Game of Thrones: Tale of Crows
By: Devolver / That Silly Studio
While we were all expecting this week’s Apple Arcade release to be Next Stop Nowhere from OXENFREE developer, Night School Studio, instead a new Game of Thrones game quietly emerged out of nowhere. Tale of Crows is an idle real-time narrative-driven game by Spaceplan developer That Silly Studio and publisher Devolver Digital that takes place eight thousand years before the well-known series. Like the Lifeline games, the idea is to check in throughout your day for a few minutes at a time to set some events in motion, then let the game sit idle while things progress. Due the nature of the game, I’m not reviewing it, but I thought I’d give some first impressions along with the gameplay videos I made.
In Tale of Crows, you manage the Night’s Watch of Castle Black that defends the Wall that protects Westeros against the White Walkers and other dangers that loom in the North. You send commanders out to conduct various expeditions, such as clearing a forest for supplies, scouting out enemies that may be approaching, or even investigating a mysterious cave. You can send out three parties at a time, and they will send messages back via ravens to inform you of what they have found and ask for advice as to what to do next. This is pretty much what the entire game is like. Occasionally you will also get a visit from another Night Watchman with some news, also asking you to make a decision.
Though Tale of Crows is primarily a text-based game, the presentation and art direction are what will grab your attention first. There are three viewpoints you switch between — Expeditions, The Watch, and Castle Black. Expeditions shows the larger map and it’s where you can track your commanders and their men. You can watch in real time as they travel between locations and see the ravens delivering their messages. When you select one of the commanders you’ll also see an isometric view of a small piece of the map they’re on, which is a nice touch. You can also see a list of “purposes” that you haven’t taken yet, which are basically missions that haven’t been assigned yet. Since you can only have three expeditions happening at the same time, that list will grow. As of yet, I’m not sure if it’s possible to complete them all and whether it matters in the end. One thing that bothers me, though, is that distances on the map don’t seem to mean much. If you send a commander to a location about an inch away from the wall, they’ll move so slowly that another commander traveling all the way to the North might get there faster. It’s as though the game forces a wait time no matter what, and it breaks the immersion.
The Watch allows you to zoom in more and see the Wall in some detail. From afar, it’s a stylish isometric view of the wall and some surrounding land. But a closer look allows you to follow the incoming and outgoing ravens, rustle the trees a bit, and respond to small events that occur occasionally. This view is both the most interesting to look at during down time, but also the most frustrating. I have no idea if the events affect anything, and it’s especially confusing because the same few events keep repeating themselves. The interaction is also limited, as there isn’t much room to move. Trying to get closer to the edge of the map just makes the whole thing bounce back and wobble like a rubber band. It’s unpleasant and a deterrent to spending much time in that view. I’ve also encountered a bug where touching the map would cause the whole thing to spin wildly. Thankfully, that fixed itself after I rebooted the app. Overall, this is probably the most disappointing aspect of the game for me, because it looks like it should invite exploration and discovery, but instead ends up losing its luster very quickly.
Castle Black is where you’re situated, and you’ll view it frequently, though not much changes. It is kind of hypnotic to watch the little elevator go up and down between Castle Black and the top of the wall. But mostly you’ll just be waiting for someone to knock on your door and ask for advice or for a raven to arrive. I do wish there was a bit more interactivity while waiting, to make it worth keeping the game open instead of closing it after every event. But the art style is certainly appealing, and there is some joy to be had in watching the seasons and weather change.
One main issue I have with the game is the layout and text size on an iPad. There is so much empty space, with nearly seventy-five percent of the screen unutilized in the Castle Black view. The text is about the same size as it is on iPhone, but no one holds their iPad up to their face the way they do an iPhone. And I can’t see any reason for the text to be so small when there’s so much unused space. Nothing has really been scaled right to make up for the difference in screen size. This is both surprising and not surprising, because I had the same issue with SPACEPLAN when it released three years ago and it never got an update to improve upon the iPad interface. So while I’m hoping that a high profile game like this will be more likely to get such an update, I’m cautiously optimistic about it. As is, it’s still readable but might cause some eye strain.
I’ve been checking in every once in a while over the last twenty-four hours or so and, while the writing is strong, I’m having a hard time getting invested when the story is delivered so piecemeal. Usually I read a few sentences and make a couple of choices before being told once again to come back later. And by the time I come back, I’ve forgotten what happened so far and where I sent my men off to. You can read a recap, but that seems like more of a bandage for this sort of narrative than a solution. I had the same problem with Lifeline, which is why I never got far in it. I would forget about it while waiting for something to happen and eventually move on to something else that lets me play on my own schedule. I can see the appeal, to an extent, of a game that you check in on throughout your day, but I think it’s hard to pull off successfully with a narrative-based game. I get that it waits for you, so there’s no time-constraint or rush to get back, but it’s not like you can wait longer to check in and have more to do in a sitting. No matter what, you can only get a few minutes of action at a time.
Despite my complaints, there is some appeal to Tale of Crows, not least the music and sound design from Logan Gabriel, who also made the soundtrack for SPACEPLAN. The music is the strongest argument for keeping the game open longer than you have to. In fact, the lull between tracks is what usually makes me put down the game more than the lack of interactivity. So for now, I’ll continue playing both for the soundtrack and to see where things go. But I have no idea how long a single playthrough is meant to take, whether this is part of Apple’s goal of long-term engagement to keep us subscribed for months to make slow progress in this one game. Even if it’s quicker than that, there seems to be branching paths and tons of achievements to earn. I’ve only gotten one so far, and I can’t imagine playing this game over and over forever to try and see everything, since there’s no way to speed up the real-time events. As is, I’ll probably stop making gameplay videos so I can just play it as intended, opening it for a few minutes here and there rather than watching crows slowly fly to their destinations.
Overall, I think Game of Thrones: Tale of Crows is worth checking out, but temper your expectations. You need to be willing to play a game in tiny chunks and not lose track of the narrative. Thanks to iCloud sync found in all Apple Arcade games, you can play on your iPad to get a bigger view of the map and the Wall, while still carrying it in your pocket to make progress throughout the day. Hopefully they’ll improve the user interface on iPad to make better use of the screen real estate, but at least you’re not reading tiny text for hours at a time. If you’re ready to give Tale of Crows a try, download the game here and take on your role as part of the Night’s Watch.