Lornsword Winter Chronicle is a game about the high cost of war and the brutality of empires. Or perhaps it’s a game about plunking down towers and forts and dashing around the battlefield to whack folks. Usually it’s either the former or the latter, rarely both at once.
A 'story-driven action strategy game' now out in early access, Lornsword Winter Chronicle’s missions are all about controlling and defending resources and pushing back the advance of the enemy in the fashion of tower defence or some kind of single player MOBA (though Lornsword also has a drop-in local co-op mode for two players). We play as Corun Lan Ka, reluctant servant and soon-to-be-general of the Lorn Empire. Bashing the enemy with Corun’s trusty lornsword is always an option but rarely the most effective strategy. Instead, you scout ahead, claim gold mines and farms (gold and food are the two main resources), decide where to construct buildings, and support the troops where support is most needed. Corun can spend his mana (which doubles as his stamina) to call elementary spirits to his side, which can turn the tide of battle in an instant.
Like a MOBA, the battlefields usually have various lanes which both your enemy and your own soldiers use. Depending on where you place your buildings, the spawning soldiers will take a different route. You cannot take control of your army directly, but you can call on up to 15 soldiers to lead them into battle personally.
In its current state, Lornsword is quite an enjoyable if simple game pleasantly reminiscent of classic RTS games like Warcraft 3, both in its old-school look and its general atmosphere. Its story is told mostly through gorgeous and vivid artwork that plays daringly with form and colour. The accompanying and fully voiced dialogue is decently written for the most part and tells a story about moral uncertainty, intrigue and corruption that casts a shadow of doubt over the empire and Corun’s place within it. The first four hours or so are a surprisingly engaging start to a story I’d be interested to see more of.
Sadly, the two parts rarely mix or complement each other. Apart from brief dialogue right at the beginning of each mission that mostly serves to explain our goals, this world with its characters and conflicts quickly recedes into the background; story doesn’t take a backseat so much as jump out of the car, take a cab to the airport, fly halfway across the globe and vanish in the Bermuda Triangle.
Then you finish a mission and, surprise, guess who's back: long and self-indulgent reams of dialogue that don’t do much to enrich your experience of playing the game. On average, there’s far less writing here than in your average RPG, but the sharp delineation between the two parts can make it feel tedious while the missions, mostly devoid of dramatisation, come to feel samey and undifferentiated even though the game does its best to keep them varied. As a result, Lornsword reinforces the artificial and still too popular distinction of 'story vs. mechanics' or 'story vs. gameplay.'
There’s a tiny handful of attempts to change that. One brief scene is surprisingly effective in bridging this self-imposed gap. After an ordinary mission, we suddenly find ourselves alone in front of the central fortress that must be defended in every mission. There’s no dialogue or apparent goal, until hordes of enemies approach from every direction to tear down the building. Without our summons or soldiers, we try to keep them at bay with our sword, but no matter how hard we try, the building eventually falls, and the battle is lost.
Next, we see a picture of Corun startled by the nightmare we just experienced, his concerned wife lying next to him in bed. What is so clever about this little scene is that it effectively brings together Corun’s fears and our own concerns as players. Lornsword can be a stressful experience as we dash from one corner of the map to the next to fend off attackers on multiple fronts, and Corun’s nightmare builds on this stress to say something about our protagonist’s anxieties via our own. It’s simple and brief, but effective because of it.
Other attempts are less successful. In one key mission that exposes the evil of the empire we serve, Corun is tasked with extinguishing every single 'heartbeat' in an area. The game makes a point of stressing that your enemies are warriors as well as non-combatants of a different ethnic group minding their own business, and that our attack is unprovoked. There’s a counter throughout the mission telling us how many 'Beating Hearts' remain. In theory, this should make us feel deeply uncomfortable and lead us to both question the empire and Corun’s allegiance to it. In practice, it doesn’t work for a variety of reasons. For one, the mission doesn’t distinguish itself from most others; killing your enemies and destroying their bases is business as usual and lacks any kind of emotional or narrative impact.
More importantly, the contrivance and ‘gamey-ness’ of Lornsword’s gameplay simply don’t lend themselves to this kind of scenario. Are we to believe that these clone soldiers, emerging one by one from their buildings like robots mass-produced in a factory, mindlessly following waypoints to their deaths, should be seen as sentient beings? Lornsword compares this routine destruction of video game enemies to what is essentially a genocidal act, and it simply doesn’t work.
The same holds true for Corun’s own soldiers. In-between missions, Corun makes a big deal out of the sacrifice of his soldiers and how their lives should not go wasted, but all of this goes out the window as soon as the game proper starts. We can send as many soldiers to their senseless deaths as we like without incurring any penalty or reaction. And why should it be otherwise, if our soldiers are interchangeable and replaceable?
Lornsword feels less like a whole than two halves somewhat haphazardly stitched together, an experience somehow less than the sum of its parts. It’s a fairly engaging game with interesting ideas, a promising story, and gorgeous artwork; but all these good elements pull in different and contradictory directions.