The Wandering Village, from Stray Fawn Studios, is a unique city-building game in a post-apocalyptic setting. A brief opening cinematic at the start of the game introduces the premise: when a cataclysm drove them from their land, the remnant population followed their elders to build themselves a new village on the back of a colossal beast called an onbu. It’s unclear whether onbu is the name of the species, the name of the individual beast, or both. What is known is that onbu has been lying dormant for years and was awoken back to life at the same time as the spore storms that have swept over the land, poisoning people and plants alike.
The charm of the game’s worldbuilding lies in its simplicity. The gameplay has no fixed end, although there is a symbolic narrative end-point that arrives about a hundred in-world days into the game. This is somewhat similar to the “story mode” that was included in one of Stray Fawn’s previous games, Niche, where the goal was for the descendants of the starter character, Adam, to return to the island that he originated from. Since The Wandering Village is still in early access, it’s soon to tell whether a more narratively-driven mode will be added to the game later, although nothing like that appears on the studio’s current development roadmap.
However, for The Wandering Village, a plot is mostly unnecessary, only a bonus to the robust gameplay. The main thrust of the game’s mechanics is resource management, which fits in well with the post-apocalyptic genre’s theme of balance, weighing both ecology and economics. Land, resources and workers have to be allocated to different purposes, growing food for humans and onbu, as well as herbs for medicine. Researching new technologies is a major limiting factor, as much as resources like timber or stone.
The prioritizing of certain research interests over others is part of the balancing act, and it synergizes well with the game’s difficulty level system. Here, the difficulty levels are not just meant to make the game more accessible to a wider variety of players, but rather they interact with the game’s theme. Every difficulty level gives the player the option to extract resources from onbu itself, harming the creature and lowering its ability to cooperate with its human denizens. At the lowest difficulty level, doing so is destructively unnecessary and foolish; it’s very possible to feed the population on beets and maize and never lose a single villager. At higher difficulty levels, tapping onbu’s blood and bile can be the difference between survival and game-over.
This ties directly to my favorite of the game’s features, which is onbu’s autonomy. This colossal beast, with its rocky back carrying enough topsoil to grow a forest of small-scale trees, does more than act as a platform for the titular village. Rather, it behaves like a living creature, a wild animal that does not comprehend human speech. Many of the technologies that the village is forced to develop for survival revolve around caring for onbu’s needs and learning how to communicate with it. A hidden meter measures onbu’s trust in its human dwellers, who can act as symbiotes or parasites, according to the player’s choices. As a willful living organism, onbu puts its needs at priority and will try to shake the humans off its back, if sufficiently mistreated. Resisting the urge to treat a beast of burden like a machine has thus led to more robust and interesting gameplay.
The Wandering Village offers hours of gameplay at any difficulty level, with a procedurally-generated landscape and the prospect of future development to add new biomes and even more content to the game. With its unique premise, appealing art style, and onbu’s undeniable adorable charm, it’s a worthy addition to Stray Fawn’s stable of ecologically-minded games.