Review: Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles

26 Mar 2024

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: There’s a card name by the name of Mao. Traditionally, you are introduced to the game with a table of people who already know the rules, or at least most of them, and the game starts with one person stating, “The only rule of Mao I can tell you is this one.” From then, you play the game. You are meant to continue play, but each time you attempt to do something you are not allowed to do, another player should interject, explain the illegal move, and force you to draw one card from the central deck.

Whether you find this fun or infuriating is going to depend a lot on the sort of person you are; it’s a game that is not just implicitly but explicitly based upon you not knowing the rules or being able to examine them, instead having to intuit how things work and just play around with it. It’s a similar sensation that I got while playing Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles, which as you can imagine means that it’s kind of a fun ride to explain how this game feels to play. And it’s also going to be real fun to explain “so will you like this game that wants you to play with it more like a toy than a game?”

Towered Offense

I could not really explain the setting of this game to you very well because the game itself does not want you to understand the setting. I don’t mean that in a negative sense; rather, the part of the game where most games would fit a story is where this game puts a tone poem, not by accident but by design. Bad things happened and your society has crumbled to the point of being just a single outpost rebuilding; you are now obligated to guide the rebuilding effort. What remains is a ludonarrative and a space to simply admire the game.

What is your goal? I just told you. Rebuild. How do you do it? Um… okay. That’s complicated, or at least complicated to understand. But not to mechanically comprehend. It’s about… towers, mostly? But also not.

The basics of the game sound like a pretty normal city builder. You pick a spot on the map and build a connecting lane to a tower or another building like a resource extractor, and that starts the flow of goods between the two points. You use better resources to build up your towers, which improves your city’s defenses and available units, and you also can place new resource extractors and harbors to transport goods hither and yon. More resources available means more upgrades and more building. Makes sense, right?

Only that’s not true. I just lied to you, because all of this is highly abstract. How many resources does it take to upgrade? All of them. And none. And there are no resources, and there are.

See, instead of a standard setup where you mine ten iron at an Iron Mine every second, the game instead follows a sort of signal-strength setup. Resources are transported hither and yon across the areas you control, and the closer to a node and the better the transport, the more resources you have available. If there’s plenty of Iron flowing around, it goes everywhere. If there’s very little, it’s concentrated near the source.

How do you get more iron? Well, find a way to link up to more extractors. How do you get those? Don’t worry about it. Just keep playing and flying around.

If that sounds glib, it is, but it’s also the exact sort of glibness the game wants you to engage with. Rather than a matter of building queues and accumulated resources, you are very gently managing the flow of resources, looking at things, and you’re encouraged to just remember that there are no wrong answers. As you expand outward and connect, part of the fun is just sort of painting on the canvas and seeing what develops. You cannot actively lead warfare much of the time, but you know that there are other factions to defend against. You fly your airship around and accumulate defense forces to scout around, but micromanagement is entirely absent from much of the gameplay.

There’s a reason I called this as much of a toy as a game. This is the child of a very singular creative who developed this on his own, Tomas Sala, and it seems to gleefully relish in not showing its whole hand to you at any time. Oh, there are systems to be considered and things you need to be paying attention to, but right away it tells you that there are few “wrong” choices and you should really just feel free to experiment.

Whether that is going to feel delightful or frustrating is an exercise for the player. Do you want to fly around a cold, foggy archipelago making surreal towers and streets and balconies while your ships and airships bustle around in the background, not really sure if you’re getting anywhere but drinking in the experience? If so, this game is for you. It is one of the most vibes-focused experiences I can think of while still technically qualifying as an actual game with objectives and mechanics. It feels like playing a real-time strategy game based on the operating ethos of Mao. What’s going on? What am I doing? Is this good? Bad? Stop worrying about it. Build a balcony.

And you know, I will concede the point – these are some nice-looking towers.

Towered Pavilion

The game opts for an almost impressionistic style in its graphics, and clearly it figures that part of the fun is just looking at the bustling network you’ve constructed and admiring it. Blue and sea-green fading to grey with splashes of yellow and red are the colors to be seen here, and they do create a striking aesthetic when looked at overall. You feel like you’re looking at the video game equivalent of someone’s meticulous diorama, something that is at once kind of impressive and also makes you wonder if maybe this person is just a little not all right. Like, we’re not at Henry Darger levels, but there’s maybe the possibility? But it’s a video game and this is easy to render, so we’re all good.

There’s a scant amount of voice acting in the game, which is acceptable but also has a bad tendency to snap off and then restart when you move the mouse half a pixel, so file that away in your brain. This also goes into the tutorial explanations, and there’s no way to re-see those without restarting. Not totally ideal. Meanwhile, the music and ambient sound is all lovely, really selling that “lonely island stretch with lots of towers” feel, an aesthetic I do not have a word for but which is on full display here.

You can control this with a controller or with a mouse as you prefer, but unfortunately I found the controls just a little wonky. Sometimes I felt like I built something I didn’t actually want to, or my clicks weren’t registering precisely, or what I thought was going to upgrade did something else entirely. Then again, with the game not really having a firm fail state I can’t be too mad about it.

Towering Confusion

I walked away from Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles kind of dissatisfied and without having had a whole lot of fun, and yet I also do so feeling less animosity than you might expect from that description. There’s clearly a lot of stuff going on in this game, or toy masquerading as a game, or game masquerading as a toy masquerading as a game. In other words, it’s turtles all the way down, and while I might want to rate this title as Turtles/10 I have been informed I do not yet have the clout to do that. Maybe in another couple years.

As such, ultimately I face the difficulty of trying to put a numerical score to something that is either going to be an experience you love having that you cannot convince others to engage with or something you want to love that you can’t bring yourself to enjoy. It’s the difference between having a 5/10 that you should definitely try or an 8/10 you might really dislike. That’s hard to score.

So in this particular case, please don’t focus on the score below. That’s not really indicative. Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles is an odd game that you will either really like and have a lot of fun with or it is going to frustrate the heck out of you, but I think ultimately I have to err on the side of it trying new things even if I don’t think it totally sticks the landing. Take that with the appropriate header.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Wired Productions for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Wired Productions.