I remember when everything here was fields and trees. That’s your starting point for Bellwright, a hugely promising new title from Donkey Crew that’s striking an impressive balance between casual, calm, crafting and building of your own homestead, town, or eventually keep, and the narrative pull of rebellion, political machinations and brutal combat. It’s looking fantastic so far.
We were lucky enough to take a look at the current build of the game at this year’s Gamescom, ably led through it by Creative Director Florian Hofreither and Game Designer Tymoteuz ‘Juicy’ Tarnawski from the development team. They were keen to stress that it was a work in progress, but the slice of gameplay that we were able to indulge in was full of depth and detail, and, most importantly was running at a slick 60 FPS. Florian laughs at this, saying, “It wasn’t like this two weeks ago!” That speaks to a development team that are ploughing their time into getting everything right ahead of its release into early access later this year. You should make a note now.
If you’re a fan of Rimworld, Valheim or Mount and Blade there are aspects of Bellwright that may feel familiar, but they’ve never come together in this way. While there’s building, crafting and combat, there’s also a strong narrative thread to pull on that sees your character returning from a period of exile to find the country in disarray. You set about stoking the fires of rebellion and revolution, all the while gaining ground with the people of this nation by helping them to adapt and grow, building fortifications to protect them, infrastructure to feed them, and leading them from the front when enemy forces appear on the horizon.
Florian makes it clear that much of this is fundamentally optional – “We’ve made it so casual players can just slowly build their village. If they want, they can more or less ignore the narrative”. It’s an interesting way to approach game design, but it sounds like they’ve settled on an incredibly elegant solution. “If you push and you’re aggressive the game will push back, if you take things slowly it’ll let you do that too.”
There’s something hugely satisfying about the idea of going back to basics. The modern world is thick with work and social pressures, global issues and technology, so it’s little surprise to find that a game like Bellwright, where you’re crafting your own medieval settlement, felling trees, and building homes by hand is so alluring.
It’s not all rural solitude and contemplation though. Bellwright is in many ways a hugely effective medieval simulation, priming you to build defences and infrastructure to protect the local populace from roaming bandits and those loyal to the sovereign. Preparing the town for battle includes sending archers to the battlements, building a watchtower and drafting in a batch of citizens into military service, all just in time for a raid to appear on the horizon. As they advanced towards the settlement your player character can join in with the action, adding your arrows to the ranged attack before wading in with a sword when the attackers eventually broke through the sturdy gate. They were easily mopped up by the defenders, but there were a tense few minutes in between.
The level to which you can choose to micro manage is frankly dizzying, and it’s all the more impressive that you can let the AI handle it in its entirety if you don’t want to have to deal with it. You can alter the likelihood of each individual’s proclivity to picking up a bow or a hammer, or whether they’re a pacifist who’d never raise a hand, even to defend themselves. Every person in the world has their own name, and ultimately their own story, with details of where they hail from, and whether they’ve lost people in the war a part of the details that will build up who they are and how they behave in your world.
It all sounds very ambitious, and I’d likely be wondering how on Earth it would actually work if I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes. The Donkey Crew team are rightly very proud of their creation, though Florian wonders who their true audience is. Will it be hardcore medieval survivalists? Or will it be casual city builders whose interest is piqued by the setting? The answer is that Bellwright is a game that actually, without hyperbole, could be for everyone.