Review: Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind28 Jun 2018 0
Review: Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind
Released 28 Jun 2018
Strategy and story have never been the happiest bedfellows. One benefits from obscurity, from twists and mysteries that propel you forward into the unknown. The other needs as much transparency as possible, so you can understand the effects of your actions and improve your plans. To service these requirements, stories have always had to emerge from strategy, not the other way around.
Six Ages: Ride like the Wind wants to set that straight. It wants to tell you a tale of gods and humans, of mysteries and the mundane while still taxing your tactics. It's a bold goal and, while it doesn't always work, the narratives that it weaves are unlike anything else in gaming. Except, perhaps, its predecessor. Almost 19 years in the making, this is the sequel to a very special game from 1999, King of Dragon Pass.
What's partly responsible for the success of both games is their bizarre setting, Glorantha. It's a fantasy world like no other, developed in depth from academic theories of anthropology and cultural studies. You command a clan of horse-riding barbarians in the game, but your encounters are often bizarre beyond expectations. Dwarves of literal stone, dark-dwelling Trolls who judge others by their flavour, bubbling freaks of chaos and more besides. And each with their own extensive culture and mythology.
Set during Glorantha's early ‘Storm Age’ of warring gods, your goal is to guide your clan to wealth and prosperity. Through a series of screens and menus, you must direct the work and wealth of your clan. There must be farmers for the fields, warriors to protect them or raid enemies, shrines to please the gods and diplomacy and trade with other clans. As the game progresses you will become engaged with the greater events of the age. But at the start, mere survival is challenging enough.
On most screens you can ask your circle of clan elders for advice on what to do, although they often give conflicting opinions. You'll choose to do something for that season: explore new lands, perhaps, or sacrifice to the spirits to learn lore. Sometimes the result is immediate, sometimes it may take several more seasons to resolve.
Either way, it's never quite clear why things work out the way they do. As you play, you'll begin to intuit how things happen behind the scenes, but it's a hard slog. And when you're staring down disasters like a catastrophic raid or a demoralised clan, it's frustrating not to know what choices will improve things. It does, however, result in a far more compelling narrative. One which encompasses failure as well as success, misery as well as triumph. There's even a ‘Saga’ screen where you can view the ongoing tale of your barbarians in exquisite detail.
To flesh out this thin strategic skeleton, many seasons also see a random event. These help you learn more about Glorantha's rich and detailed world as well as adding to the story. Mostly it's a bunch of text and a series of options. Again, your elders will advise you if you want them. Again, intuition and your knowledge of the setting play a role but picking options can be a crapshoot.
Sometimes an event takes you through a series of choices before resolving. Sometimes, it will set in motion a chain of further events that will take years to play out. If your lunatic trickster-shaman decides to kidnap a member of a rival clan, your reaction will impact relations with them for the whole game. Taking in refugees from a mysterious culture causes their presence to bubble up in events from time to time, impacting your clan in various ways.
This essentially is the template for the entire game. There's a battle system, but it's similarly driven by narrative rather than clear strategy. Even then, unexpected events like the sudden arrival of a group of allies can throw things off the rails. Everything catches the player between the rock of opaque mechanics and the hard place of wonderful storytelling. It's a wonderful place to be, if you can stomach the spirals and corkscrews of the ride.
There's no better illustration of this than Hero Quests. These are ritual re-enactments of myths from the time of the gods. It's important for your religion to attempt one every few years, and the rewards can be colossal. But to succeed, you need to sacrifice to find the missing pieces of lore, and then literally, as a player, learn it. Your choices on the quest must be close to those of the god if you want the best benefits.
Some strategy gamers will find this kind of forced immersion awful, others will lap it up. Fans of the original will already be familiar with it. They'll discover a smoother interface and a new setting in a new culture. Forgoing the traditional control and power fantasies of strategic empire-building is a hard habit to give up. But for those that can make the sacrifice, Six Ages holds a wealth of wonders few other games can match.