STAFF REVIEW of Wildmender (Xbox Series X)

Thursday, November 2, 2023.
by Peggy Doyle

Wildmender Box art Every once in a while, a game comes along that captivates you so completely that you don’t want to stop playing it, even to write a review. Wildmender, a desert-based garden sim, survival, and adventure game developed by Muse Games and published by Kwalee is just that kind of game. The game launched about a month ago, and although I could have written this review earlier, I wanted to play more and more of this lovely experience before trying to convey my thoughts to you.

You wake up alone in a desert. What you do after that is up to you. Crafting your ideal desert oasis and uncovering the overlying story around you can be as linear or as free as you’d like. One of the most unique aspects of Wildmender is that it’s procedurally generated, meaning each time you start a new game the world changes. This means that your playthrough, your world and your adventure and unique to only you.

The main story for Wildmender goes something like this, a tale as old as time. There was a time when everything in the world was perfect. Then all the good things went wrong, and wraiths took over. They turned all the fertile soil and vegetation to sand and dust. As you wake up alone in the desert, you have a single tree and a small pool of water. You can see traces of ruins in the distance, and you hear a strange voice calling for help. As you investigate, and locate the voice, you discover Vidyas, a guiding spirit, asking you to find their missing pieces. This begins your story about how the land around you became a desert and how you can help restore it to its former glorious state.

This involves fighting magical corruption and restoring the altars of the five Gods in the world. Before you set out to journey through the desert environment, you’ll want to make sure you have supplies, like food and water, for your trek. Thankfully, you’ll find seeds buried in the sand nearby. The first seeds you find are dune grass. The grass is used to bind and restore the soil and help build and stabilize your land to start rebuilding your oasis. You will also craft some simple tools to help plant these seeds near your tree. As you progress, you’ll craft better tools, allowing you to harvest and uncover a larger variety of seeds and resources.

Each plant type has its own growth cycle and conditions required. You can use your magic gathered to sign to the plants to help them grow faster. When the plants have matured you can gather the essence from them for use in other ways. As your plants grow and flourish, your sandy area will start to turn green with vegetation cover and you can also expand the body of water. You can use your shovel to contour the land and dig channels to create a larger area of influence of the water as well.

Along with the gardening component of Wildmender, you’ll also locate spirits throughout the land. These friendly ghosts will give you knowledge in exchange for the magical essence you accumulate from the plants at your oasis. With the knowledge, you learn you will upgrade and open new skills.

One of the first altars you’ll discover is the Altar of Naia. You’ll collect memory seeds, restore dried springs, and make offerings to open the altars. Each alter helps fill in the story and reveal what happened to the land around you. You’ll also have to fight wraiths with a magical mirror you craft to clear their mystical/magical corruption plaguing the land. It’s hard to talk about the story in too much detail without spoiling it, but I’ll say that the story kept me captivated enough to keep me wanting to see what would happen next.

It's clear that Wildmender wants to reinforce the fact that you are alone. The feeling of isolation is evident as you traverse large expanses of desolate desert, your stamina depleting as you get dehydrated, and water very hard to locate. You can slow the dehydration down by exploring early in the morning, later in the day, or sticking to the shade. As you explore you can locate resources like stone and wood, or seeds to eat or plant at your oasis. Be careful to look at what’s in your bag at any time, some food will provide hydration or may cause dehydration to speed up. It’s a game of learning as you go, discovering how to manage your resources.

Save points are frequent throughout the game though, so if you happen to die, either through combat or health-related reasons, you will respawn not too far from where you were. As you explore and progress, you will upgrade and open skills and tools. One of my favourite skills was the ability to sand surf. It was a great way to move around faster but was also simply relaxing and satisfying to slide down the sandy slopes. Another thing which I enjoyed was the ability to use giant mushrooms like a Mary Poppins' like umbrella and simply float down from high heights that would normally kill you if you fell from them.

Fast travel portals are able to be opened throughout the world allowing you to jump around or back to your home oasis as required. One of the most delightful parts of Wildmender is that you can open a skill to befriend animals. These are large frogs and other animals that you will create a home for at your oasis. They will passively gather resources for you once you make a home for them. When you first befriend the frog, he will jump into your backpack to be carried back to your home or will hop along behind you (depending on what gear you are wearing at the time). You can craft unique gear items once you open that skill and make a crafting table. Oh, you can also hug your large frog friends, which although pointless, was adorable.

With no time constraints in the game, you can take your time to explore and farm to your heart's content. When you do decide to tackle the core story, you will be challenged in combat and sometimes just trying to figure out what and where you need to go. There is some cryptic help from clues found or spirits you encounter, but there is no hand holding in Wildmender when it comes to the story.

Difficulty settings can be customized to create the kind of gameplay you choose, everything from peaceful to expert. There are a variety of levels to create a custom experience for yourself. Along with the difficulty settings, you can also customize even further the amount of health enemies have and the damage they do. Even further tweaking the settings to create a custom gameplay experience. For players who want the most chill play experience possible, you can turn off all combat completely except for that needed to progress the story. Very minimal and creates a very passive gameplay experience.

I mentioned earlier that Wildmender makes good use of the solo and isolated feeling, but you can invite up to three friends you your session. I played some of the multiplayer with a fellow staffer and we were able to explore on our own without the game instantly snapping us to one another. He was able to interact with animal companions, deposit resources at my camp etc. Only the session owner will have their game progress though, so any friends joining you won’t be able to carry over their progress if they have their own oasis worlds started.

At the beginning of Wildmender, the visuals are fairly monochromatic. This was expected as you are in the middle of a desert biome composed mostly of sand. The world starts to come alive as you expand and grow your oasis. Lush plants grow and thrive, and the sand eventually becomes a gorgeous green ground cover. Blue water sparkles in the light. It’s simple in graphic design and style and that keeps the game grounded in the cozier style of games that I prefer. The sound effects of the frogs and flowing water are subtle but lifelike. The accompanying soundtrack is soothing, sombre and melancholy at times, emphasizing the feeling of isolation and loneliness. It’s a perfect complement to my relaxing playthrough. The music does become more intense when you are in the presence of enemies and combat encounters, adding to the sense of urgency and energy in those scenes.

I did have a few small issues with strange frame rates when starting some sessions. These were fixed if I exited the game and restarted. Also, a couple of issues where menus weren’t completely legible, as if the text was overlapping. Most of these issues were rare but do bear mentioning. The radial menus and the UI were easy to use and understand. A bonus when you are looking for a more relaxing game experience. Nothing was overly complicated. Sorting through your inventory was straightforward as well.

Wildmender is a beautiful, engaging, and thought-provoking game about taking a barren wasteland and turning it into a beautiful sanctuary. You’ll go from waking up alone to discovering the mysteries behind the fallen civilization to creating your world with harmonizing relationships. Yes, there is more to it, but that’s my biggest takeaway. Whether it takes you 10 or 100 hours to complete your story, I fully believe you’ll enjoy every moment of it. I would estimate it will take about 30 hours to complete the main story. The developers have also created a partnership with the Rainforest Alliance, which considering the topics covered in Wildmender, makes a lot of sense.

Wildmender is a beautiful indie that balances easy game mechanics, as solid survival component and just enough magical twists to keep the story interesting as well. Creating a beautiful oasis of your own from a barren desert was extremely satisfying, and I’ve spent a lot of hours going back to Wildmender over the past few weeks. It’s a game that just won’t leave my thoughts.

**Wildmender was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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