It’s been a bit of a ‘Summer of PC’ on the Xbox One. A raftload of desktop games have made their way to Xbox shores, and as a partisan site, we should be outraged by how long it’s taken them and how vanilla the ports are. But we’re not, because the games have enlivened a pandemic summer and been unapologetically brilliant. Manifold Garden, Through the Darkest of Times, Hypnospace Outlaw, Lair of the Clockwork God and now Wintermoor Tactics Club – we welcome you all.
You’d be forgiven for hearing about Wintermoor for the first time though. It’s not a showy game, nor does it really try anything groundbreaking. Instead, it’s a cosy hot chocolate of a game, and sometimes you need a hot chocolate.
The game takes place almost entirely at Wintermoor Academy – a boarding school with preppy uniforms and an overbearing headmaster. But instead of slicing the social groups into jocks, goths, nerds etc., the game imagines a world where everybody self-represents by the clubs they join. There are Young Monarchists, Spy Club, Riding Club, the Psychic Detectives, and many more.
You’re Alicia, a member of the titular Tactics Club, and you gather every day with your friends Colin and Jacob to play through Curse & Catacombs (no prizes for getting the reference). This takes the form of turn-based strategy games, which you will be familiar with if you’ve dabbled in X-Com, Gears Tactics, Advance Wars or any number of others. In a lovely touch, you will play as your characters but dressed in cosplay, as they embrace their fantasy personas.
For the opening sections you are merrily engaging with the hobby, learning the ropes, before the headmaster calls for an audience at the main hall and you’re wellied into the high-concept: your club is enrolled in a mandatory snowball tournament, and only the winning club will be allowed to keep their club status.
On paper the concept sounds twee, but it’s got more weight than that. The clubs are obviously the students’ lifeblood, so it becomes an attack on their identity. It also creates surprisingly high stakes. In a lovely dovetail, the snowball fights take the form of the Curses & Catacombs battles, cosplay and all, as the Tactics Club find a way to view the competition that plays to their advantage.
You’ll play heats in the snowball tournament while also honing your skills in intermediary C&C battles, which will unlock Tactic Powers and other rewards (as well as progress a parallel story that neatly reflects on the Wintermoor one). These put you in better stead for the tournament. Most heats will unlock a new character, as the clubs you beat disband and their stragglers join the Tactics Club.
Turn-based battling won’t actually form the majority of your time with Wintermoor. You will have downtime, allowing you to engage with your preferred amount of surrounding fluff. This is isometric but free-movement, and you can explore the campus to complete sub quests that focus on members of your party (in turn unlocking perks for those characters), spy on upcoming opponents and trigger a debuff on them, and undertake miscellaneous side-questage. There’s a whiff of Persona about these bits, as you find an oasis in all the battling to get to know your team and unlock benefits for them, all in a school environment.
Now time for the disclaimer: I was already a convert to Wintermoor before playing this Xbox One port. I’d sunk hours into it on PC, and grabbed at the chance to give it another run. Unsurprisingly, I fell in love a second time round, and I’d like to make the case for why you should embrace it too.
Reason #1: Wintermoor Tactics Club manages to be a ‘my first turn-based strategy’ without completely jettisoning depth and strategy. Enemies are clear about which of your characters they will be attacking; moves and turns can be rolled back; RNG is stripped out and damage is locked; stats are pared back so that an overview of the battlefield can be done in seconds. The game does everything it can to create a simple to read and anticipate sandpit, then gives you some varied, powerful and synergising attacks to use in it. The result is a frictionless experience, but still with plenty of room to git gud and earn full marks at the end of the scenario.
That paragraph will either soothe your worries or raise alarms. I will freely admit that hardcore X-Com min-maxers might find it undemanding, so look inside yourself and consider whether a breezy and moderately challenging take is what you’re after.
Reason #2: The presentation is just lovely. It looks like a young-adult comic brought to life. It’s got a military-esque drumbeat throughout that’s catchy and atmospheric. The story and characters are endearing, with a mystery at the core – what is Principal Enfield up to? – that draws you on. While there are conflicts between the students, everyone is unified against the principal and it creates a positivity within the rebelliousness that’s nice to bask in. All of the above ties together to create a coherent, family-friendly whole.
There are some minor issues which pull the A down to an A-. In porting to Xbox One, some of the control choices have become unintuitive. Navigating an isometric grid has always felt better on a d-pad than a joystick to me, so it’s bemusing that Wintermoor chooses to use the d-pad for switching between characters. Other controls are similarly curious, and it takes a while to calibrate.
In reducing the complexity of the design, some compromises are made that are damaging on balance. Enemies trumpet the identity of the character they’re going to attack – often with rulesets like ‘attacks the player with the most health’ – but it creates inauthentic, odd moments where you can simply block the path to that character and take no damage at all. The enemy gives up and sits there. It makes it all too tempting to put up a wall and cheese the rules to your benefit. But these are small smudges on the report card, and don’t have a huge impact.
I found myself enjoying the 12 hours or so of gameplay in two sittings, completing all sub quests and hard-mode challenges to drain it of everything it has to offer. That says a lot about the game: that I came to the end wanting so much (Winter)more. Wintermoor Tactics Club on Xbox One may not be your ‘new game+’, one-shot death brand of turn-based strategy; instead, it dares to be welcoming, and that’s something to be celebrated.