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Windy Meadow: A Roadwarden Tale review – a fantasy of ordinary people

Windy Meadow: A Roadwarden Tale review – a fantasy of ordinary people
Windy Meadow – unlike Roadwarden it has proper graphics (Picture: Assemble Entertainment)

GameCentral reviews the follow-up to one of last year’s best story-based games, as the world of Roadwarden expands with a new visual novel.

Released just over a year ago, Roadwarden was a text adventure that put you in the shabby boots of a brave but impoverished defender of the highways. It was unusual in a number of ways, not least because there just aren’t many text adventures being made these days. Its story was told against a backdrop of fantastical beasts and bands of brigands, but also the terrible poverty of medieval life. Your Roadwarden regularly looked so tired and scruffy that villagers didn’t even trust them.

Roadwarden’s greatest joy, though, was how well written it was. Its low-key but believable characters often suffered terrible dilemmas and while your Roadwarden made endless well-intentioned promises, that he did his best to fulfil, they often fell by the wayside due to a lack of resources and time. In other words, a bit more like life than the average fantasy role-player’s neatly box-ticked quest log.

Windy Meadow – A Roadwarden Tale is not a sequel or indeed a text adventure. Instead, it’s a visual novel set in the same world, which was actually written before Roadwarden and has been re-worked for this release. It takes place in a village called Windy Meadow, which we must admit we never came across in our Roadwardening duties, but which perfectly matches the mixture of authentic characters and the sense of being only a short hop away from destitution at any given moment.

Presented in old school pixel art style, it’s somewhat more animated than Roadwarden was, although as a visual novel, there’s nowhere near as much choice in what to do, and no trace of inventory management or the other systems that underpinned the original game. Instead, what you get is a set of characters going about their day-to-day business, all of whom are in the process of making life-changing decisions.

It perfectly captures the gentle pace of village life, the way everyone knows everyone else’s business, and the sense of not being in the big city but somewhere less glamorous, more personable, but also more dangerous. A band of trolls has passed through the area recently and after them came goblins, who though less threatening could still pose a risk, and the villagers live in perpetual fear of the wrath of the animals, a legendary stampede of beasts that can destroy entire towns.

In Berytus, the big city, there are few of those concerns. There you can drink safely in bustling ale houses, there are poetry recitals and acrobats, and markets where you can buy exotic spices. In other words, it’s a world away from sleepy but rustic Windy Meadow, whose residents regard it with suspicion laced with a touch of envy.

The novel’s first chapter is about Vena, a huntress trained by her skilled father, but not entirely sure that this is the life for her. She’s handy with the weapons of a hunter, and valuable to her village, but equally she sees the rich merchants who pass though, and hears tales of Berytus that make her pine for a more fulfilling career. She may be good with a spear, but she’s also smart and capable.

The problem is that with goblins in the area and other problems looming on the horizon, she knows Windy Meadow needs all the help it can get. Her choice of whether to stay or not is entangled in the guilt of abandoning her family and the rest of the village in its time of need, even if her younger sister is bitter and argumentative, and she feels as though she’s growing apart from her father.

Windy Meadow – imagine if LucasArts made a visual novel (Picture: Assemble Entertainment)

The interface through which you experience this is sparse but useful, with text appearing in a box at the bottom, with a button to reveal the map, which shows you where in the village and its surrounding woodland each scene takes place. The map, and the character vignettes, help evoke a rich sense of place, which was one of the qualities of Roadwarden, despite it having only text and still frame pictures to work with.

While a lot of the text is simply for reading, there are plenty of points where you make choices for characters. That can be what to say in conversation or what actions to take during a scene, although there are no points where those choices feel as consequential as they did in Roadwarden, which is not unexpected in a visual novel.

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Roadwarden’s strengths remain though, which is to say its characters seem like real people with genuine concerns. The other chapters feature a would-be bard called Fabel, who’s not at all sure he’s on the right path, and Iudicia the herbalist, who lives just outside the village. They’re quite different from one another but are subject to the same overarching threats and desires as the rest of the villagers, making it interesting to see their perspectives on Windy Meadow and its major characters, who we get to know better over the course of the game’s roughly three hours runtime.

Visual novels are a peculiar breed. Not quite a game, but also not a straight narrative, they inhabit a no man’s land between the two, which can feel unfamiliar and contrived. Nevertheless, when they’re as well told and compelling as Windy Meadow, it’s a pleasure to read and to watch its characters develop, even when it’s evident that tragedy is never too far away.

Windy Meadow - A Roadwarden Tale review summary In Short: A visual novel set in the world of Roadwarden that offers some degree of choice, but whose real charm comes from its straightforward prose and troubled, authentic-seeming characters.
Pros: The minimal graphics and text create a rich atmosphere and sense of the world beyond. Characters’ concerns and moral dilemmas feel realistically human despite the fantasy setting.
Cons: Choices don’t always feel as though they make much difference to the story and, like Roadwarden, not everything ties up as neatly as you might be used to.
Score: 8/10

Formats: PC (reviewed) Price: £8.50 Publisher: Assemble Entertainment Developer: Moral Anxiety Studio Release Date: 16th October 2023 Age Rating: N/A

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