By Leah McDonald / June 12th, 2020
|Title||Wintermoor Tactics Club|
|Release Date||May 5th, 2020|
|Genre||Strategy, Role-Playing, Visual Novel|
It’s a tale as old as RPGs: Saving the world is never easy, but having friends — and knowing yourself — can go a long way to making it easier. Wintermoor Tactics Club, like many of its predecessors, continues this tradition, but its reliance on using the gameplay conceit of tactical role-playing to tell a story about a tabletop RPG club was a nice addition.
In the winter of 1981, the fate of the world rests on the students of Wintermoor Academy’s Tactics Club. School club members are disappearing, and a great evil threatens life as we know it. This simple hook greets players as they’re introduced to our main character, Alicia, a nerdy, quiet student who loves Curses & Catacombs, the in-game version of Dungeons & Dragons. Together with her friends Jacob and Colin, they make up the Tactics Club, an often-maligned group of social misfits who find purpose in their shared love of tabletop gaming.
Purpose is the main driving force throughout most of Wintermoor Tactics Club. Each club member defines themselves by the club they participate in. Without their clubs, these students see themselves as meaningless. So when Principal Enfield pits every club against each other in a snowball tournament, disbanding those who lose, it sends the school into turmoil. To the students, this is a war for their identities – their sense of self. And as the Tactics Club, it’s your job to defeat them.
There are an assortment of clubs to go up against, each with their own cast of quirky characters. The Monarchists believe in the divine right of rule; the Psychic Detectives use their gifts to solve crimes; the New Wave Appreciation Club are music snobs; the Equestrian Club don’t actually have any horses but are die-hard enthusiasts; the Animal Identification Club identify as animals; and the Student Council, an enigmatic group that controls the school from the shadows.
I think my favorite thing about Wintermoor is how it frames these fights in terms of the group’s C&C campaigns. As tabletop enthusiasts, Alicia, Jacob and Colin see the world best through the lens of gaming. They strategize against their opponents by creating fictitious battles in C&C, but the “real world” snowball fights themselves play out with the exact same gameplay. The way the game uses their imaginative play as an overlay is great.
As far as TRPGs go, the combat is pretty simple. You choose three characters and station them on the board. In the beginning you have Alicia, or Anjaya the mage, as she calls herself in C&C. Colin is the paladin Eodwald, and Jacob plays a rogue named Roguey. Unlike games like Final Fantasy Tactics, you don’t have to worry about height or major impediments, but some boards do include impassable waterways and thorn pits that you’ll need to navigate around. There are also a handful of ground tile effects that impact movement and damage, such as brambles that limit movement, and fire that lowers magical resistance. Using them to your advantage is key to victory.
Almost every enemy in the game comes in one of two varieties: Magic or Physical. Mages are weak to physical attacks but strong against physical armor, and melee and ranged characters are weak to magic but strong against magical armor. A handful will have minor resistances to both, while others have neither, but for the majority of the game you’ll be strategizing versus vulnerabilities. (Late in the game you’ll get a couple characters who are overpowered enough for it not to matter, and I found myself playing with them for the last three or so chapters of the game.)
Characters of course come with their basic attacks and specials, called Tactical Abilities. In order to use your Tactical Abilities you have to earn Tactics Points, which are awarded based on the abilities you use. Normal attacks generally give one Tactics Point, with some gear increasing the amount you receive. Once you’ve accumulated at least five Tactics Points, you can unleash your special ability. Anjaya’s is Brilliant Beam, a line attack that rips through any enemy and ally in front of her. Roguey has a bomb, and Eodwald has a giant hammer that staggers foes. Using Tactical Abilities is a fun, flashy way to control the battlefield, and, as with most every aspect of Wintermoor Tactics Club, is based heavily on the narrative. Each character earns their special through a C&C storyline specific to them and represents their inner strength.
As the game continues and you slowly grow your club, you will continue to be limited to only three characters per encounter, thanks to the game’s plot. While I would have liked a little more variety in my party composition, tying gameplay to narrative is a nice touch. RPGs live and die on their narratives, and Wintermoor is a solid if generic tale. What elevated it for me was the main cast, especially Alicia. As a protagonist she’s pretty typical: sincere, brave, has a heart of gold. Her journey of self-discovery and acceptance of who she is, while nothing fancy, still felt impactful. I was always rooting for her to find her way. Combine that with the snappy writing and her interactions with her clubmates, in particular Jacob, and I’d often find myself smiling.
Jacob was by far my favorite character. The son of rich school donors, Jacob is your typical teenage anarchist. He spray paints the school, rails against the principal’s “fascistic” tendencies, and generally talks about sticking it to The Man. He almost always had a witty retort when spoken to, and I found his lack of any real conviction charming. He’s an especially good foil for Baphomet, the school goth, who is also an outspoken critic of the school but sticks to her convictions. Together they make great commentary on perfomative action.
Wintermoor Tactics Club revolves entirely around identity and a sense of self, both at the micro and macro level. Playing C&C for the group is a way to find themselves and work through their issues, but the plot is about the loss of self when you’re no longer moored to the thing with which you identified. As one character says: “This club is our identities.” Finding purpose outside of a singular group or association is one of the most important themes of the game. It comes across as a bit too preachy and hamfisted at times, admittedly, but I still really enjoyed the self-affirmation and the acknowledgment that being yourself doesn’t always have to come at the expense of being part of a larger group.
I spent 14 hours with Wintermoor. It was charming and engaging, with some snappy writing and pretty decent art direction. I liked the world of Wintermoor Academy. If I had one major complaint, it would be the tedium of walking back and forth between areas of the school during fetch quests. There aren’t many in the game, thankfully, but it did tend to drag the pacing a bit for me. And while the music is solid overall, I do wish there had been more variety. As it goes though, those are pretty minor nitpicks.
As a casual fan of tactical RPGs and meta-narratives, Wintermoor Tactics Club was a refreshingly brisk but engaging playthrough. It’s a great jumping off point for the genre. The game is available on Steam and GOG for $14.99.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
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