In our lives, we're all going to have to make difficult decisions which significantly impact our futures. One of the most difficult ones I ever made was deciding whether or not to stay in my frozen tundra wasteland of a home state (Minnesota), or move to gorgeous Oregon for school. After much painful deliberation - and multiple heated conversations with family members - I made the decision to leave everything I knew behind. At eighteen, I felt like I was suffocating and desperately needed an adventure. While I had anxiety about being so far away from home, I became a Duck. (Sko Ducks.)
When I was playing the first chapter of the visual novel Tales from Windy Meadow, I was astonished between the distinct and painful parallels between my life and that of Vena, a huntress who is offered a job in a new city far from home. Nervous but craving adventure, Vena must weigh her options and make her decision by the end of the week. You get to know everything that she loves and hates about her hometown, and how her impending decision is impacting her relationships with her family members.
In addition to Vena, you can play as two other characters: Fabel, a young man who aspires to be a bard; and Iudicia, an herbalist who is debating whether or not to marry a merchant whom she has no feelings for. The entire game focuses on each of these three characters against the backdrop of a fire and goblin attack which threatens their town. Tales from Windy Meadow as a whole plays out more like a series of vignettes.
Each of the characters are three-dimensional and well-written, even the NPCs. What's particularly interesting is how perception of a particular town member will change depending on who you play as and how your character views them. As you change characters, you can learn more about a particular NPC. Take the character of Mita, an ordinary housewife in the village. When you play as Fabel, he sees her as one of the most beautiful women who lives there. But Iudicia knows more about her, such as that she gave birth to her son only three months after marrying her husband, and how this impacted her reputation among the townspeople. These fascinating tidbits add to the game's overall vibe, although they don't change the main narrative's progression.
The backstories for some of the characters are even more interesting. Fabel, for example, doesn't have control or usage of his legs. As a child, he was attacked and nearly murdered by bandits. He gets around on a wheelchair or by crawling, if he's indoors. He aspires to be a bard, so he's learning how to read and write. Strong willed Vena wants to respect and maintain her loyalty to her father, but also wants to establish boundaries and to be seen as an equal.
Another main character, Iudicia, has a more heartbreaking story. Based off her characterization, it seems like Iudicia has Asperger's or some other form of autism. She takes things literally, has difficulty recognizing social cues, and has extraordinary memory. Her neglectful parents didn't know how to raise her, and so they gave her away to the old medicine woman. This introduces an interesting dynamic in that while Iudicia knows who her biological family is, they are strangers to her, and she is deeply hurt by her parents' decision to give her away. She is not just confronted with the anxiety of deciding whether or not to marry a man she doesn't love, but also with the decision to repair her relationship with her family. Although there were parallels between my life and Vena's, I found Iudicia's story the most compelling because of all the overlapping conflicts.
As far as gameplay goes, there isn't much. While some visual novels may have point-and-click elements or puzzles, your goal in Tales from Windy Meadow is pretty much to experience the story and make choices. Admittedly, sometimes it doesn't feel like the choices presented to you have a major impact on the story. This is typical of a lot of choice-driven games. But despite its lack of action, the game introduces some innovative storytelling and gameplay elements.
I've played many a free visual novel in college, so I've gotten to know the Ren'py engine quite well, and recognize its limitations. But when I was watching detailed, fluid animated scenes, I was deeply engrossed in the story. Tales from Windy Meadow really challenged my conception of what a visual novel can do. I also really enjoyed the idea of pixel art - it reminded me of 90s point-and-click adventures, and at the same time provided a fresh look on visual novels. Like most visual novels, it features multiple endings and an array of dialogue choices. These features are combined with the fact that a single playthrough will take you about 3-4 hours.
Tales of Windy Meadow doesn't draw in the player through open world maps, action packed battles, or oodles of quests. Rather, it does this through the intimacy in its storytelling, and how the characters' anxieties and worries touch upon many that we all share. It's meant for the gamer who enjoys casual or narrative driven game play. With its pixel art style, it sets itself apart from other visual novels. With all of these aspects taken into account, I would say it's more than worth your time.
Chloe played this game using a code provided by the developer. Tales from Windy Meadow releases December 20 on Steam.