If you asked me what some of the most interesting places I've seen a game set in are, The Great Ursee from The Falconeer — the 2020 open world aerial combat game from BAFTA-nominated solo dev Tomas Sala — would definitely get a mention. This gargantuan world of boundless, stormy ocean is broken up only by scattered sea stacks and jagged vertical landmasses, driving those that inhabit it to cling to the rock for survival. Homes and factories sit in shallow waters and on platforms protruding from the stone, with sprawling bridges and walkways ensuring that everything stays connected. Conflicts between warring factions are fought not on foot, but by air or sea, with troops charging into battle on battleships, in zeppelins, or atop dragons and warbirds.
It's quite an unusual and hostile environment, and it's one I'd never expect to be the setting for something like a chill city-building title. Yet, that's exactly what Bulwark: The Falconeer Chronicles — Sala's upcoming follow-up to the first game that's headed to Xbox, PC, and PlayStation — is, with some 4X strategy game mechanics thrown into the mix for good measure. And after spending a few evenings with the latest build of Bulwark's demo, I've gotta say that I'm totally jiving with what's going on here.
Build the fortresses of your dreams
Everything starts with your surveyor airship, which is used to pick a spot to get started. With it, you can plop down an outpost, as well as resource extractors at marked sites where valuable building materials can be found. First comes your outpost, then comes a woodmill, which you'll then have to connect together with walkways to get lumber flowing. From here, you start building towers out from your base, which act as both residential buildings and anchor points for continued expansion.
• Release date: Coming soon
• Developer: Tomas Sala
• Publisher: Wired Productions
• Genre: City-builder / Strategy
• Players: Single-player
• Platforms: Xbox, Windows PC, PlayStation
And expand you do, adding more links to that chain, until you find a spot suitable for a quarry. You place one down with your airship, hook it up to your ramshackle settlement, and boom, you've got stone. With upgrades, rickety outposts and towers become castle turrets and bastions, their walkways transforming into sturdy walls and battlements. Extra foundations for towers can be made with stone, too, giving your people flat ground to construct houses upon. Later, you'll come across iron as well, which unlocks upgrades to raise structures even higher and lets you add large balconies to their sides.
This would probably require a bit of complex UI navigation, careful resource management and a fair amount of time in a traditional city-builder, but Bulwark is different. Designed to be approachable, accessible, and elegant, its 3D building system allows you to rapidly create entire cities in seconds with point-and-click maneuvers and simple button presses, provided you've got a link to resource nodes up and running. It's incredibly snappy and satisfying, and as a lover of castles and other defensive structures, it's also been very relaxing to watch the fortresses of my dreams come to life before my eyes. I can absolutely see Bulwark being one of the best Xbox games or best PC games to play if you want a more laid-back experience.
Inevitably, you'll have to venture to distant seas using your airship since there's only so much space on your starting landmass, and that's where the strategy-focused half of Bulwark's gameplay comes in. The Great Ursee is home to multiple different factions with sea forts of their own, as well as random encounters that pop up as you fly around. By interacting with these to take in refugees or trade with other groups, you'll gain new outposts and resource extractors that can be used to build additional bases. You'll also come across ship captains and commanders to add to your ranks — the former will sail between harbors you build to extend (or defend) your supply chain over long distances (you can take a look at the flow of your resources whenever you want), while the latter can be assigned to fully upgraded towers to man your fortifications and spawn blimps, warbirds, and other units that follow your surveyor wherever it goes.
As your armies and territory grow, neighbors may become wary of you, though you can attempt to assuage their concerns with trade agreements. Some may simply declare war on you, and you can do the same if you're feeling up to taking what's theirs by force. The way you're treated can also be influenced by the people living in your empire; a stronghold of pirates, for example, is more likely to be amicable with you if you've taken refugees from their faction under your wing beforehand.
The demo I played has a rather restrictive build limit of just 30 structures, so I wasn't able to create more than one or two extra outposts. This, I'm sure, limited the attention other societies were giving me; I'm interested to see Bulwark's politics systems at work over the course of a complete playthrough when it releases in full.
The one thing about this part of the game that left me feeling underwhelmed was the combat; save for keeping your surveyor constantly moving to help it avoid incoming fire, battles are completely passive, with their outcomes seemingly determined by numbers and nothing else. I get that Bulwark is supposed to be on the minimalistic side, and it's not a combat-forward game, so I'm not asking for high-level RTS micromanagement mechanics here. But I would at least like something engaging to do while I'm invading someone's territory or defending my own.
I've got questions, but I'm already hooked
The last thing I would expect from a sequel to the tense, action-packed dogfighting in The Falconeer is the type of game that Bulwark is, but based on what I've played so far, it's shaping up to be excellent. It's a completely new and unexpected way to spend time in Tomas Sala's vast oceanic world, and I'm loving the way he's weaving genres together while getting rid of the tedium that comes with layered menus and complicated management systems.
This streamlining also cuts away the depth you'd get from more complex titles like Frostpunk or Surviving Mars, so if you prefer deeper gameplay, you'll want to look elsewhere. But we should celebrate the simpler stuff, too, and that's precisely what Bulwark excels as: a casual, easy-to-understand game that anyone can have a good time with, complete with addicting building mechanics and The Falconeer's gorgeous stylized art direction.
Of course, I've definitely got a few questions. Is there more to the combat coming in future builds? How much of an impact will the 4X politics have in the long term? And aside from ruling all of The Great Ursee, will there be any other goals for players to work towards? Answers will surely come as Bulwark nears its release date — currently unspecified — but even if it were to launch just as it is now, I'd still love it. What I've played already has me hooked, and I can't wait to dive back in once it's out and I (hopefully) don't have a build limit to contend with.
Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles doesn't have a release date yet, but we do know it's coming to Xbox and PlayStation systems in addition to Windows PC. The Falconeer, its predecessor, retails on these platforms (including Xbox One consoles) for $20, though you can often get it for less. It was also on Xbox Game Pass in 2021, and it's possible Bulwark might appear on the service, too.
The prequel to Bulwark is The Falconeer, a beautiful aerial combat game in which you take control of a mighty warbird. As you embark on missions and take on quests, you'll engage in tons of intense dogfights with enemy warbirds, dragons, and other threats soaring above The Great Ursee's stormy seas.
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