Early Access Preview: Veil of Crows

By Alex Connolly 10 May 2017 0

There have been a few incredible solo developer efforts that’ve crossed my path over the years. The likes of Warshift and Salvation Prophecy come to mind, ambition fueling these one man bands to the point of boggling the mind. While they might not deliver on every promise, I certainly can’t help but be energized by these massive undertakings.

When Veil of Crows, marvelously subtitled ‘Lords, Castles & Bastards’, thundered onto Early Access this week, that same giddy feeling was evoked in seeing a tiny developer with big ideas tilt towards realizing them. Arrow Face Games, otherwise known as one Kerry Fawdray, is bringing to life a blend of Mount & Blade meets Total War, and it’s looking quite promising out of the gate. As always, we’re reporting from the tumult of Early Access, so this is a snapshot of the build as it at the time of writing. As such, positive and negative elements are subject to change.

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Veil of Crows is ostensibly a real-time tactical battler with a light grafting of RPG and infrastructure management. Raise an army, plunder a few settlements to establish your commerce, grow your forces and develop your fortress. If you’ve played Tale Worlds’ Mount & Blade, you know how this all works. Player characters trundle about on a strategic map of abstracted scale, amid a bustle of NPC caravans, scouts, rogues and rival militaries.

You can visit cities and parley with other rulers, organize trade deals with neighbours, undertake quests of conquest and so on. Players accrue greater army strength with every battle and acquisition, enjoying the benefits of persistent troops and experience, as well as levelling their hero unit. Heroes can offer bonuses in combat or, during peaceful respite, add to a city’s domestic output.

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Where you start in the world of Veil of Crows, and how much it immediately chews you out, depends on the type of character you start with. From the Adventurer’s laissez-faire start with no enemies and a pocketful of gold to the Deserter, a warrior with a retinue and many opponents, it’s a selection of origins that could do with a little more explanation of proficiencies and deficits. Why would I choose the Wanderer over the Adventurer, given the former starts with fifty percent less gold, yet they share the same lonely entrance and initial level? But beyond this, the paper doll character creator features both lads and lasses, in addition to a good bank of crests and fields to customize to a punter’s taste.

Village and keep acquisition is, at this stage and solely in my experience, done by the sword. Simple seizing of villages such as ranches or logging outposts offer the obvious benefits for their landholder, and when you’ve come to rule something akin to a castle, you’re free to start developing infrastructure. It’s relatively fleshed out right now, spread across buildings that would increase productivity and population, both feeding into army growth.

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As you roam and own, scraps are inevitable. Screenshots of Veil of Crows’ combat, siege or open field, are done justice, and largely move as advertised. The detail of hero customization is matched for troops, if a little more uniform. Players start with a small band of fighters – peasants and hunters for the early crawl to solvency – and engage in instanced battles, as seen in Mount & Blade or any other strategy that mixes its grand strategy with the tactical. As player power grows in wealth and experience, these armies expand to include greater unit types and number of deployed and reinforcement troops.

Combat itself takes its cues from the Total War games, operating with a similar take on commanding massed forces. As you’ve done in any number of army-scale RTS titles, driving troops across the undulating terrain is a matter of click-dragging tentative positions. The longer the drag, the thinner the rank will be. Everything works as it should. There are environmental elements to consider as well, such as elevation offering a boost to damage done downhill. Reinforcements are kept off the map, and the number of troops that arrive when toggled is throttled by an incremental meter. It’s a pretty neat gimmick, making armchair generals think twice about being cavalier with their fielded forces and ending up routed before their reinforcement tally reaches a sizeable number.

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Alongside the field combat are the sieges. Some golden oldies get to be wheeled out against an enemy fortress, or protected against. Catapults and ballistae put the iron in the glove, alongside battering rams and escalade ladders. Fortresses themselves are subject to local area damage, leading to the obvious tactics of blasting open entry points. Visually, sieges are where Veil of Crows shines, particularly with weather adding atmosphere to the clash. Seeing an improbable evening assault on a fortress in the driving rain is certainly something, and given the detail and freedom afforded to each combatant, there’s something to be said for quality over quantity. I’ve shoaled about the castles and keeps in Creative Assembly’s efforts for years, but in Kerry Fawdray’s vision, the larger unit models and their freer ranging make taking the walls something a little more exciting. 

That being said, this is a work-in-progress, and there’s still much work to be done. Basic combat is good, but it needs more in the way of unit control and status. Maybe it’s my horrendous generalship, but parsing the state of troops and their impact in combat is still a little hazy and unrefined. Total War does get thrown around as the gold standard, but my yardstick remains Real Warfare II: The Northern Crusades. A hidden gem, largely ignored, bristling with unit details at a glance. Veil of Crows need not go to Real Warfare’s length in measuring and relaying a morale system based on ground, stance, flanking defenses, commander location, fatigue and a myriad other equations, but I’d like to know a few more things about my men.

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As it stands, I’m made aware primarily of overzealous archers enthusiastically skewering their comrades. Maybe that’s part of Veil of Crows’ crunch, and I’d applaud and welcome such realism if there was any way to adjust a unit’s combat parameters or formations. Unit selection could also use some work. While double-clicking selects all units of that type, some sort of floating icon – either above the unit or anchored in a discrete window – would work.

Control is also something that has an acclimatization process, particularly when involving siege equipment. Operating said equipment requires engineers for the catapults and ballistae, and any old troops for the siege ladders. Select the stipulated troops, hold left ALT and box-select desired siege equipment. Deselect troops. ALT-select once more to highlight the equipment to position and fire. If it’s the ladders, then aim at whatever wall you’d like to scale. Deselecting the troops and re-selecting the equipment is crucial, otherwise the soldiers will dismount or withdraw from their newly appointed post. A little more stickiness would not go astray.

These are teething issues, all of which are on the docket to get cleaned up. Aside from these niggles on the tactical side, Veil of Crows is a very promising effort. Kerry has already announced another programmer has been brought on to keep things chugging nicely, which adds a touch of Friday to this Crusoe effort. There strategic map side of the game feels alive, much in the same way that Mount & Blade’s strategic wandering interface did. Once the tactical side of things gets ironed out with an overhaul and streamlining of controls and commands, Veil of Crows should go from enthusiastically anticipated to heartily approved. Kerry Fawdray is on to something here. Lords and bastards alike look to be equally served.

Veil of Crows launched onto Steam's Early Access Program on April 28th, 2017. At the time of writing, a 1.0 release is planned for around 6 months after this date (subject to change). Current price is £10.99.

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