This First Impression article is based on about an hour of gameplay and may not necessarily be indicative of the game as a whole. This includes the score at the end.
Northwall is a game I didn’t remember many details about when I started it up other than that it might have had some good reviews (it does) so I really wasn’t sure of what to expect from it. With its heavy reliance upon RPG Maker’s default graphical assets and an opening that goes on for too long before giving you control of a character, Northwall‘s quality only grew more doubtful by the minute. However, the combat system rapidly dispelled my doubts as to the game’s quality and by the end of my time with it I was eager to play more.
Even though this is an RPG, there’s not much to say about Northwall’s story from the first hour. This isn’t because the writing is bad, but rather because the exploration and combat made up the vast majority of the content I’ve seen. The game begins with Northwall, a fort unsurprisingly located on the northern edge of a land, being attacked and overrun by monsters. After Northwall falls, the handful of survivors retreat to an outpost and your party is tasked with getting supplies from the nearest village, which is (in)conveniently located on the other side of a cave. That’s just about all that happened in terms of the main story and I didn’t get much of a feel for the characters’ personalities along the way.
The story may not have progressed much, but there were several pieces of polish along the way that enhanced the experience. First, the game plays around with your party’s composition rather frequently to the point that none of the characters felt like they had plot armor and I was left guessing which of these characters, if any, would be around by the end of the game; a cleric named Suven seems like the main protagonist so far, but even he doesn’t seem entirely safe.
Players are also given some degree of agency when it comes to affecting the plot as choosing to scout the ruins of Northwall for supplies before tackling the cave definitely had an impact on later dialogue and there were a few optional dialogue choices at the outpost. It’s hard to say how much impact these choices actually make beyond changing a line or two of dialogue here and there, but at the very least they are good at creating the illusion of affecting the plot.
The reliance on default RTP assets does hurt the game somewhat and some earthquake effects where light sources didn’t shake with the rest of the screen looked particularly silly, but this is made up for by character portraits having multiple facial expressions, non-default music, a fair number of environmental interactions, solid map design, and some rather liberal use of blood to fit the darker tone despite the more ‘light’ look of the default character sprites.
The combat system being the strongest part of a turn-based RPG is a rarity, but the system here really is an extraordinarily good one. Before getting into the combat itself, I want to address the encounter system surrounding it. This game uses a limited random encounter system. What this means is that there are no random encounters on the world map and when you’re in a dungeon each fight depletes an encounter bar. There are no more random encounters for a dungeon once its encounter bar is fully depleted.
The cave which served as the first dungeon of the game was small and only required a very reasonable five random encounters to before the bar was empty. The encounter rate itself was also low enough to allow players to adequately explore parts of the cave before being hit by another fight and the fights in turn were manageable without feeling trivial. I also briefly went back to an old save to test if the bar refills upon leaving the dungeon and resting; neither activity refills the bar. This is one of very few ways to do random encounters right as it provides just enough fights to challenge the player without becoming tedious and it also prevents players from trivializing future content through grinding.
One of the most fascinating parts of the combat system is how much it does with some seemingly minor changes to the default RPG Maker combat system. Combat is still turn-based, you’re still working with HP and MP, and characters still generate TP for certain skills throughout each fight. The most crucial change here is how TP is gained. Normally, TP is gained through attacking and being attacked and it rapidly drains outside of combat to the point that it’s usually almost completely gone by the time you get into another fight unless the encounter rate is through the roof; I am not a fan of the default TP system.
In Northwall, TP is still gained through attacking, but it doesn’t deplete between fights and you don’t gain more of it just because an enemy decided to attack you. Instead, each character has multiple free skills, often in the form of buffs which generate TP based on how many party members they affect. This gives you complete control over the rate at which you gain TP and free skills only generate a small amount (ex: 2 TP per party member) while the TP skills only cost small amounts. By working with small numbers for TP gains and costs, the combat system creates a smooth flow where you’re doing something new every turn rather than falling into a set pattern or spending multiple turns just to save up for a big attack.
The changes to how TP functions are fantastic, yet it is the skills and enemies themselves which bring the whole system together. With the exception of Flurry, a strong physical skill which costs a fair bit of TP, none of the skills I encountered only dealt damage. Most of Suven’s healing spells also cure status ailments, buff skills are as plentiful as they are essential, and even damage skills aside from Flurry have added status ailments and effects. For example, a few early enemies are ‘fast’ enemies which will dodge just about any attack you throw at them unless you have Ben or Rick, two guards who join Suven, temporarily stun them with the Impale skill; Impale itself costs 5 TP so you also need to figure out the most effective skill to use while building up the TP for it. Most enemies are weak to a specific debuff or type of attack and Suven’s Scan skill is particularly valuable as he can use it to reveal information on an enemy and then immediately take another turn. I also came across equipment which gave me a new skill while I was wearing it, so raw stat boosts are not the only deciding factors when it comes to what you wear.
The first real boss fight of the game is against a giant spider and I want to take a moment to highlight this fight on its own as it really illustrates the degree of complexity at work here. The fight starts with the spider, its web, and three eggs. You’re immediately hit with the need to make decisions as you can’t hurt the boss until you destroy the web, but the eggs take only two turns to hatch into rather tough little spiders and your normal attack has just enough variance by this point in the game that you might not kill them in a single hit. On top of this, the spider refreshes the web every four turns and replaces any missing eggs every five turns so the fight never becomes easier.
Killing the main spider ends the fight, but you’re unlikely to finish it off before it restores the web and the small spiders are hard to kill after they hatch and they hurt enough that you really can’t survive taking damage from all three and the boss for long. Suven’s Holy Fire TP skill is by far your strongest attack and its added bonus of dealing 3% of a target’s max health in damage over three turns is great for such a defensive boss, but Suven’s also your main source of healing and poison removal so you might be taking a risk if you’re not using him to heal.
This is a boss fight where you’re probably going to have a few close calls and even a single egg hatches can change the tide, yet it’s still only the first real fight of the game and by all indications later fights will only get more difficult and complicated. It’s a fantastic fight which takes full advantage of the combat system and the skills at your disposal and the only thing that I don’t like about it is that there’s not enough in the way of explicit warnings before it starts so it can catch players off guard even though you can save at any time.
Northwall thrives on its combat system. I didn’t get much of a feel for the plot and characters, the opening cutscenes go on for a bit too long, and I wish it relied less on default graphics. However, the map design I encountered was effective and compact, the few puzzles I came across were well done, and everything about the combat system is wonderful, which more than counterbalances its few shortcomings. I can’t say for sure if Northwall is a good game when it comes to its writing, but I would easily recommend it if you’re looking for a well-executed twist on turn-based combat.
First Impression Verdict: Good 4/5