Tavern Crawler, by Josh Labelle
I have a theory that the best genre stories are ones that take themselves seriously (I guess other stories too, but one generally doesn’t need to tell authors of literary fiction – we all had fun dogpiling Paul Auster before, let’s tag him in again – to be more self-important). Not, I hasten to add, in the sense that everything needs to be a grimdark reboot where every heroic pilot or mystic sorcerer needs a rapey backstory – gods no! But even the silliest premise is enlivened, and can actually become impressively affecting, with sufficient attention and craft for worldbuilding and characterization. I’m counting Tavern Crawler as a point in favor of this theory, because while it starts with a jokey setup, focusing on the bar-hopping aftermath of a fantasy quest as the heroes try to track down their patron and get paid, it accomplishes far more than I’d expected from the blurb, entirely because of the care the author took with every facet of the game.
It’s superficial to start with aesthetics, but they do make a first impression, and it’s quite a good one. I lack the vocabulary to really talk about issues of visual design, but some combination of the font, color scheme, and layout made the game look really attractive to me, while still being entirely functional. There are sidebar menus that ensure all the information you could possibly want about the game is available with a click, without needing to duck out of the main story or cluttering up the windows too much. The white borders around text you can click avoided the contrast issues that sometimes plagues games that use hypertext, while the simple use of color to denote dialogue from different characters helps the player cleanly parse some of the more involved passages.
This easy of play extends to the plot and setting, which snuggles around one’s shoulders like a warm blanket from the off. You’re in a tavern, some bloke wants to hire you to see off a dragon, there’s a possibly tavern brawl to avoid or lean into… and mechanically, the opening also provides an in-game character generation sequence where you can pick a backstory, as well as a mini-tutorial in the simple stat system used by the game. While this is all completely straight-ahead, the attention to detail is apparent even from the earliest, especially with your two companions who are drawn in nicely from the off. They’re stereotypes, certainly – one’s a veteran warrior, the other an otherworldy magician – but from the off they stand out as their own people. Ford, the warrior, has a flirty charm and some not-very-well-hidden softness of heart, while the sorceress Aurora is wise and responsible, but struggles with her sense of her own responsibilities. None of these characterizations are hugely novel when you type them out, and I doubt they’d hold up in a 50+ hour BioWare style game, but they’re perfect for this game, and sketched with a pleasing fleetness that makes sure you notice what’s up with your companions, but doesn’t wear out its welcome.
The positive early impressions bear out as the game goes on. There are lots of choices on offer when confronting any challenge, and Tavern Crawler rewards exploration while still trying to be nonjudgmental about what you do. For example, while the game clearly communicates that dragons are not evil creatures, and simply deciding to kill one is morally dubious at best, TC doesn’t set this up just as a dilemma between the altruism of a nonviolent resolution vs. greedily wanting the huge reward; there are reasons given for why that money might make a difference for the characters’ families, and that letting the dragon live might let an independent town, weakened by its depredations, fall under the sway of an evil empire. Still, I felt like the game clearly wanted to be played a certain way – while you have the choice to be a dashing rogue or a bit of a prig, as the spirit takes you, the world is generally set up to reward kindness (this extends to the generous content warnings, which offer the opportunity to click for spoilers on how to avoid anything that might be upsetting).
This isn’t to say the game is uptight – you can get, as they say, proper sloshed, hop on stage with burlesque dancers, creep through dank and horrible alleys, and romance one or both of your companions, with copious make-outs. It’s just that it’s got an overall gentleness to it that I really liked – especially so, coming after A Calling of Dogs! This gentleness extends to the game’s systems, too. There’s a single save slot that you can use as much as you like, and while there are a fair number of gated stat-checks, most problems can be solved as long as you’re sufficiently good at one of the three, and in most circumstances it’s pretty easy to come back later after having increased your stats or gotten more gold from resolving side-quests. And while your companions typically pull you in different directions whenever there’s a significant choice, it’s pretty easy to max out your relationship with both of them. The ending can be bittersweet – at least the one I got was – but I think that’s a nice touch too, as it prevents TC from getting too cloying.
I feel like this review is unbalanced since I haven’t included any real criticism. OK, three things: on my screen at least I wanted a bit more of a margin on the left side of the menu sidebar, the way you sometimes get money out of thin air after completing a quest is weird, and the first joke would have been funnier if there’d been one more level after “very drunk.” There, you see, I’m an unbiased reviewer who can see both sides of things, so trust me when I say Tavern Crawler is excellent!