain attacks, but here this is absent, giving very little meaning to party formation and greatly eliminating a lot of interesting tactical options (like row and lane-oriented AOE spells and attacks).
Coming back to the time mechanics, the only thing they genuinely influence is the arena battles, where you can fight with a chosen amount of monsters for experience and reputation (the latter influence the prices in shops of the area where you through, with three cities having their own arenas, different in the types of monsters they spawn), three times per day. This is the game’s only form of grind and quite possibly my sole biggest issue with it – the arena battles are extremely boring and unrewarding, giving you little gold and no items, but are still pretty much necessary to keep your team strong enough on the harder difficulty levels. They also disable probably the most interesting and fun addition to Cursed Land’s combat, that is protagonist’s social skills – powerful abilities connected to your starting profession, which have different success chance depending on enemy traits and morale (this decreases with damage and can even make some enemies flee, earning you an automatic victory), and can do unique things such as stealing utility items from the enemies or even charming them to fight for your side. Without them, arena fights devolve into a soul-crushing source of tedium and I honestly couldn’t stomach them anyone after the first full moon, even when using the most convenient enemy setups and player team compositions. While generally, the RPG parts of the game are competent, it’s hard to me to recommend playing it on any difficulty other than easy, or maybe normal, as that’s the only way you can effectively avoid the arena and genuinely enjoy the game, as the quests and story-related encounters are way more interesting and nowhere near as time-consuming.
The party formation, character skillsets and time-limit mechanics feel like a step backwards from the Season of the Wolf, but are still superior to clunky and unbalanced RPG gameplay of Loren
When it goes to production quality, Cursed Lands uses the same artstyle as other games in the series and is possibly the best iteration of it so far, despite some of the assets being clearly repurposed from Loren. While some people complain about the unattractive designs of non-romanceable characters, there’s a lot of personality to them and I don’t remember any that would really feel “off”, while I had this kind of issues with both sprites and CGs in the previous two games. And speaking of CGs, the stylistic inconsistencies that plagued the previous titles, with illustrations not really matching the sprites and even looking awkward, weren’t really an issue this time around. The biggest issue I’ve had with the visual side of the experience was that the protagonist only had a character portrait and never showed in CGs, but that’s a clear consequence of the newly-added customisation. As always, the overworld map and the UI feel somewhat archaic, but in a way that is at least partially a deliberate, stylistic choice on the part of the developer. I also never struggled with the UI the same way I did in Loren, but I’m not sure whether that’s due to genuine improvements or just the fact I got used to it while playing the first two games. The music was climatic, enhancing the light horror tone of the story, but wasn’t particularly memorable, while the game also skipped on a certain long-established sound component of the series, that is including character voices in battles (there was never any voiceover in the beyond that). It’s not a major issue from my point of view, but something to consider if you’re a fan of Winter Wolves RPGs and expect this element to be included.
In the end, I find Cursed Lands to be a highly satisfying and interesting game, but this is said mostly from the perspective of a VN fan, who treats the RPG parts as a flavour placed on top of the story content. If I treated it as a “proper RPG”, I would have to count the near-obligatory arena grind the lack of interesting options to boost your characters besides the main questline as a major drag. I’ve found the story here compelling and disagree strongly with much of the criticism that was aimed against it, so if you’re looking for an interesting narrative and characters, I can recommend it wholeheartedly. If you’re searching for high-quality gameplay… It’s a much harder sell, although not a hopeless ones either. Despite the few glaring issues, it’s an all-around competent and rather memorable experience, one that makes me really hopeful towards the upcoming “proper” sequel to Loren – whatever specific issues I might’ve had with each of these RPGs, returning to the world of Aravorn is never something I could easily skip on.
Final Score: 3,5/5
+ A varied and interesting cast of characters
+ Solid writing
+ Good sound and visual quality
- Mostly underwhelming RPG mechanics
- Extremely boring arena grind
- Slow first chapter