Met with a strange voice in the desert, I’m not sure if we are over the trope of waking up not knowing what on earth we are doing in a world and have to figure it out, but hey it works. Wildmender begins in the desert, under a tree, with a very distinct voice trying to guide you. Your main job? Sustain yourself until you know more. Well, in all honesty (and not to spoil the review), it seems like the whole game is really about sustaining yourself.
I’ve had a very mixed experience with Wildmender. You know when you love the thought of something? Like when you’ve never tried a particular food, but the thought or description of it sounds amazing, but the actual experience of eating the food is unpleasant. Well, that’s my review.
I really wanted to love Wildmender. I actually tried to enjoy it more times than I really care to divulge. This game has so many elements to it, which I know I loved the sound of. Open world, RPG, survival, simulation, adventure. The list goes on. Sometimes, too much of everything is never good for you and I think Wildmender falls on that particular sword.
At first, your main goal other than survival is to resurrect your spirit guide Vidyas. Parts of him have been scattered across the world, and you must retrieve them to learn more about your time in the universe, why it has become so barren and what you can do to help revive it. You can do this by following the meteorites in the distance.
Around the tree you awake from is a luscious body of water. You are taught to plant a few seeds and have a bottle to fill up for water. Sustaining yourself will be more than just eating a few berries. You will need to remain hydrated, fed and in good health. Which is great, I can do that. Don’t Starve but with Gardening? Sign me up!
When you plant a seed, it will eventually grow and tell you what it needs – more light, more water, etc. You will need to maintain your plants as you adventure off into the wilds. On top of that, you can also protect them from harsh weather by collecting various things in the environment and building lean-to’s, storage boxes and then some. There’s also the option to make a sickle and spade to help you on your journey. Spades can help you dig up seeds to either plant in your garden or eat – as they may contain nutritional value or hydrate you.
Once you leave your beautiful body of water and your big tree to go and bring back the spirits, you will be required to travel to different areas of the desert to bring back the spirit pieces. Now the spirit pieces will be trapped and show some resistance in returning. You will encounter enemies called Wraiths – they require a mirror to use to reflect back enemy attacks and shine a ray of light onto them to attack them.
It’s a pretty simple mechanic so enemy encounters won’t be too much of a problem. They have some basic attacks too, so they can charge into you, or some enemies will target fire at you, or shoot laser beams in your direction for you to dodge. The actual combat system, although pretty easy, is not as dynamic in ranged attacks and I found myself essentially hugging wraiths with my mirror to cause any damage.
Welcome To Death
Wildmender has a day/night cycle, and the game quickly informs you that it is better to travel at night as the sun will deplete the water in your bottle (if you’re holding it) and make you thirsty faster. This is where my one massive bugbear came in. Everything tries to kill you. To the point where it almost negates the word survival. What is the point in surviving this, when everything wants to kill me? The sun? The enemies? The lack of water? Oh wait, I accidentally starved because these 3 seeds I found only replenished 5 hit points of my hunger good for me. There is a difference between a steep learning curve and a game which becomes wholly uninteresting because you almost can’t win.
Every time you die, you’ll be transported back to your tree with none of your resources. You can collect your resources where you died, however, if you died in a pretty precarious place such as in the middle of a wraith area, or just really far away from any available water. You are likely going to just die again. At one point I felt like I was just taking the same bus back and forth to the same area.
What becomes an added layer of frustration is the fact that perhaps on your next journey you will come across something such as a grave, which can tell you stories of the previous world or a temple or gate to restore that will need resources in return. I found myself being like ‘Oh I actually have that’ before slowly realising it is on my dead carcass elsewhere on the map and I have to re-find it, and/or re-dig it up again.
A Grave Reception Continued
When leaving your little tree of life and garden of Eden, water is sparse. You do get the odd fountain dotted around the map, but the game almost taunts you with how much it wants to kill you. The water you find dotted around? Don’t expect it to be clean, because yes – it will poison you. Everything feels like it’s revolving around you surviving, but then you bump into various things to do. Such as visiting temples, with great deities that will give you tasks, and sometimes even powers to enhance your journey or allow you to reach new heights and environments. This is great, but the lengths it took to get there, and then do whatever it says feels like treacle. Food is scarce and mostly back home.
If you choose to be Mary Mary quite contrary and grow your garden and choose to have little encounters with the wraiths – don’t fear – for they will come and attack you anyway. A warning will appear saying ‘Wraith attack soon!’. This essentially means that wherever you are, whatever time of day it may be, a surprise attack will be coming. Luckily as the combat isn’t too strenuous this isn’t too taxing. More just an annoying added extra I didn’t order.
You do have options in where you want to go and explore as Vidya’s spirit is dotted around everywhere. Eventually freeing spirits from temples will also lead you in the direction of other potentially trapped spirits so there is plenty to do – if you can survive that long.
When I had finished exploring all I could in my particular area, I had the choice to go to two environments. There was a catch however, one would dehydrate me faster, and the other poisons me – depleting my health quickly. I honestly can feel my blood boil, because it feels such a waste exploring to just die. It feels like you can’t really get a grasp on anything because you’re too busy trying to just walk around just trying to survive. You can barely feel the sand between your toes before being thrown into the deep sea of darkness.
The Body Keeps the Score
That being said, almost everything is customisable. I chose to play the game how it was intended to be played from development. I think it’s important to check that vision out first. You can customise a lot of the game’s world changes, such as the lengths of the day and how much something poisons you. Whether you can retain your resources on death etc. You can even choose to make the world or the gameplay more punishing should you wish to. I think had I not persevered with the original settings for as long as I did, and perhaps customised this a bit earlier – I may have actually really enjoyed some elements. There is a decent game underneath all of the bodies in the sand, the toxicity in the air and the scorching sun.
The camera is third person, which I immediately rated. Many sims or survival RPGs tend to be top-down, so this for me, was something I really liked about Wildmender. For a PS5 release, I probably got more texture pop-in than I would care about when travelling through the desert. Suddenly moving and panning my camera and seeing a bunch of trees come into the background is quite off-putting but something I usually do not mind, especially when the visual art isn’t tending to realism.
Interestingly, as part of the art visuals, nothing really has any surface texture. Sand is one colour and one texture. There is sometimes shading to depict the time of day, and it matches the game’s visual design on the whole, but it can make the game look typically a lot older than it is. The colour palette is easy on the eye however as you transition from a day to night cycle.
Environment-wise, I expect if you play this long enough the environment changes into beautiful garden areas, and luscious vegetation and greenery. I can see that from the screenshots, unfortunately, I didn’t get that far, I tried – I really most honestly tried.
I don’t believe the story is interesting enough for me to progress through the pain of it all. When walking around loads of things are blocked until I meet x god, and unlock x thing and when you have perished in the sand tens of times, losing your loot, walking in the sun all over again feels like I can no longer be bothered and no longer care why he is in the sand or what he hopes to achieve.
It feels like there are more accomplished titles out there doing more engaging things with their open-world adventure. At times, I found myself completely ignoring the gardening element because surviving and collecting took precedence. Maybe that becomes more focal as the game goes on, but doing too much at once at the start lacks structure.
Wildmender also has the option to play with a friend, up to three more in fact. Knowing what I know from playing, I do think this game would be much more coherent in co-op as you can both concentrate on different things perhaps.
Overall this is a game I truly wanted to love, it even caught my eye in the Steam demos way back when. However, it was not meant to be. Wildmender has too many elements that don’t mix well, a lack of structure, and it feels like too many other games are much more accomplished in the genre Wildmender tries to replicate.
Whilst simplistic in its controls and combat, Wildmenders’ harsh environment makes the story, gameplay and environment uninteresting to explore. A sandbox experience that feels too ambitious at once, whereas other games have been more accomplished in what Wildmender was attempting to achieve.
Wildmender is available now for PlayStation 5 (review platform), PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, and PC via Steam.
Developers: Muse Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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