Game: Epic Tavern
Developer: Hyperkinetic Studios
Publisher: Epic Tavern Holdings
Not once in my life have I entertained the idea of becoming a bartender. In fact, my interest in attending taverns is so nonexistent it’s more likely you’d bump into one of my doppelgängers serving a pint of beer. Well then, what in Murgul’s name am I doing telling you about a frothy, beverage laden RPG like Epic Tavern?
The simple answer to that question is Hyperkinetic Studios has brewed a very palatable mix of simulation and classic tabletop strategy that would appeal to almost anyone remotely interested in myths and legends. The complex answer is that Epic Tavern taps into that unexplored niche Hand of Fate managed to find. And by the way, Murgul is a Fire Mage.
The first thing that struck me as odd about Epic Tavern’s gameplay is your role. You don’t play as knight, rogue, wizard or anything of the sort unless you’re on a quest. Your main job is running a tavern. That’s right, you’re an ale administering, stale bread supplying tavern master who we’d never think twice about in a typical RPG. How utterly refreshing. But unlike most taverns, this one is more akin to the Leaky Cauldron; it attracts weird, magical patrons who are also potential warriors you can recruit into undertaking quests of varying difficulty.
Before battle, it’s your responsibility to nourish and hydrate these restless combatants, engage in long-winded conversations to formulate new friendships, and add them to your battle party if you deem them a valuable asset. Sometimes, your roster is full and you’re forced to ignore travellers seeking employment, but such is the life of a bartender. You do have a business to keep afloat, after all. At first, I thought chatting with patrons to level them up would feel like a grind, but on the contrary, their stories are simply dripping in high fantasy brilliance. It’s evident Hyperkinetic has infused them with passion, care, consistency and a satisfying continuity that leaves you feeling whole after enduring countless horrible television series. And the quests are just as good. If you’re looking for quality writing and aren’t turned off by dense paragraphs, Epic Tavern will serve you well.
Because the gameplay cycles between management and questing, the chances you’ll become bored playing Epic Tavern are vanishingly slim. Speaking to patrons lets you foster relationships, gain reputation points, and sell food and drink in a mutually beneficial arrangement, but at the end of the working day, you still need to restock goods and assess the prices of menu items like mead, bread, and chicken wings. To nobody’s surprise, marking down the price shifts your reputation and friendliness parameter in a more positive direction. All this is what happens behind the scenes. So while your adventurers might be renowned for their skills on the battlefield, you’re the one directing their every move.
In essence, you determine whether your troupe triumphs or fails. For every quest, a randomly generated series of events pops up on your map, tempting your fate. The probability of success is settled by a dice roll and which members you’ve got in your party, but the part the surprised me is how much like a simulation it all is. Don’t get me wrong, Epic Tavern‘s quests are great. Really great. They play like a gamebook or strategic tabletop game where you deal out cards to inflict damage, and though the text is a bit too clustered, the interface is very easy to follow. The little agency you have within a quest is completely made up for by the wonderful variety of scenarios and tremendously imaginative narrative.
Nefarious netherkin wreak havoc on town vendors, an autonomous wine shop keeps reappearing and disappearing in Felspare Square, and reanimated zombie rats threaten to spoil goods in storage—there’s no shortage of fascination. But as I painfully discovered, success is transitory; greater likelihood of victory (represented by a percentage) does not absolutely guarantee you’ll win. In one instance, I obliterated every event in my way until the very end only to perish and fail the quest. Still, I found it engrossing, and proceeded onto a new batch of heroes who were set to embark on a more mundane quest involving rat extermination.
How insulting to my adventurers, I thought, as I clicked onto the continue button, secretly grateful this quest would give me loot, reputation points and help them level up to become tougher warriors. What did I learn? Proper planning is essential for victory. Assembling a stronger crew that’s levelled up with relevant skills gives you not only a shield of confidence, but a much better chance of completing a quest.
Do take note that since it’s in early access, certain parts of Epic Tavern are still incomplete. During quests, the fast forward button is disabled, which means you have to play through the whole thing to see whether you triumph or not. Similarly, conversations with patrons lack the rumour button, rival taverns aren’t accessible, and the availability of weapons is very limited, which does bring down the replay value at this point. But oh boy is it promising.
Really wonderful music transitions provide the icing on the cake. From the graceful atmospheric pre-quest melodies to the merry folk tunes that fill your tavern, the audio immersion is really spot on. I remember being mildly annoyed by the reused sound clips for different character voices at the start, but the environmental audio had won be over by the end.
* * *
Epic Tavern is inventive, leisurely paced, and overflowing in beautiful, eloquent fantasy lore brought to life by eccentric taverngoers. It might hold back on player agency when it comes to battles, but the pub management side of things is absorbing and packed with a range of entertaining activities, which I have no doubt will expand across the early access period. In diffusing the mechanics of strategy, RPG and simulation games, Hyperkinetic has created a delightful, atypical blend of genres with a unique focus that will take you by surprise. And though I still have no desire to become a bartender, if I did, I’d want to work in an epic tavern.
Epic Tavern is out now on Steam (PC only). You can pick it up during the Autumn Sale for a 15% discount.
Full Disclosure: A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for purposes of this review.