Ahh, the silk road. Incredibly hot, bug-infested, and filled with sand that gets into everything. When the tedium of taking your caravan from one place to another is just starting to bug you, bandits attack! Your own guards fend them off, but not without substantial losses, and then it's right back to trudging your way through the sand. This is the life.
Okay, so joining a caravan on the silk road might not be this year's vacation craze, but it does make a good setting for a game. In Sandlot's newest addition to the Tradewinds series, Tradewinds Caravans, you get to experience the excitement and derring-do of a merchant's life, without the boredom and general unpleasantness that would tend to come with the real thing. In this loose, fantastical simulation of a merchant's life circa 100 BC, you will explore the silk road, fight your way through swarms of bandits, and uncover the unique story of the character you choose.
Pick one of four starting characters to get your merchant career started. This isn't just a cosmetic choice; each character has their own back story, mission, and ability in combat. Whichever character you pick, you will be plopped down in some city along the silk road with only your back to carry goods and just two weak guards. In order to open up the other cities, you'll have to work your way through the story, but once you've opened things up, you're free to wander around as much as you like. Indeed, once you complete story mode, you'll unlock open road mode (along with two extra characters!), where you'll be able to wander the entire length of the silk road from the start, with no restrictions.
There are four main screens in Tradewinds Caravans. On the world map, you select which city you want to visit next. Naturally, you can only travel along existing pathways of the silk road. When you select an adjacent city, you drop down onto the exploration screen where you lead your caravan across the intervening space keeping an eye out for bandits and the occasional treasure left behind by a less fortunate merchant.
If you are so unlucky as to run into bandits—and you will, regularly—your guards get a chance to fight them off. Combat is fairly simple. You can assign a target to your units, use your character's special ability, or use any combat items you have purchased. You can also pause and resume the battle at any time, but for the most part, your units will stand or fall on their own merits.
The final important screen is the city screen, which can have anywhere from one to seven specialized buildings to help you in your adventures. The healer repairs your units, while the guild lets you buy more. The market gives you a place to buy and sell your goods, and the stables lets you buy pack animals to hold those goods. The moneylender lets you manage your bank account or take out a loan. The temple lets you buy trading tips or special items, while spending gold at the local seat of government can persuade tax collectors to look the other way.
Analysis: This game is fun. The story is compelling, a pleasant surprise from a game I expected to focus on the trading itself. Both of the characters I played had distinct personalities that evolved as the story progressed. I could have wished for the side quests to change more between characters, but that's a minor quibble with an otherwise impressive story.
On the other hand, I must confess that the game failed my initial expectation—trading—almost completely. The combat aspects of this game—and they're quite good, mind you—dominate completely over the trading. This impact would be less if bandits continued to drop the same small cargoes throughout the game, but their cargoes are magically linked to your own shipping capacity. As such, the dominate strategy I was herded into was of acting like a policeman, not a trader, which is disappointing in a game called Tradewinds Caravans.
The game keeps track of your caravan as it was when you left the last city, and you can continue from there if you fall in combat. While on one hand this helps the true trader survive with less escort than might otherwise be wise, it also emboldens the merchant-cop. Some of the tensest moments I had in the game came before I discovered this ability, when I thought fleeing for my soldiers' lives was my only option. You may want to set your own challenge and pretend this feature didn't exist, so that you too are forced to flee.
And flee you will; the enemies also scale up in ability as you progress. While this makes sense from a balance perspective, the effect on the player is to make any progress you might make seem as effective as sweeping back the tide. Indeed, in the endgame, it seemed that any force I put together was crushed by the overwhelming might of the enemy, and the only viable strategy left was to burn through combat items like tissue paper. The expense paled in comparison to the bandit cargo that was seized this way, making it almost seem like I had become the bandit raiding merchant caravans, and not the other way around.
If anyone's picked up on my style yet, you've probably guessed that I'm about to twist this one final time, and you're right. As I said earlier, Tradewinds Caravans is fun, and for that reason, I am willing—happy, even—to overlook its flaws. It wasn't quite the game I had expected, but what it was, was good. Despite a few issues, the combat was solid and the lessened control actually feels more realistic than either the fine-grained control of an RTS or the utter lack of control in a simpler game. The story wouldn't hold up to a novel's standards, but compared to what one often sees in games (even—and perhaps especially—mainstream ones), it is excellent. Even the trading mechanic that I glimpsed through crossed swords seemed solid, if it could only be uncovered.
All-in-all, Tradewinds Caravans is a solid game that you won't likely regret buying. And from my stingy, often regretful fingers, that's no small compliment.