Whenever I try to review a game, I always make it my goal to at the very least finish it. This is because I believe in order to give any title an insightful look, it is important to try to understand its mechanics, see whether they are utilised well throughout the journey, and if the game is overall worth your time. I say this, as Wasteland is definitely an important title and one that has its fans (including myself). However, after I finally got through this RPG, I also see no solid reason to generally recommend it. Even with Krome’s commendable remastered version, I believe an overhauled remake would have been the way to go.
No real lasting impression, despite a huge explosion
The year is 2087. A nuclear war between the USA and the Soviet Union has turned parts of the Earth into barren landscapes and thrown societies into chaos. You control a group of four people as a part of the Desert Rangers, a distant remnant of the U.S. Army. Your objective is to investigate numerous disturbances in the nearby locations and help them out as well as you can. This is basically what you get for a story, as it does not present an overarching plot to follow. While this is a nice way to make the focus be on the world-building itself and see each location’s functions, cultures, and get invested in their own stories, there is no strong red thread to really guide you and make you immersed in this post-apocalyptic world. You are only asked to do your job, and that is it.
This makes the introduction feel like a shallow start, even with Krome’s better presentation. Compared to the original, significant events are this time told through voice-overs and cutscenes, which adds to the hostile atmosphere the game is going for. However, this does not help the issue of underwhelming quests, since each town’s problems are rather simple and never progresses into anything interesting. There are no good twists or insightful arcs, just you moving onto the next task.
That being said, I do love the concept each location brings. Be it the devastated town of Quartz with thugs and criminals everywhere, Desert Nomads with wastelanders living in trains and tents or the Guardian Citadel being the home of a xenophobic cult worshipping technology from before the nuclear war took place, all are intriguing ideas. This is clearly a dangerous world that wants you dead, yet is still your responsibility. Through this tension and the interesting concept each settlement provides, Wasteland is effective at making you curious on what else there is to see.
Sadly, there is not much else to speak of. These setups are all you are going to get out of this title, due to their results being just around the corner and rather forgettable. Krome did make the original text a part of the game this time, as well as visually make them more exciting thanks to the better presentation. However, these upgrades can only do so much when there is little arc or even story to go by. Wasteland will provide a nice and fitting atmosphere, but eventually expect you to just tag along through the vague hints and save what is left of this world.
Story Score: 4/10
A prime example of a tedious RPG
Starting a new game in Wasteland will give you the option to go with four premade characters or create a party of your own. This is a nice way to introduce newcomers to the concept of old RPGs, and the stats you can roll and skills you can invest points in are both easy to understand. Strength will make you hit harder, picklock will be used for picking locks, and so on. While the manual is handy for telling you that a higher stat in IQ will make you able to learn more skills, the customisation here is in general easy to get a grasp on.
From this point on, you are set in an overhead view with four directional movements and are free to go wherever you wish to. This is one of the strengths Wasteland has, as it lets the player decide what challenges to tackle head on. Sure, you could go to the first town and help a kid in distress, but perhaps you would rather fight some mutated bunnies destroying a farm or go all out on machines in Las Vegas. Having such freedom to do what you want in this world, really helps the idea of role playing. Even if it is clearly not a good idea, I love being able to take on challenges I am not meant for yet, just to see if I can outsmart the game.
However, this is also Wasteland‘s biggest weakness. Because of this open structure, the game does a poor job at showcasing its limitations. You can talk to characters in order to gain info, but the right keywords needed for actually progressing through this game, are severely subtle and make it difficult to really understand what you should say or even if you can get further through this method. Certain dialogue options or even the option to talk can be hidden behind a previous task, despite that it never revolved around the person you are trying to get in contact with. There are multiple solutions to the quests, but none of them felt rewarding because of how you will have to do something unrelated in order to gain a preferred outcome. In other words, finding the right path can be a blind search.
Luckily, the updated version by Krome adds a journal that gives you hints on your next destination and tries to highlight important notifications through visual means. Even then, the hints can only do so much due to them sticking to the vague explanations from the original title. I can understand that the 1988 release was made through limited hardware, but ambitious ideas do not make them automatically good. Here, they simply make the exploration tedious, since you are never really sure on what you did wrong or even what you can do. This can also affect your use of the abilities you have. While you have skills like climb or perception, and can even use tools for practical support, it is not always highlighted if you can do so, even in the remastered version.
This is further aggravated by the annoyance of actually performing your creative ideas. In order to do something, you have to select the use command, then who of your party should take action, whether it revolves around stats, abilities or items, and then which one within the decided category you want to use. The hotkeys and support for mouse control help, but what is the problem of simplifying this in a remastered version? There are no skills involved here, just a strange form of padding from an era where technology was limited. I do at least like that some elements make sense, like destroying doors with a crowbar, but I was not even certain if I could do this until I was ten hours into this game. My playthrough was just a guessing game at that point.
Even worse, is the combat. In this turn-based RPG, enemies can occur at a high rate and are never interesting in design, since they vary only in how hard they hit, range of attack, and how much health points they have. Despite the inclusion of diverse weapons, like shotguns that are able to hit multiple targets, the combat becomes quickly stale with no clear variety to it. It is a shame that your party is not much better either. You can choose what armour to wear for better defence and whether you want to use melee weapons or guns that will require reloading ammo. That is it. Similar to other dull RPGs relying on grinding, I just found myself zoning out and just choose attack whenever a fight occurred in this title.
The role playing could have been saved by how you can customise your cast freely, but it does not due to the lack of classes. Your party will only consists of fighters that have the same skills that are locked behind their stats in IQ, and nothing else. I did not even care at that point to find more people to add to my team, since they had little to offer. I tried my best to welcome newcomers to my group, but rather found the combat dragging on for longer and eventually let them them bite the dust. Not just due to the grind, but also because you have to physically move your party closer on the battlefield, forcing you to switch between the first person- and the tabletop view. Why not then just make this into a tactical RPG at this point, like Ultima 3?
I also absolutely hate that only the character who performed a killing blow gets the XP. Because of all of these issues, I ended up finding strategies to just get a move on quickly, such as finding a place to move back and forth in order to heal or camp in one place in order to gain XP faster. Some of you might even know what I am referring to, but these are just more examples of bad game designs. It says something when it is this easy to exploit the game’s mechanics, and that I would do this just to finish the game faster.
I can give the game credit for neat ideas, like how you level up your characters by contacting the HQ and must find a library in order to apply acquired skill points, but despite that Wasteland can present an interesting world to explore, everything is simply annoying and tiresome. There is not enough here to make this game engaging, and with what freedom it wishes to present, there are too many unclear limitations implemented to make it work.
Gameplay Score: 3/10
Crutches for this old war
Coming from the original’s colourful take on the post-apocalyptic world, Wasteland Remastered does a great job at modernising it with a more serious tone. This world still contains strong colours to its constructions and inhabitants, be it the red trains or the scavengers wearing green coats, but now everything has a washed off texture to them, showcasing weariness. This makes it so the game still keeps to the original’s more expressive art style, while modernising it with a welcoming coat of paint to showcase the decay and destruction caused by the nuclear war, which is an impressive accomplishment.
Adding to the RPG tone, is the aspect of making characters into tabletop figurines, while keeping them breathing and having the weapons they use at hand visually. It gives the game a much needed charm, and I love how subtly the weather effects can appear, as well as minor details like fireflies wandering around. The areas are also diverse with clear layouts to make apparent what hazards you might expect to encounter, such as the unbearable heat in the golden desert, and critters in houses that are full of garbage. It is lovely to see that there are some extra details added inn for creating solid immersion, despite basing itself on a game from 1988.
That being said, while the remastered version has a lovely coat of paint, it is often nothing more than that. The images with subtle animations to simulate fiends, people you chat with, and your party members, have all gotten nice upgrades with better shading and use of colours. However, it is a shame that more pictures could not have been added to make the experience strong. Utilising a picture of a rat to simulate a bunny, is confusing and makes the game not aged well. However, I do love the added animations to simulate attacks, like the different bullet holes from different types of guns. The areas are also nicely uplifted with detailed setups and descriptions added in, such as graffiti or clearly structured cities to make this world more believable.
While this remaster is a great update from the original with actual lighting, the textures can be muddy and make elements seem unfinished or poor on a technical level. It definitely looks better than the original, but again: that was a game from 1988 and more could have been done in 2020. For example, the houses could use more personality than just be copies of the same PS2 assets multiple times. The cutscenes are a great touch though, as they are made up of lovely paintings that makes the events feel significant and visually intriguing. We even have an actual ending for this remaster too. Unfortunately, with reused assets, technical upgrades being unimpressive, and neglecting necessary improvements, there seems to be lost potentials with this title. I believe this is because Krome was too afraid to tamper with the original’s style, even if it had little of any.
Thankfully, the audio is overall brilliant. The effects of attacks being made, always present a realism to them that makes every hit feel devastating, and subtle sounds like rumbling stones in a cave or flickering lights inside an old inn, adds to the atmosphere of a world in chaos and barely surviving. This uncertain, but inviting setup is further complemented by the narrator, offering a serious tone to the story, while also performing other people’s voices in a convincing way. This is very similar to how an actual DM would do it, and it warms my heart to hear such passion in his voice. His western accent also adds to the setting you are in, which is a nice touch.
I am not familiar with Edwin Montgomery, but after this title, I really hope to be. His soundtrack captures the game’s varied atmosphere and makes every location distinguishable by their music alone. The uncomfortable industrial sounds from the Temple of Blood, the criminal city of Quartz’s using electric guitar that would fit in an old western shootout, and the drums and flutes in Desert Nomads, every single track has something that reminds me of America through fantastic diversity.
All the songs here convey a specific tone with huge amounts of notes and rhythms to them each. It says something when he can even make two different religious tunes, one for the Temple of Blood and one for the Guardian Citadel, convey their each unique and uncomfortable setting. It is just a shame that the amazing take on the audio could not also have been replicated in the visuals, making the quality quite inconsistent.
Presentation Score: 6/10
If you just scrolled down to look at the score, let me clarify one thing: this is the best way to play the original Wasteland and Krome did a great job at being as faithful to the original as possible. However, that is also the problem, since the original game has aged terribly. There is an interesting world to explore, despite the lack of a progressive plot, and I do love what Krome did for polishing this old title in its presentation. Unfortunately, by being afraid of upgrading more in its mechanics and changing the original’s formula, it is easier to see the original title’s blemishes. Unlike titles like Bard’s Tale, Pool of Radiance, and Ultima 3, Wasteland is hard to recommend. Even if you take into consideration of what era this title is from.