I feel I need to clarify some things as I'm afraid the conclusion may not have come across as intended. I did not mean to suggest that you were making games to make a quick buck but rather was trying to imply that the focus of your games feels like it's shifting away from telling a compelling story with strongly-defined characters to games where the characters lack definition and bleed into each other and the story takes second stage to gameplay concepts like open world and isometric maps. It also feels sometimes like you're trying too hard to make sure that everybody will be happy that you don't take any risks with the characters and let them actually take a stand, but instead they settle in to a kind of default, anodyne state so that someone won't object to the character. It's like we want the characterization to be as loud as Sylrissa but instead we get Elenor at the start of Loren, too afraid to speak her own mind even when Loren is in trouble. We definitely bear witness to the effort that goes into making the games and enjoy seeing them develop, but it feels like the time and effort goes more into the visual aspect of the game and the novel ends up lacking. That perhaps instead of polishing the characters and the story structure instead the UI is polished and some gameplay element is fine tuned. As someone who has been playing visual novels since before Ren'py was even a twinkle in pytom's eye, I have fallen in love with various characters and come to hate other characters for what they have done and have stayed up late into the night because I simply could not wait until morning to see what was going to happen next. Even if you decry the writing in Heileen, those characters were well-defined, you could tell who was talking without needing to see the image on screen or the nametag because they each spoke with their own voice (and occasionally with an accent as well). Even if the elements could be a bit goofy at times we relished that goofiness and waited eagerly for what zaniness would come next. To put it another way, if you play Cursed Lands, it feels more like you're reading Jariel's diary rather than experiencing it yourself (and what would Seasons of the Wolf have been like if we simply started out with Jariel's diary and never saw any more). You're told what's happening but it doesn't really feel like you're part of the scene and it doesn't really matter anyway because every person who talks sounds just like Jariel. Take, for example, the scene where you help with the assassination. Nowhere do we really feel anything from lasagna; it's just something that happens and oh yeah I suppose we could go kill that person, oh yeah let's kill that boy too, even if he's innocent, he's a witness and I haven't had my morning cup of coffee yet. Or how we simply left Galan rotting in a prison for what felt like weeks when we thought he was going to be executed but nobody cares until hey the timer says we should go pick him up, hope he's still alive. The point is that the writing and the characters have taken a back seat to the gameplay which makes me feel like I'm role-playing a crazy person. Yes, the older games certainly didn't have the odds and ends that you've learned how to do in Ren'py as you've continued to grow as a developer and as you move in the lifecycle of a game from copying and pasting into early builds elements from previous games on to new features that are unique to this particular game and I personally applaud and respect that; it's wonderful that you get better and better in those regards. It's just that it feels like they have taken your focus and attention away from what really is the core of a visual novel or RPG: the characters and the story. Having a well-polished game with unique gameplay not found in other Ren'py games can make the game stand out and can help with sales and there are many, many people who would buy and play through these games for that alone (like how people on Steam will reject RPGMaker games unless they are 100% custom assets), but without the deep characters and without a story that grabs you, drags you in, and holds on to you, it's just not a Winter Wolves game. Nobody is denying that you put a great deal of effort into your games; it shows in the gameplay. We just wish it showed in the story and the characters.
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Warning: Here be Spoilers!
I remember playing Loren: The Amazon Princess long ago and really enjoying it. I knew as I was going into Cursed Lands that I would be biased by nostalgia, so I got together with a friend. For the sake of this, we replayed Loren just as we were going through Cursed Lands. We concluded that Loren the Amazon Princess isn’t the greatest game ever, but it is a good game with a decent plot and decent characters with unique, recognizable personalities. It was a charming story that gripped you until the end.
Cursed Lands, on the other hand, is mediocre and forgettable. Often times we would mix up scenes from this game with the much superior Loren, and it was easy to tune it out for something mildly less bland. We had to make a superhuman effort to care for the characters and their tribulations, and often we failed, because they were boring at best and infuriating at worst.
But why is this? The key to Loren’s superior quality seems to be a mystery, which another game in the saga, Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf, failed to replicate. It’s a problem that has little to do with graphics, or branching paths, rpg elements, or isometric maps; it’s something so fundamental to a visual novel, yet so easy to overlook in favor for other ambitious and less important elements: the writing.
First, let’s establish Loren’s plot in a few words: we take the role of Elenor or Saren, who accompanies Loren in a search to find her mother, which evolves into a quest to unify Aravorn against a common threat to all its nations. While we see the story through Elenor/Saren’s eyes, Loren seems to be the real protagonist, as she is the chosen one of the Ember Blade, the leader of the unified armies, etc.
Next is Cursed Lands. To make referencing things simple, since the protagonist is much more customizable, I’ll establish our character’s stats: female, half-elf, named lasagna (yes, with lower case L.)
Cursed Lands’ plot revolves around our hero, lasagna, an overall outsider, who becomes the leading force behind Aravorn’s invasion into the Castle of N’mar, which is the source of pests and curses that plague the entire land.
Both plots are quite similar; hero becomes the center of a large army, which they first struggle to build, before assaulting the bigger danger. The general story is not the issue; the great divide between these two games lies in their execution.
From exposition to bland characters, I’ll list everything below.
I’ll start from the outside and work my way to the more “individual” problems. In comparison to Cursed Lands, Loren is a very linear game. If some branching occurs, it can be expected to merge right back into the main path within a couple of scenes, and this branching is minimal. Most of the important choices, after all, are delegated to the true protagonist, Loren, while Elenor/Saren only chooses the nature of their response (forceful, friendly, funny).
Meanwhile, Cursed Lands allows the player to recruit characters in whatever order they choose, whenever they choose, and if they feel like recruiting them at all. The story still has the same end, but there are many more variables, which makes them hard to keep track of. The protagonist, lasagna, has more reign over the story.
In the former case, the writer has a much more controlled environment. They are allowed to craft scenes without having to worry about this and that character missing, so they can freely spark interactions between the party members.
It would be expected that the simulation of free will that we find in Cursed Lands would grant a richer experience, but it sacrifices the party interactions for this possibility, which wasn’t met in the first place. We are only left with loosely tied scenes and characters that barely had any connection. The camaraderie and hard work are much harder to believe.
The disconnect only grows when the player is allowed to choose which party members accompany them to certain areas, which only means any number of character combinations is available. The game tries to work around this by, at moments, giving each character in your party a turn to say their one liner. This is extremely ineffective, because it is very roughly tacked on, which results in soulless empty dialog and a soulless empty character.
Furthermore, this format leaves the plot more vulnerable to inconsistencies.
This point doesn’t seem like that big of a problem from the surface, but I’ll be getting to the next level of “depth”.
Scenes are the building blocks of the story. Through them you show how the characters progress through the plot, how they work through their conflicts, how they interact with the world and with each other, their growth, etc.
In Loren, we get to appreciate how the naïve, sheltered princess stumbled through the outside world at first, then slowly acquired a steady, then commanding pace with the help of her slave-turned-partner Elenor/Saren. Both in the main scenes and in the camp dialog, we watched the party grow, and their struggles to accept each other as they did, from the conflicts between the elves and humans, to some more personal grudges between the characters themselves (Rei’s deep dislike of Mesphit due to his dark elf and demonic nature, Ramas and Dora’s romance, etc.)
We saw all of these things through diverse situations that included, but were not limited to talking.
Cursed Lands offers far less. Each scene is constructed with the longest, most boring walls of text. Show, not tell is a big problem. All of the conflicts are conveyed through line after line of monologues and ramblings one would expect to find in someone’s teenage diary. Because the story is so fragmented for the sake of free exploration, there is little to be seen in the ways of conflicts between the characters. Perhaps there’s something with Salryssa and Leena over little Loren’s training, and Apolimesho and Enok on the topic of dark magic, but these are menial arguments that are immediately resolved, and everything is water under the bridge as long as lasagna approves.
Let’s go down another level.
Loren offers you a wide arrange of characters: from the determined, yet somewhat self-centered and proud Loren, to the pompous and goofy Draco; Dora the kleptomaniac with her noble dwarf companion Ramas, to Apolimesho the wise and the cool and quiet Amukiki. All of Loren’s companions are found scattered across Aravorn, and they all have their own conflicts and interests which are clearly shown through a combination of quirky dialog and their behaviors.
The Cursed Lands’ cast is completely devoid of personality. They are clearly meant to have one, of course, and you can see what they were going for with each character at times. However, this is not through line delivery or reactions. Instead, we are told, either by the long character ramblings, or the other characters sometimes complaining about others (ex. Sylrissa calling Leena a cold bitch.) Since we do not directly see any of these traits on the characters themselves these statements are unbelievable.
To further explain this, we have to go down further.
Or what we should call dialog. I’ve been mentioning this multiple times in the previous points, because it is where this game’s problems are most evident.
It is completely voiceless. The characters’ personality is supposed to come through not only in what they say, but in how they say it.
In Loren, we get Dora and Ramas with their stylized speech to express a more mundane background; Chambara expresses her apparent discontent with helping the group save the world with clever sarcasm and empty threats, yet becomes defensive when accused of being inherently evil; Amukiki is a man of few words, but he can express his feelings in an intelligent way when he has to, which points at how he is more than a committed gladiator, but a man capable of deep thought.
The characters don’t have to directly voice their intentions or feelings; the way they behave in the scene, or the way they word their thoughts, expresses this for them indirectly, and that is what makes them real, charming, unique and memorable.
In Cursed Lands we get the rough berserk Galan who only ever cared for battle expressing himself with the same vocabulary and eloquence as Apolimesho, even when he’s in his most vulnerable. All characters, from the least educated and most hotheaded, to the most academic and objective, have the same exact voice: the voice of the writer.
Most of the game I felt as though the writer was speaking directly to me through each character, and using each scene to lecture me on something different, like moral values, or trading and business (Geraldine’s scenes were painful.) Those scenes with character growth were only paragraphs upon paragraphs of the character (writer) rambling to themselves about their problems, but not just any kind of troubled rambling- instead, it sounded more like a sermon, slowly introducing the problem to then tell you the solution as if it were obvious and simple. This lecturing gives the voice a tone of condescension and self-importance, and because the writer can’t help give every single character the same voice, they all come across as driveling, bland, condescending missionaries.
And none was worse than our protagonist lasagna herself. Despite being able to choose race, profession and background, this PC is way more rigid and one dimensional than Loren’s Elenor/Saren.
Through different choices (Friendly, Joking, Forceful), Loren let you guide your character towards each of these archetypes. A friendly PC had supportive lines for Loren and a mellow attitude, a joking PC was sarcastic and lighthearted, and a forceful PC was not afraid to spit out her truths.
In Cursed Lands, lasagna only existed in the Mary Sue dimension. While the rest of the cast at least had an idea of an archetype, lasagna was a stale dish of overcooked pasta and zero filling, not even canned sauce. She phased back and forth between being funny or serious or a smartass, or all of the above at the same time, and everyone loved her for it. She always had a solution, always was several steps ahead, always knew how to reply.
We are aware that we can choose some of her responses; however, unlike Loren, we do not choose lasagna’s attitude. I even went back to check whether the character traits that you could choose for her had an effect. This was not the case.
Loren’s romances weren’t anything revolutionary, structure wise. They were very straightforward. If you wanted to make advances on a character you only had to choose the “Romance” option, and visit them enough times at camp to trigger their cutscenes. Of course, some paths were only available to Saren or Elenor.
However, because of Loren’s competent characterization, dialog, and interestingly crafted scenes, this was easily overlooked in favor of enjoying the character grow closer to Elenor/Saren. Each path was unique, because Elenor/Saren’s own starting feelings and thoughts differ through each character.
In our playthrough, we chose Elenor.
Let’s start with Karen’s path. Her feelings towards Karen are those of a subject who idolizes their queen. A lot of the time she is starstruck by the queen, even though Karen’s own self-worth is wounded and she can’t wait to give Loren her title. Through their path, they close this subject-ruler relationship to become good friends, then lovers.
Then Loren. They have a similar situation where they have to close the gap between their positions. Loren accepts that she sees Elenor as more than a servant and Elenor that she can be more than a servant. Saren’s path is surely much more dramatic, but gxg rules.
Chambara’s path starts as a seemingly toxic relationship. Elenor is wary of her for her status as witch, and Chambara’s advances consist of treating Elenor as a slave or an object she wishes she could steal from Loren’s grasp. Then it turns to incessant teasing in retaliation for being rejected. It takes Elenor dismissing her prejudices against dark magic and Chambara doing the same to her own about the outside world so they can discard their pride and come together.
In Cursed Lands, such starting parameters that make each path unique are either incredibly tiny or nonexistent. It almost always is the case that the character automatically likes lasagna.
Leena’s first scene is a looong talk as they’re (at least supposed to be) on their way to the Citadel. And the next scenes are the same: long, drawn out talks about nothing. I’m guessing lasagna was supposed to slowly understand Amazon tradition and Leena as a result. Sadly, this was lost in voiceless boring dialog, where you have to agree with their (the writer’s) morals to enter their path.
The other romances we tried (Sylrissa and Nuala) are pretty much the same. In fact, Nuala’s sex scene came as a surprise. Suddenly, she really, really wanted to sleep with lasagna.
In the end, Loren the Amazon Princess did not pretend to have deep moral and philosophical dilemma’s in their choices or romances. It knew what it was and executed its purpose brilliantly. Cursed Lands did the opposite; it pretended to be more than it was, while the game could be exactly the same if the right choices were replaced with “(Romance.)”
References to Loren
Cursed Lands likes nodding at its predecessor, either by shoving in characters from the original game (Myrth randomly popping up in the forest), or inserting them in the plot. One thing is clear, the references are anything but subtle or natural; at worst, they tear large holes into Loren’s established story.
Young Loren’s cameo infuriated me, because the same voiceless bland disease the other characters suffer from is passed on to her in the form of stereotypical child dialog #22. The proud, haughty qualities of the older princess are not at all present in this version of her, not even as she trains with Leena. With how cautious and authoritarian she wanted to be once she left the Citadel’s walls as a young adult, I would expect her to be reluctant towards foreigners such as Sylrissa the naga, whom she happily ran towards and begged to have her teach her dual wielding, or even lasagna the half-elf (or pure elf, or pure human, or dwarf) herself. Moreover, it is mildly annoying that there is no reference whatsoever to Leena or a naga training Loren in the later game. This I was more willing to understand, though.
Breza’s cameo was forgettable and I don’t have a lot to say about it.
Karen and Apolimesho’s roles were understandable, and due to them already existing and having established personalities, they suffered slightly less from the voiceless syndrome. Note: slightly less, because they were still toned down significantly.
Valery and Zachary have some interesting inconsistencies. In Loren’s Castle of N’mar expansion, they are the lord and lady of said castle. They mainly want to be left alone in their property. Zachary is protective of his wife and does what he can to please and impress her. In Cursed Lands, these two have multiple appearances throughout the game. Ultimately, they wish to become the sole rulers of N’mar. Character wise, Valery behaves much more like a brainless puppet or echo of Zachary, an extension of him, while he is mostly the driving force.
There is also a glaring story inconsistency, which is VERY important considering these two and their backstory in Cursed Lands were relevant. In the Castle of N’mar DLC, they were established as being centuries old. In Cursed Lands, which takes place decades before Loren, Valery is only being turned into a vampire, which matters because it is only this way that she can give lasagna her special blood. This means that she was still human in Cursed Lands’ time, and in no way could’ve already lived through centuries, at least not without magic or ending up looking like Mother Morte. And speak of the devil…
Mother Morte was mostly ruined. She doesn’t have an appearance, but she is credited at the very end of the game with being the main influence behind Humberto’s? Humbra’s? madness. The reason I say she is ruined is because, in Loren, her motives are still a mystery, even if she clearly betrays you when you choose to trust her. In Cursed Lands it is clearly stated she wanted to defeat the Human Empire. This could’ve been better received had it been established differently. Shown instead of told.
Ryzom’s ending appearance should have never happened. I refuse to acknowledge this. In fact, why did I even bring this guy up? He was never in the game, ever, did I have a fever dream what. UPDATE: I see it was changed. Good, I guess?
Cursed Lands is quite lacking and heartless. It is leagues below its sequel, Loren, and only a few steps below Seasons of the Wolf. I’ve followed these games for years and played a lot of other Winter Wolves games as well, including all of the Heileen saga. I’ve noticed a decline in the quality as both new concepts and sequels/prequels are created. This is tragic; I remember the good old days where I’d be greatly charmed by the characters Winter Wolves brought to the table.
And that is the issue. There is no heart. I could blame the writer (who probably didn’t do as much research as they should’ve considering the plot holes), but there is someone else at the head who is giving these things a pass.
Where does Winter Wolves want to go? What is its main focus: good storytelling, or good sales? As a full time indie dev, the latter definitely carries an incredible amount of weight, but when is it okay to completely stop caring about the art, the creation itself?
Has Winter Wolves forgotten what it is like to make a game for the love of the game?
With dread and cautious optimism, I sign off.
Fare thee well, lasagna.