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Published December 9, 2018

It’s very rare these days for me to get hyped about a visual novel.

‘Hype’ is a difficult plateau to reach here on VNs Now thanks to our often-rigorous standards. SOMETHING usually gives me caution about a new VN: whether it be something it its development, its premise, its demo – something catches my attention enough to step in cautiously. However, Scalemail’s Walkerman has been a refreshing break from the mold. From the moment I played the prologue two years ago until the day it was released, I have been looking forward to playing it.

Walkerman’s baseline appeal is straightforward enough: a dark fantasy world where certain people fight supernatural horrors at night. And you get to meet a bunch of attractive fictional women along the way. Again, simple enough. And yet, as you play the Prologue and especially Act 1, you begin to realize there is so much more here. So then, why did start this review talking about one of the easiest human emotions to undercut: hype? Well, let’s find out. This is Walkerman Act 1: Welcome to Midgard.

  • Genre: Fantasy, Action-Adventure
  • Release Date:May 22, 2017
  • Developer: Scalemail
  • Publisher: Sekai Project
  • Language: English
  • Platform: PC
  • Website: Itch.Io | Steam

STORY

After surviving a run-in in the forest with one of the supernatural creatures he’ll be making a living against, Jorgen finally arrives in the city-state of Midgard. Once a glorious and feared nation, the Midgard Jorgen comes to is a shadow of its former self. Gangs have replaced noble houses. The ruling elite are eagerly making deals to increase foreign influence within the city’s walls. And as for the state religion, well it’s happy to sit by the wayside on their hands as the people become more and more apathetic.

In this malaise, Jorgen is one of the few left who chooses to walk the nights. I’ve already discussed Jorgen’s character and how it fits into the overall world in this feature, so for the review I’ll apply that knowledge to the game’s overall world and its political philosophy. The key thing to remember from that feature, beyond that this vein of facism established a theocratic nation-state in this fictional world, is that Jorgen’s personality and ideology stand out because he’s the only one we see take it seriously. Apart from the five women who will, no doubt, play a huge role in Jorgen’s character development; the world of Midgard is stagnant. Complacency has taken over hard and this gives the world a sense of age only a handful of visual novels, ALL visual novels not just EVNs, can capture.

This is where you feel the limitations of the visual novel medium, because I wanted nothing more than to explore Midgard like I would any of the cities in, say, Skyrim. Sit in its alleys, talk to its people, barter with its merchants and get hammered near the pier while listening to some foreigner sing. It is a fictional world that feels just as palpable as anything you’d find from Bethesda or Bioware. My hat goes off to Scalemail for the work they clearly put into making the setting as strong as it is and it’s just a shame that we cannot explore the setting more. What we get, though, is excellent.

This is especially good because if Midgard had just been another sterling fantasy landscape and not some a stagnant, crippled empire clearly stumbling to its grave, then Jorgen’s character would have felt needless. He needs the city-state to play off and it is just as important of a character as he is, with some of the best scenes in the game featuring Jorgen alone, contemplating what has happened to his hometown and the people in it.

Right behind Midgard are our female leads: Siedh, Sigrid, Honora Rothsdottir, Aludra Faraji, and Kaula Wainui Arua. On the surface, these five appear to be potential romantic interests for our protagonist. To be fair, they may well be. We’ll get to that momentarily and the artwork is certainly attractive enough and at least two of them, Siedh and Kaula, have earned more than a passing glance from our protagonist. However, just relegating them to eye candy would be missing two huge plot points they each fill….and no, not those.

The first is simple enough: each of the girls allow for Jorgen to interact with the social hierarchy of Midgard. The key choice in Act 1 deals with Jorgen deciding to take a job watching Aludra Faraji while her father is away or agree to a mystery job for Honora Rothsdottir. Both jobs provided their own story and both deal with a different piece of the hierarchy from the point-of-view of either the foreign noble class or the foreign scholarly class. It also offers different potential rewards depending on who you go with. The Rothsdottirs will no doubt pay well for keeping their daughter entertained, while the Farajis could provide technical assistance and knowledge with Jorgen’s hunts.

It’s a choice of actual consequence. I’ll get into more on that momentarily, but it is very good writing. The second part is fits into the more utilitarian philosophy I preach here when it comes to fiction as a whole. The supporting female cast, and really the supporting cast entirely, serve a practical function within the story. They either help advance the narrative or help develop Jorgen as a protagonist: the latter being the key for the majority of our female cast members. It can be as simple as Siedh who is traditionalist Raider wife material or more complicated as Kaula who takes a special thrill in getting under Jorgen’s skin. The other help set up the future installments, but they all have a reason for their scenes.

This is something, especially in this genre of gaming, I appreciate. By the end of Act 1, the audience has gotten a much better idea of Jorgen who, thanks to the people he’s met, has had to really confront two realities that he hasn’t given much thought to before the Act 1 climax: this job really can kill him and Midgard, as he knew and loved it, is truly gone. It makes his choices and his monologues throughout the second half of the game fascinating on its own. It also easily makes Jorgen, son of Knut, one of the most complex and well-developed characters in visual novels at only one game in. If we get more casts and main characters like this, I’ll be a very happy JP.

But what about the mystery? After all, we’re here to hunt some creatures of the night aren’t we? Well, that does dovetail a bit into the technical, but the mystery is well interwoven with the larger storyline and carry some significant weight behind it as well. The lore behind the monsters haunting Midgard is very interesting, although I feel we’ve still only scratched the surface of the lore here. The bigger point of the mystery was the be a consistent threat in the background: something that Jorgen couldn’t avoid and couldn’t fully prepare for.  The tension this builds throughout as you get closer and closer to the time you face the monster was well executed and made the resulting fight scene that much more meaningful to the narrative and as a player.

Again, though, we’ll dig into it in the Technical section. The story, though, is excellent. Easily one of the best of its year.

PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL

The Presentation is a key detail here because of what the characters and location represent to the entire package. The trick here is that the artwork had to be good, but not beautiful or idealized. And when you remember this is a medium that is all about the over-idealized or exaggerated when it comes to art, it’s not an easy feat. Because those are small details that are usually glossed over in artwork overall. So, all of the art had to look and feel unique, while also showing the flaws and minuscule differences that comes with being human. And here is another fantastic success.

Every inch of artwork in Walkerman is distinctive and hints that what we’re looking it. Midgard is an old city that is in decline that LOOKS like an old city in decline: not some sterling medieval utopia we often get in this genre. As for the character art itself, I often point to Sigrid’s model in these situations and, Hell, just scroll up a bit to see what I mean. Her appeal is the summation of all of the small details added in, from her scars to how she holds herself up. But probably the pinnacle of design successes in Walkerman, of which there are many, is Jorgen’s main ideological antagonist Kaula.

The thing you have to remember is that Midgard is a very conservative state. Even people who don’t live there (the Farajis and Sigrid come to mind) make an attempt to fit into the culture and society. Kaula simply doesn’t. She does not care and isn’t ignorant of the reactions her decisions get her.  But the most interesting thing about her, for my money isn’t how much skin she’s showing. But rather it’s her hair and piercings. In the game, while going tit-for-tat with Jorgen, she mentions that her society regulates damn near everything: down to personal fashion such as hair and piercings. However, it is also hinted that while she’s in Midgard, she may not be following those rules to the letter. Hence, she’s rebelling against both her own and Midgardian society. Again, it’s a small detail but that’s what makes a character stand out far more than one that fits perfectly into a worn-out archetype.

Then there is the music and, really, this soundtrack can do no wrong. The soundtrack is appropriately eclectic: blending in dark and brooding pieces of music with a blend of different leitmotifs to mirror the current situation in Midgard. While there are several standout tracks such as the incredibly upbeat Macaw Girl (Kaula’s theme of course), and the haunting Secrets (Siedh’s theme), if there is one piece of music that will be the standard this series is known by, it is the metal theme song.

This theme song. I streamed this game and myself and those in chat had far, FAR too much fun with that intro scream that closed out the Prologue and Act 1. There is just something refreshingly off about it. It just fits nowhere in this world or on this soundtrack in comparison to the other pieces of music, yet it works SO WELL. My gold standard for gaming soundtracks is whether or not I want to listen to without playing the game and Walkerman definitely succeeded on that part.

Now for the Technical part and, well, this is where we’re going to hit a snag unfortunately. The actual gameplay in the game is great. Most of the choices are well-balanced with one choice to determine your route in a future episode and the others on how well Jorgen investigates before going after the monster he’s been hired to slay. The fights in Walkerman are essentially about control the reactions to your actions and chaining those reactions together in a certain way. If you’ve learned enough the lore, you can anticipated what happens next. I, admittedly, didn’t and the two times I ran the fight scene are completely different because I didn’t always correctly predict the next move.

This isn’t flaw, but rather a feature: a way to encourage the player to not only have multiple strategies, but also to experiment and be willing to die a few times in the name of testing tactics. It was, dare I even say the word; fun. I enjoyed every time I played the fight scene and, because I didn’t always stick to a plan, I appreciate the variety of options I had in the moment.

And here, at last, we get into the biggest problem with the game: what happened after its release. Right after it’s release, I played Act 1 without incident and started live-streaming it in hopes of getting across how great it was. I found out that there were some minor bugs in Act 1, but since I didn’t run into them I considered it a mild nusence at first. The Scalemail, the developers, started working to fix some things that they had received complaints on: starting with the fact that, originally, there were no nameplates to let the audience know who was speaking. This wasn’t the end of the world, in my humble opinion. But once the fixes started, that’s when the problems started.

From June to, roughly, November of 2017, Walkerman was unplayable for various reasons. Not only could I not load previous saves, but even starting the game fresh would cause a fatal crash. I would later find out that most of these crashes were due to several mechanics being overhauled, the removal and insertion of different music tracks (one of the tracks on the OST was inspired by Dixieland and, well, I’m sure that caused a few raised eyebrows), and other major changes to the game kept it on the shelf for the better part of the year of its release. I wish I could ignore it, but the reality is that it shows that QA was either disregarded or not even done for Act 1: leaving to the audience to have to swallow a product its developers intended to ‘perfect’ after we purchased it.

And, I’m sorry, if it isn’t acceptable for any other branch to pull this kind of thing, it can’t acceptable here.

I want to be clear that as of right now, Act 1 is playable and everything I loved about it is still there. But the time it took to get it right should have been taken before release, not after. It’s a practice that cannot become the standard in any genre of gaming and the months I spent waiting for the developers to fix the game from, mostly, self-inflicted issues is a blemish on an otherwise fantastic experience.

 

REPLAY VALUE

Walkerman Act 1 retails for $6.99, with the future entries planned for $2.99 per episode. The developers are planning to keep this at $20 for the entire series, and have currently not push a season pass or any other financial gimmick to lock its audience in now. That is a rare business move and I’d say that’s pretty cheap all things considered. But this is a section about your likelihood to replay it; not its price. And, on that metric, Walkerman is a mixed bag.

I have replayed Act 1 exactly once for this review. I completed a playthrough before the issues hit. You can knock out just about everything you need to do in a single playthrough and with only one choice needed for future installments, the reality is you may not be in a rush to go back. Is it worth it for that singular experience? In my opinion, yes: absolutely. Just don’t be surprised if, once you’re done, it sits on your gaming shelf for a while.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I started this review off musing about how often projects that have hype surrounding them don’t live up to it. It is a rare and wondrous thing when something that gets hyped to the Moon and back, especially by me, lives up to expectations for the most part. Walkerman isn’t flawless, but it is still a fantastic achievement. Its writing is outstanding and it has delivered one of the best casts we’ve seen in visual novels: if not gaming entirely. While Act 2 may well be a ways off, I’m looking forward to eventually getting back into this world, seeing how the events of Act 1 changed Jorgen and how his next experiences will help him grow. I want to see him continue to learn more about the people that seem drawn to him: especially the ones who challenge him and his thinking (Gregor, Kaula, etc) and even those who don’t (Brohr, Siedh, etc). There is still so much story Walkerman has to tell and I want to be here all of it.

Before I go, though, a challenge to the developers who may look upon this title with raised eyebrows. Understandable since, again, Jorgen is an unrepentant bigot and LITERAL FASCIST. To that I say look at what they did with him. Look at the depth of his character and the story they were able to tell with him because of his philosophies. Look at how good the entire cast came out in response to him. And recognize the reality that a game that was essentially broken out of the gate and spent most of its launch year completely unplayable is still one of the best visual novels of 2017 because of the quality and execution of its narrative alone: a narrative centered on him.

It is something, isn’t it?

My hats off to Scalemail for their fantastic work here. There is a lot to be proud of.

 

Walkerman Act 1
8/10

Summary

Walkerman Act 1 delivers as a narrative experience, giving us a thrilling world and an interesting cast, and hampered badly by some post-release work. Now that it’s fixed and the game is stable, this is worth your attention.

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