I've been writing about games for too long to keep track of the number of times I've been promised a "living world", but the prospect continues to hold so much appeal that I've yet to become jaded—uncharacteristically—despite the payoffs being few and far between. Unforetold: Witchstone is another RPG with these lofty ambitions, driven by a web of interconnected relationships and faction rivalries. When it works, it's damn impressive, but at this early access stage, unfortunately, so much of that reactivity is undone by bugs and wonky systems.
The many false starts during my attempt to help a bandit faction take over the town of Howling Valley really encapsulates both how ambitious Unforetold: Witchstone is, and how messy it can become when nothing works as it should.
My life of crime started before I arrived at said town. Really, it started straight away, as I used subterfuge, intimidation and my criminally charming smile to escape a dingy port and steal away on a train. It was during this train journey where I really embraced my penchant for bad behaviour, though. See, we were held up by a pack of bandits, eager to rob the rich passengers and murder the troops onboard—who belonged to the Commonwealth faction. I still don't know much about the Commonwealth, but their bossy vibe rubbed me the wrong way. My rebellious streak meant I was seduced by the Dark Side, agreeing to assist the bandits.
Before the fight kicked off, a real-time chat between both leaders afforded me some time to come up with a plan. The influence system allows you to manipulate any character into doing all sorts of things, like giving up an item, attacking a specific individual or leaving a location. I thought I might be able to avoid bloodshed by talking the Commonwealth troops into leaving, and thanks to some good rolls I actually managed to convince them to run away. Except they stayed exactly where they were and the fight started anyway.
Up until that point, the system had worked brilliantly. I managed to trick a guard into letting me into port without paying a toll, avoided having to bribe another guard to get into the sewers, and recruited a train conductor instead of purchasing a train ticket. I suspect the failure of the system during the train heist was due to the Commonwealth troops being locked into a scripted sequence, but it was still disappointing to see my plan breaking down due to things outside of my control.
Anyway! My bandit pals and I won the fight, and after some looting I got back on the train. This bout of criminal activity had a significant knock-on effect, too, transforming my destination. When I arrived, I found Howling Valley embroiled in an all-out war between the bandits and the Commonwealth, all thanks to my earlier assistance. There was literal blood on the streets, and as I explored the new location I kept being informed about the tug of war between the two factions as they conducted raids and murdered each other.
The dynamic nature of the world doesn't always need your input: factions will fight and compete with each other even if you decide to stay out of it. But if you choose to act, the impact can be properly transformative, letting you reshape the world for good or ill. In my case, mostly ill.
Predictably, I decided to stick with the bandits and help them take over the town. This immediately fell apart right after chatting to the bandit lieutenant who was doling out jobs. He was a couple of steps too far into the bandit compound, so his pals decided that I was trespassing and, instead of telling me to leave, just started stabbing. Upon reloading my last save, the game then crashed. I was having a bad day.
After firing the game up again, things went a bit better. Well, at least they didn't try to kill me. It turned out that the faction was just about to raid the town's stables, hoping to 'acquire' the business, and I agreed to help them with their hostile takeover. I had no idea it would become such an infuriating saga.
Hostile takeover: First attempt
I caught up to the bandits and the fight was already in medias res. I dove in with my pistol and blade, making quick work of the Commonwealth guards. Weirdly, the game decided the fight was over before all the guards were actually defeated, freezing the combatants in place. Maybe they were all just out of breath. Murder is exhausting work! Attacking again seemed to solve this, and after a couple of rounds there were no guards left.
Instead of celebrating this bloody victory, all of the bandits charged off towards the Commonwealth base. By the time I caught up to them, they'd been slaughtered. It was a bad plan. Broad daylight, completely outnumbered and injured from the previous battle—they didn't stand a chance. The stable was also still under Commonwealth control, despite nobody being left alive. The bandit lieutenant was no help and offered no more jobs. Not sure how to proceed, I decided to reload an old save. The game crashed.
Hostile takeover: Second attempt
I arrived at the stables right after the bandits, but this time there was no fight. They just stood there, weapons at the ready, posturing. The Commonwealth guards were similarly hesitant to do anything other than spit insults at the bandits. "Screw it," I thought, as I initiated the battle myself. The bandits refused to help. Then I died.
Hostile takeover: Third and fourth attempt
Hostile takeover: Fifth attempt
The bandit lieutenant offered me a different job, but by this point I was too invested in the plight of the stables to accept. Hoping to avoid crashes and lazy NPCs, I reloaded a slightly older save this time. It worked. I high-fived my disinterested dog to celebrate.
Hostile takeover: Sixth and final attempt
OK. Here we go. I got the stables job, and when I arrived the fight actually kicked off. I did have to reinitiate it at one point, but otherwise everything went as planned. We killed the guards, the Commonwealth banners disappeared, the bandit banners were raised and I felt a deep feeling of satisfaction after a job well done. Finally.
The lieutenant had no more jobs for me, instead suggesting that I speak to another lieutenant, who it turned out was not at his post. That was because he was in the middle of a massive brawl right next to the stables. Basically, my bandit pals had taken two steps, and then started a fight with the cops, who presumably weren't too happy about all the murders. Killjoys. Naturally, I jumped into the fray.
Our numbers were greater, so the fight was over swiftly. Kinda. I'm still not really sure how it happened, but after the last cop went down, the bandits just started kicking the shit out of each other, until only three of them were left. Thankfully, one of the survivors was the fella I needed to talk to if I wanted more work.
The saga, however, was not over. As soon as I'd received my new job, I got a notification that the Commonwealth was attempting to take back the stables. Was I not allowed to enjoy my victory for just a wee while? Had I not earned some respite? Would someone please cut me some slack? The answer to all these questions was a resounding "no". And because of all the bandit-on-bandit murder, there was only one puny wee dude protecting their latest acquisition.
On the plus side, only a few Commonwealth soldiers had shown up, so with my party in tow we actually outnumbered them and managed to take them all out. Hurray! But not before the sole bandit guard had been knocked out. Boo! When the dust settled, the stables were flipped again, going back to the Commonwealth, regardless of the fact that there were no Commonwealth survivors.
Seconds later, a veritable army of Commonwealth goons appeared next to the train. I took the hint and gave up.
This should have been a bad time, but honestly? I actually managed to enjoy myself quite a bit. All of these factions and characters with pre-existing relationships and rivalries do make Unforetold: Witchstone feel incredibly lively, and it makes every NPC feel like a piece of an elaborate puzzle, just waiting to be manipulated. There are no truly random NPCs—they all have friends or family, grudges and motivations.
For instance, you might need to get rid of an NPC, so you do a bit of digging, maybe indulge in some pickpocketing, and discover they're an elven supremacist, a fact which can be used to your advantage. If you want to be both sneaky and ruthless, you can—if you're creative and the rolls go your way—turn everyone against each other and potentially wipe out whole settlements without getting into a single brawl. There's a hell of a lot of potential for some properly dastardly antics.
Judging by some of the Steam reviews, other players have encountered fewer game-breaking issues, too. Though there are also quite a few who have just as little luck as me. Regardless, there's clearly still a lot of work to be done. Unforetold: Witchstone is expected to be in early access for a year, so there's time to polish all of these systems up, and I really hope Spearhead Games manages it. What the team is trying to do is genuinely cool, but at the moment the jankiness is just too frustrating.