Tales of Aravorn: Cursed Lands Review
The Beast About to Strike
After a bit of time focusing more on straight-up visual novels, indie developer Winter Wolves has returned to RPGs, and a familiar setting, for Tales of Aravorn: Cursed Lands. Taking place in the same world as its previous fantasy RPGs, Loren the Amazon Princess and Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf, much of what has been previously said about those two games in the setting translates here. In the end though, Cursed Lands provides an engaging new story, with a strong narrative and a functional battle system that complements the narrative nicely, but without being able to carry much on its own. It will appeal to visual novel fans, but likely won’t gain much traction outside of that.
Cursed Lands is effectively a prequel to Loren the Amazon Princess, taking place roughly ten years beforehand in the same general area of the world. Various characters from Loren make appearances, with the most significant one being Karen, queen of the Amazons. Players create their own character, choosing their race and designing their appearance from an appreciable set of options. There is also a selection of “profession”, which affects their combat class and available skills. Outside of gender having an impact on some of the romance options — six in total, four being available to both genders and two being same-sex only — and the profession being referenced in some small bits of flavour text, these initial choices don’t have any real significance on events. The player’s actual decisions during the game will though, and there are some pretty interesting ones available.
Being a visual novel first and foremost (the game even comes with a visual novel mode that skips all battles), the narrative is key, and fortunately Cursed Lands‘ strongest point. The game starts off with the player character being in the vicinity of the Castle of N’Mar, a vampire stronghold that has been emitting a spreading, corrupting fog. Here they come upon a group of soldiers sent to investigate the castle who are in dire straights thanks to a mixture of the fog and rising undead. After saving the remaining soldiers and getting them back to the capital of the human realm, the player character is conscripted by the ruling council into assembling a task force to infiltrate the castle and eliminate whatever threat lies within. They are offered aid in the endeavour by Karen, who despite being at odds with the human realm, has no desire in seeing the spreading darkness continue.
Cursed Lands is split into three chapters, each culminating at the next full moon as either the vampires or council prepares for a big assault — the full moon being when the vampires are most active and likely to leave the castle less guarded. This leaves players thirty days under Aravorn’s slightly longer lunar cycle to recruit allies, build relationships with existing allies, undertake quests, or train at the arena. There are no time considerations for traveling across the realm and players can view and participate in multiple events per day. Advancing the date is completely under the player’s control. The only restriction is that players can only have three arena battles per day. This means that there is at least no concern of missing something by doing something else, but on the flip side — as many portions of event chains will only be available after specific dates — it leaves a lot of days where there is nothing to do but optional arena battles or simply skip ahead.
The overall narrative is an interesting one and holds up well, with the game adding plenty of intrigue through side events taking place elsewhere and the frequent appearance of two vampires who seem to be working against the forces of N’Mar. The conclusion of the game rather underutilises all the effort that goes into building the world, however, with the primary antagonist only making themselves known at the very end and no satisfactory explanation of their motivations or goals provided until a brief epilogue after the fact. Fortunately, this is made up for by what is easily the game’s strongest narrative aspect, which holds up throughout the game’s length: its individual character stories. Going through each character’s story is engaging and well worth the time. The romance options also work well; if players wish they can unlock some images with some optional nudity of the romanced characters (the nudity can be turned on or off in the settings), but this is more of an afterthought and the real interest comes in how well written the character stories are. Even with the lacklustre conclusion to the main narrative, the writing in Cursed Lands makes it a worthwhile experience for visual novel fans.
Combat doesn’t hold the game back, but isn’t strong enough to provide an engaging experience on its own. Where the combat is intertwined with story events, it works well in breaking up the pure text and providing flavour to it, but those portions where players are just fighting for the sake of it get dull quite quickly. Thankfully, Winter Wolves included four difficulty settings that can be switched between on the fly, so if players do feel like trying to stay leveled through arena battles is becoming a chore, simply turning down the difficulty and going forward without them is a straightforward proposition. Up to four party members (out of a total of twelve if players recruit everyone) participate in combat at once, against up to six enemies. It’s a straightforward turn-based system, based on individual turns rather than party turns; during each turn the combatant gets a single action, be it attacking, using a special skill, or using an item. Ongoing damage and status effects or modifiers form a large part of the strategy behind combat. Again, it’s a perfectly functional battle system, but the lack of much variation in enemies and strategies gets tiresome.
Cursed Lands features traditional leveling up and equipment mechanisms. After each level up, characters are granted a couple points to spend raising attributes and every few levels a point to put into learning new or upgrading existing skills, with an auto-level option being readily provided. Much like the combat, these systems provide a bit of extra flavour but don’t add a great deal, and the UI for switching equipment can be a chore to deal with.
Visually, Cursed Lands does a decent enough job, but there isn’t much about it that impresses. The variation in environments and easily-recognisable character designs is appreciable, but when it comes to combat there is nothing really engaging. This at least makes battles flow pretty quickly, but also means it isn’t long until all battles feel very much the same, something not helped by lots of encounters against repeated enemies. There is no voice acting and combat sound effects can simply be described as present, however, the music — created by studio Leet Music — provides an enjoyable listen throughout even with a fair amount of repetition.
In the end, Cursed Lands provided much of what was anticipated; its strong writing holds interest well and the game provides a lot of interesting narrative decisions for players. The RPG systems work well enough to complement the narrative and give it an appreciably more interaction than a straight-up visual novel, but when called upon to stand on their own, don’t really make the grade. In the end, this is a game that will work nicely for those who enjoy visual novels, as well as those wanting a bit more involvement than traditional visual novels offer, but not one that will appeal to those more focused on the gameplay experience of RPGs.
Great character stories
Plenty of interesting decisions for players
Arena battles are dull