Visual novels tend to be an unambitious bunch. You’d be lucky to get more than a dozen choices and a couple of divergent endings from your average novel, so finding one as ambitious and inventive as Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf is a definite plus. It’s a visual novel chassis pimped out with JRPG-style turn-based battling (and lots of it, too), as well as some tabletop board game exploration. By the end, it’s a visual novel absolutely stuffed with distractions.
The story starts with snow-elf twins Shea and Althea (criminally given rhyming names), who live in the frozen north with their grumpy father. He’s been exiled for some past grumble, so the twins have to do a lot of the menial tasks as he sulks and nurses wounds. That takes them to the local town, where they sell pelts from the traps they’ve laid, and get involved in the odd side-quest.
Soon enough, things go sideways. Two narrative threads in the form of a smuggled pet and a visiting caravan of slavers intertwine, and suddenly Shea and Althea are captured as slaves, taken to the gladiatorial arenas of Dingirra. From there, they start acquiring friends and build a bit of a fellowship, before breaking their chains and having an adventure across twenty chapters. It’s a fantasy novel spread out over about a dozen hours of play.
In pure visual novel terms, Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf is passable. Part of the problem is how dry and expositional everything is: characters rarely showcase anything like character or personality, and are instead vehicles for the latest hokum that you have to complete. Shea, Althea and Vaelis, in particular, are devoid of anything that you’d call a character trait, which is a problem since they’re the three earliest characters that you unlock.
Things get better as the fellowship builds, with blackguard Riley, a naive elven bard called Jariel and – our favourite – a completely unhinged and conscience-free warlock called Rowinda joining the troupe. But the damage is mostly done in the opening moments, as it’s hard to latch onto any individual character, allowing your attention to slip. We found our eyes skimming over the dialogue before realising that we’d missed something important.
Very generally, waving at all of Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf, there’s a little too much cliche and tropiness on offer. There isn’t any great effort in subverting the usual Tolkien-esque fantasy framework, and it can often mean that you’re predicting everything that happens. We just found our minds wandering, and that’s a problem when Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf is demanding such a long period of attention.
But, as mentioned, things do get quirky as soon as combat looms. A setup screen pops up and you’re allowed to construct your party and place them in your choice of formation: effectively boiling down to glass cannons in the back, stodgy tanks in the front. Then you are taking turns to attack the enemy – and they attack you – based on the characters’ speed stats. It’s as simple as selecting the portrait of the enemy in a very basic, 2D representation of the battle, and then choosing how you want to attack from some frames around that portrait. Most of the time, this will be a melee, ranged or magic attack, with the latter being unlocked from a satisfying little progression system (more on that in a mo).
In a turn-based RPG, we’d be criticising the combat as being flat. It does absolutely nothing that we haven’t seen before, with no timing minigames or fancy mechanics to enliven it. It is, purely and simply, a sequence of combat choices, and you will often be doing the same thing with the same characters as a routine. But this is not a turn-based RPG, and we have a modicum of respect for trying to elbow a turn-based RPG into a visual novel. That and you’re not in combat as often as you would in an RPG, so the grind doesn’t quite grate as much.
That said, we would still have taken a little less of it. Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf adopts a time-based system, where – in certain sections of the game – you are given ‘days’ to explore a board game-like map and complete as many quests or combat encounters as you want. The day progresses once you return to an inn and have some kip, so it’s a game of risk/reward: do you progress the day, regaining all your health, but risk losing out on some time-limited quests? Or do you attempt to take on just one more battle, hoping that you can complete it successfully on the few life points and spell points that you have left?
The result, as you’d expect (and certainly for someone as obsessive as us) is that we ground out every last quest or side mission before we put head to pillow. Perhaps we were doing it wrong, as this led us to far, far too many battles, all rehashes of the last. When combat isn’t wrinkly and interesting enough to absorb this grind, it can make Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf something of a trudge. Couple that with the unabsorbing story, and you have a potential recipe for disengagement. A wave of ennui splashed over us more than once, and we had to keep manhandling ourselves back to the Xbox to complete the review.
What surprises us most about Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf is how many little systems are plugged into an already sizable visual novel. Combat leads to levelling up, and you can raise your choice of attributes (allowing plenty of room for min-maxing and trying to break the game), as well as outfit each character with traits or new spells. On the negative side, the list of upgrades never changes per character, and they are all available from the start, so there’s a lack of change. But, on the positive side, a lot of the upgrades are kick-ass, so you can soon build killing machines that outpace the game’s difficulty curve.
There’s also a deep loot and trading system, with plenty of shops offering you varying prices for the gear you don’t want, as well as the opportunity to buy fun magic hats for your squad. It’s a motivator to get grinding in the boring combat system, as every gold piece you can gather will improve your team and their capabilities. We were never able to buy everything we wanted from the game’s shops.
What is unforgivable about the shop experience, and the experience in so many of Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf’s menus, though, is how terrible the user interaction is. There’s no doubting that Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf was built for mouse or touchscreens, and no effort has been put into optimising the experience for console. The cursor snaps from interface element to interface element, but knowing which is highlighted is only the first challenge. The next is yanking that cursor to the option you want. When the screen is a mess of tickboxes and buttons, it can become nigh on impossible to do something as simple as sell a pair of shorts that you don’t want any more. Simply interacting with Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf is more onerous than it should be.
Which leads to our last gripe. Our game crashed nearly a dozen times as we progressed to the end of Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf. That’s not insignificant, and averages a crash every hour. There is an auto-save system here, but it’s only partial: we would often find ourselves two or three fights back, and – in one instance – we lost a chapter’s worth of progress. Why isn’t there an auto-save on the completion of a chapter? It boggled us, and gave us just one more reason to procrastinate when reviewing the game.
Ultimately, it was a long and hard journey to review Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf – as gruelling as the one faced by its characters. It’s not because the individual elements of it are bad – the visual novel, the turn-based combat and the exploration are all perfectly fine independently. But they all lack colour and interest, and fiddling with its many elements can be slow and awkward.
By the end of Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf, we felt like Frodo and Sam at the end of Lord of the Rings: tired, ready for a pint, and never wanting to go through the experience again.
You can buy Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf from the Xbox Store