A Township Tale is still under construction. But even this early on, you can tell it’ll be a VR great. More in our A Township Tale review!
Note: Our A Township Tale review is based on the Quest edition of the game. It’s still in Early Access on PC and the Quest version is essentially the same experience. However, as Facebook doesn’t label games as Early Access on the Quest store, we’re giving it a full review that we’ll update as new features arrive for the title.
It takes a heck of a long time to really ‘get’ A Township Tale, especially enough to pass any sort of judgment on the game. In part, that’s because Alta’s online adventure is staggeringly deep, aflood with intricate interactions, resources to plunder and lands to explore to a degree few other native VR games can match. It’s also because the developer plays its cards close to its chest in hopes of surprising you at every turn.
Mainly, though, it’s because the game is absolutely awful at helping you find your way through it. Even several years in from Early Access launch this town-building sim is laying down the tracks just ahead as it steams forward, and that’s as frustrating to watch as it is fascinating.
Welcome To Town
Township is already a rich online RPG with thrilling eight-player design, but it’s also an uncontextualized one. Every time Alta adds something new there are several other layers of gameplay affected by it, making it hard for the studio to convey direction. The enormous community of dedicated professionals and intrepid explorers collaborating both in-game and through online wikis has been nurtured as much out of necessity as it has passion. I suspect Alta, just as much as its fans, doesn’t really know what Township will even look like a year from now. Adding proper tutorials would be like keeping up with IKEA instructions as the shelving unit gets two new pieces added to the parts pile while you’re looking at it.
Getting into Township at this early-ish stage is an interesting one, then. For my money, it’s probably one of the most satisfying and worthwhile purchases you can make on Oculus Quest (it’s free on PC with in-app purchases via virtual currency, while the Quest version comes with some of that currency equal to the game’s price), even as you wrestle with that learning curve and come to accept its environments constantly shifting and morphing to run as best they can on limited hardware. This really is getting in on the ground floor, not just because Township isn’t finished but also because it really can’t be until standalone hardware can match the PC experience.
Big caveats to consider but, if you come to the game with that understanding, you’re in for something special: A Township Tale is one of VR’s most ambitious, rewarding and immersive games yet.
At its heart, the game’s about community and discovery, a fact that feeds every facet of its design. Township lets you build out a town using resources discovered out in the wilds, level up your character with specific classes via shrines you’ll happen upon and, ultimately, craft the best gear for the given job as you find rarer items by pushing out further into the world. It tells you none of this; there are no objectives, waypoints or hints.
Just as Alta is hesitant to provide proper tutorials in an ever-changing world, it’s also determined to sustain a sense of the unknown and the illumination that comes from finding new things. Even the central town you’ll spawn in is an old, decrepit ruin you stumble upon rather than a fresh plot to start anew from. Well over 20 hours in, I’m still finding windows with vines that need clearing out.
You can probably tell by now that I could go on for hours about Township’s hypnotic mysticism. It’s equal parts enrapturing and infuriating. But, once you get a grasp of the game’s core loop, it’s actually pretty simple: gather, craft, explore, repeat.
Though you’ll get starting items like rusty swords and hammers, everything you can obtain in Township has to be earned, and it’ll take a long time to earn it. You’ll first want to use your hand-me-down gear and makeshift tools (you can literally make a hammer by holding a rock to a twig, or a torch from wood, dry grass, and two flints), to open up the basics of the town. Getting the blacksmith up and running takes a few hours of mining which, in turn, gives you more things to mine. If you want to make a sword you won’t just need the proper resources but you’ll need the mold to make the blade, which you’ll only discover in chests hidden out in the world and the recipe to craft the handle which, again, you’ll have to find.
And then there’s food to consider as well as other areas of the town that need an intense number of resources to develop, and the game often won’t even tell you what you’re building, making it tough to prioritize.
Very soon you’ll find yourself establishing a complex mind map of what you want to achieve and the path to doing that. This is where multiplayer really comes in handy; support for up to eight players per server allows you to either delegate tasks or drastically increase the speed of resource gathering and the chances of surviving monster encounters. The skill trees you’ll discover late into the game, meanwhile, allow each player to really embody a profession in a meaningful way. Yes there are fighter classes that help out in the field but it’s just as handy to have someone toiling away at smithing with faster, more efficient skills to keep the supply of breakable weapons and tools going.
Exploration can be similarly confusing. Along with locked areas that require hours of resource gathering to access, Township’s world is filled with threats that will happily send you straight back home with just a few attacks. One of the game’s main areas is a network of caves that basically never ends (some players have ventured over 100 floors deep). But there’s no lighting in the first few levels, making limited-time torches a necessity, or you’ll be wandering alone in the dark.
And, look, I know all this sounds exhausting. And, in truth, it often is, especially if an untimely death at the bottom of the mines means losing hours of grinding resources unless you venture back there to retrieve them. But what keeps Township engaging even as it asks so much of you is its constant progression.
The game requires commitment and that commitment is rewarded in really satisfying ways, like opening up all-new areas with plenty of supplies and new recipes to discover or earning a rarer metal type that can help you forge stronger, more powerful weapons. This goes just as much for when you’re outside the game as when you’re in it; after a month of play I only just found out about metal alloys that push your gear even further and that’s thanks to lunchtime wiki reading. It’s safe to say Alta’s carrot and stick approach works well.
More importantly, though, you’ll want to stick with Township based on the strength of its mechanics.
Off To Work We Go
Almost every interaction possible in A Township Tale is deeply thought out. Though you can, in places, waggle your way to victory, the game’s best elements place an emphasis on realistic motions and believable responses. Axes won’t chop trees with a series of unfocused blows but must instead be carefully aimed and leveraged, slicing into the same point time and again. Lighting a fire, meanwhile, requires you to knock two bits of flint together over dry grass.
In many cases, you need to consider the angle and speed of your approach. Swing a hammer at the wrong angle when crafting and you can hit nails in the wrong direction or even break materials. Chiseling away at wood needs just the right touch or you might end up making a soup ladle by accident. Think the resource collection of Minecraft mixed with the attention to detail of a simulator game.
At first, this feels incredibly fiddly. Like other games with a physics-driven focus, you need to acclimatize to Township’s rules. The game’s also not as accessible as it could be, with lots of tiring leaning down to scoop items up (there is a distance-based grab option though it’s nowhere near as smooth as this option in other games).
The only area in which mechanics really underwhelm is combat, where Township could use a good bit of work. Again, we’re not quite in the realm of full-on waggleware here, and your swords and axes will make a satisfying impact on the given creature, but it’s not half as developed as the game’s other interactions. A flurry of blows from any direction will see off most of the game’s enemies and the only thing that adds in challenge is the fact your foes hit so darn hard.
You can at least add some personalization to how you fight; I fashioned a knife to hold backwards and found that gave me a lot of leverage in some encounters and there are hundreds of other options based on the hype of blade and handle you forge. Still, it’d be great to see later versions of the game that offered the physics-driven combat of Blade & Sorcery or Gorn. Just, y’know, probably without the impaling and dismemberment. The Quest version is in dire need of more enemy variety too, though there are more creatures to battle on PC.
The Friends You’ll Make Along The Way
A Township Tale can be stubborn and unruly, then. For every moment of triumph, there’s 10 more spent wondering exactly what an item you’ve found deep in the caves is and if you need to make space for it, or trying to decipher the wordless, confusing crafting recipes (and I still have no idea what many of the things I’ve found actually are). But it’s an absolute testament to the strength of the game that a flourishing community has not only endured these elements but embraced them.
And that’s really the key point here. All of Township’s many hiccups and obscurities? There’s a player out there that knows about them and wants to talk about them. Heck, they might even want to jump in and give you a tour around them. This is a VR game with a genuine sense of community, and every element of the experience is enhanced by playing with friends. One day I did a grueling 6+ hour solo grind so that the next time the rest of my friends joined in I knew they’d have good items and weapons waiting for them. We could then use that gear to journey further afield than we have in the past, keeping the spirit of adventure alive in a game I’ve already played a huge amount of.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Township in its current state, though, is the bugs. Again, it’s an early access release and we can hope to see a lot of these smoothed out over time, but the game is plagued with technical issues that won’t make the experience unplayable but are likely to hinder your progress at one point or another. I’d have hours of progress disappear when my backpack inexplicably vanished after a death with all of its precious items following. The distance-grab, meanwhile, can haphazardly send other objects flying off if they come into contact, meaning you can count on losing a few of the resources you’ve mined if you’re trying to pick up something from a pile. I’d sometimes find items I’d accidentally catapulted on the other side of the map hours later.
Granted it’s a small miracle Alta’s got the game onto Quest at all, but the aggressive pop-in employed to get consistent performance underscores that the best standalone version of the game is probably another one or two hardware generations away. In its Alpha state, it’s easier to accept these flaws, but be warned that Township is by no means a smooth experience.
A Township Tale Review – Final Impressions
A Township Tale is a VR great in the making. I know that because, well, it’s already great. It’s impeccably rich in almost every one of its many disciplines. For starters, there’s fantastic, VR-first interaction that has you really engaging with everything from forging a sword to chopping down a tree. Its world is also huge and full of meaningful discoveries to make, and the game not only facilitates eight-player co-op, but makes the space for each of those players to have a unique purpose in its world. If the loop of gathering resources, crafting and then venturing further out into the wilds on your own steam appeals to you, you’ll spend endless hours discovering every nook and cranny here.
But, even years into the journey, Township is still early, with bugs to iron out, combat to improve and more content to introduce. Oddly, the best version of Township is likely at least a generation beyond even Quest 2’s capabilities; it sacrifices a lot to run well and yet still pulls off some incredible feats. But, given the game’s in-progress nature (and the fact this one purchase now will carry through to those future headsets), that’s an understandable reservation. Like so many others, I’m now in it for the long haul and, as long as Alta keeps busying itself with the back-and-forth of adding resources and spending them to improve A Township Tale, I will too.
For more on how we arrived at this rating, read our review guidelines. What did you make of our A Township Tale review? Let us know in the comments below!