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April 2024

Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Wired Productions
Developer: Tomas Sala
Release Date: March 26, 2024


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PC Review - 'Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles'

by Cody Medellin on March 26, 2024 @ 6:00 a.m. PDT

Created in the same universe as The Falconeer, Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles is a city builder game that allows players the freedom to make their mark amidst fantastical landscapes.

The Falconeer was released in November of 2020, right around the launch of the Xbox Series S|X. It became something of a cult hit, as it was a flight combat game set in an open world where exploration was key to the overall fun factor. A little over three years later, we have a follow-up in Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles, a title that is intriguing mostly because of how different it is.

A great deal of time has passed since the first game, and the world of Ursee has remained as dangerous as ever, with the constant wars leaving behind a place filled with water and a few outcroppings of rocky land. While the harshness of the world would be too much for some people, others find the will to create a habitable area. This is where you come into play. You choose a faction and try to make a working city out of what's left, while ensuring the city continues to thrive despite the dangers.

For those who like stories in their video games, Bulwark might initially be seen as a disappointment, as there isn't much to go on aside from the bit of lore at the beginning. There are events that occur throughout your playthrough, but there are no major milestones to meet or a solid narrative to follow. This is a game where the only story is one you create for yourself via your actions.

The game features two modes. For those seeking some kind of structure, Campaign will be the mode for them. Players can choose from one of three factions. The Mancers are trying to rebuild to maintain their stranglehold on the world's technology. The Imperium Remnants are dedicated to the opposition of the Mancers, so technology and science can flow freely to all. Meanwhile, the Freehouses want to avoid all of the conflict and try to live their lives peacefully.

No matter which faction you choose, they'll all start the game in the same manner. Before getting to the rest of the gameplay, it should be noted that Bulwark was developed with the use of a gamepad in mind. For a genre that's traditionally controlled with a keyboard and mouse combo, the choice to focus on gamepad controls isn't new, but past attempts have felt awkward. This scheme feels more intuitive, and you may feel that the gamepad works well, even if you're a die-hard keyboard/mouse player. Part of that comes from the constant presence of a tooltip that provides a quick rundown of what each button does in a given situation. For example, if you can't build anything, there will be no button to show what you need to hit to build something. The system works fine, so it'll be interesting to see if other games attempt to crib this feature.

First, you go through a tutorial to get familiar with the controls. You can switch control of either a building or a blimp known as your surveyor. Focus on a building, and you can link walkways to other towers, upgrade the selected tower, or build foundations so you can build upward and outward. Focus on your surveyor, and you can fly around the world, building harbors to shuttle items between two ports or seeking out new lands to build stuff on or expand your city's reach. After that, you're pretty much left on your own.

On the surface, Bulwark seems to resemble a 4X strategy title because of the main activities. However, only two of those four pillars are explored. Even though there is combat, extermination of the opposition isn't much of a focal point. The presence of different political factions would bring up the idea of diplomacy, but that part of the 4X title is vastly simplified. Either a faction loves you or hates you depending on if you choose to fight them or ally with those they oppose, and there's little nuance between those two states. Thus, this game's focus is about building as much as you can and spreading your influence as far as possible.

Beyond the focus on two of the four strategy game pillars, what makes Bulwark different from other city-building strategy games is the simplified processes. Resource management has been dialed down to the point where all you need to do is find a source and find a way to get the resource transported to a tower. Once you have a flow going, building a tower is as simple as choosing a spot. Connections between buildings is done by clicking on said buildings. You don't have to worry about an economy unless you're trying to facilitate some trade to get more resource avenues, and the only thing to worry about with building is whether you have enough of a foundation ready to build upward. Exploration is also simplified, as your surveyor essentially acts as a camera. Its main role is to discover new buildings and ships and to determine if they need to join your cause, be left alone, or destroyed. Menu manipulation is kept to a minimum, with the exception of the different dialogue choices when you make a new discovery.

The game still has some depth, though. For example, flagships have different stats in a number of areas, so you'll swap those out frequently if you're going to min/max any situation. There's also a Soul Tree to give you a few stats, including your standing with any of the world's different factions. There's not much else beyond that, which makes this a strategy game that feels more relaxed and casual in a positive way. The lack of detailed micromanagement means that you can spend more of your time on exploration and building, and the lack of resource management helps accomplish this as well. That focus on exploring and expanding is what drives the fun forward, since the world feels big enough that anything can happen. The lack of a true failure state — or at least a quick path to one — means that you have some freedom to play as you want instead of conforming to how you're expected to play.

There are only a few knocks on the game at the moment. For one thing, you cannot create multiple scenarios for one faction. For example, while you can modify any of the starting parameters if you want to play as the Mancers and start separate new runs with other factions, you'll have to completely erase your previous Mancer save. Also, out of all of the elements that normally come with the strategy genre, combat seems to be an afterthought. You will be alerted to trouble, and you will be able to fight back. The automatic combat is nice, but you often don't see who you're shooting at, and skirmishes end so quickly that you'll have no idea what's going on. Granted, combat isn't a main focus when compared to the city-building and -running aspect, but it feels anticlimactic to hear about potential threats to your empire and see it resolve without any accompanying fireworks.

For those who want a more meditative experience, there's Freebuild mode, which simplifies the game quite a bit. Gone is the need to monitor political affiliations, set up proper resource routes, or defend your bases and cargo ships from enemy attacks. All you need to do is set up buildings and expand them as you see fit; there are few restrictions aside from physically not being able to place a building on specific rocks or in deep water. Like many other games that offer this mode, Freebuild is relaxing enough due to the lack of outside pressures. There is also a certain joy in seeing how far the semi-automated building system can go to create these makeshift metropolises. One issue with Freebuild mode is that the game sometimes ignores that the piece you're targeting has already received improvements and extensions. This leads to players constantly hitting a button until realizing that the game is repeating its actions instead of moving forward.

Like the first game, the graphical style can be best described as simple yet artistic. The character portraits are a good example, as they have just enough details to make everyone distinct but still feel low-resolution when compared to other games of this type. The environments are good, and while the little details in buildings and ships are present, you'll be hard-pressed to see them due to how far back the camera pulls away; the abundance of rocks and water also usually command your attention. The presence of effects like fog and a general haze over the environment makes the game look rich, and the few colors that are present do pop more because of the bleak environment. The game supports ultrawide monitors quite well, but moving your surveyor toward the bottom of the screen can make your movement cursor disappear — and the surveyor doesn't sit in the center of the screen.

As for the audio, it retains the same qualities from the first Falconeer title. The music evokes feelings of a grand adventure, but it is used sparingly enough so it doesn't grow tiresome as you keep playing. It is very well-done stuff and sets the overall mood of the game well. The voice work is also done well, but you'll come to love and hate the automatic playback of the voices during menu selections. A stray stick or mouse movement means having to hear the same response multiple times.

Bulwark plays just fine on Linux via Proton, and if you're planning to play the game on the Steam Deck, then you have to be made aware of the controls, especially since the options are saved in the cloud for this part alone. You'll be fine if you choose the gamepad configuration, but you'll be stuck for a bit if you were using keyboard/mouse controls, as the game doesn't automatically switch between the two once a touchpad is engaged. In fact, the touchpad in this game doesn't work even though you can feel the usual haptic feedback when rolling your thumb over the surface. The only form of mouse control is with the touch-screen, and even then, it's inaccurate when used in the menu selection. It isn't a complete deal-breaker, as you can eventually bring back the default control options without needing to hook up a keyboard and mouse, but it is something to be made aware of if you intend to play while swapping devices.

Control issues aside, the game plays at the Steam Deck's native resolution, and the high/low mix for graphical options means that the game can run at 60fps provided you aren't pointing the camera at particularly crowded places. The game starts to slow down once you reach areas with lots of architecture and particle effects, so keep that in mind as you progress. On a Steam Deck LCD, the battery life can get to a little over two hours on a full charge, which isn't bad for a game like this.

Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles is an interesting piece of work. As a city builder, its simplicity in the actual building process is complemented by the unusual environment for the genre. That alone is enough to make simple settlements look cool. As a strategy game, the attempts to simplify some of the traditional mechanics of the 4X genre work surprisingly well, but some elements, like combat, could've used more attention so it doesn't feel like an afterthought. The end result isn't going to be for everyone, but it is worth a look for those who want to jump into the genre and appreciate something out of the ordinary.

Score: 8.0/10

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