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About eight months ago, I wrote about Tales of Illyria: Fallen Knight, a mobile role-playing game that hit upon a surprisingly effective combination of classic fantasy tactical combat and the travel simulation mechanics from The Oregon Trail. It’s a game where stocking up on food and water and training in foraging and hunting skills is just as important as equipping the party with the best weapons and armor, and most of the time is spent traveling along various roads, dealing with random events as they occur. This is not something I expected to work, but it does. Really well. Enough so that I was excited to try the next game in the trilogy, Tales of Illyria: Beyond the Iron Wall. The road was calling me once again.
I should note that I played an updated version of the first game that applies various improvements from the sequel. So now that I’m actually playing that sequel, it feels nearly identical. The art, interface, music, world map, and everything else looks the same and works the same way. That means that all my gripes about the interface remain, with everything taking six taps when it should only take one, and most screens failing to include relevant information. Stumble upon a random encounter with someone offering to teach the party alchemy for a hefty fee? Would you like to know how much money you’ve got, so you can decide if you should pay up? Too bad, that’s not shown on the screen, and you can’t look elsewhere before you make your decision. Heck, you can’t even see how much money you currently have while shopping. It’s just abysmally bad.
It takes a lot to make up for such a painful interface, but fortunately Beyond the Iron Wall (like its predecessor) delivers. It may have the same frustrations, but it has the same satisfactions too. Travel is still at the core of the game, along the roads that connect the cities, towns and villages of Illyria. On the road, players may set the pace of travel, tap on animals and plants that pass by to attempt to hunt or harvest them (gated by skill checks), and deal with a wide variety of random encounters, each handled like a miniature text adventure with a few choices. There are an impressive number of these, without nearly as many repeats as I feared. Sometimes, these lead to combat, using the same turn-based-but-running-in-real-time system as the first game. These battles are engaging affairs, as players prioritize targets for melee and ranged attacks, queue up a range of spells, and manage buffs and debuffs. Different enemies and formations require different tactics, and there’s a pleasing power curve as party members get more skilled and find better equipment. Again, however, it’s basically the same as the first game. That’s hardly a bad thing, but, well… I already wrote about it.
It’s easier to talk about the things that have changed. This time the protagonist is not a lord in one of the eastern kingdoms, but the priestess Kepri of the land of Vasena, beyond the titular Iron Wall. Vasena is clearly modeled after ancient Egypt, from the arid climate, local cuisine and attire, to the pyramids and religious structure. Traveling in Vasena means crossing deserts, savannas and jungles, rather than the forests, fields and rocky coasts of the first game. This is refreshing, since so many fantasy games — including the first Tales of Illyria — borrow from medieval Europe, to the point of cliché. Right from the start, Vasena strikes a different tone.
Kepri’s story begins with tragedy, just as Lord Elric’s did in the first game, but where Elric’s was told via a cutscene before the game began, Kepri’s plays out as the introductory chapter. This is far more effective. Players get to meet Kepri and her friends, who are training as warrior-priests in the holy city of Hakeshet, as they go out on a patrol that conveniently serves as a tutorial for the game’s combat system. As Kepri rounds them all up first, we witness the dynamics within the group, giving us a reason to care about them before tragedy strikes. It’s still obvious that these characters are only here to motivate Kepri’s quest for revenge, but it’s better executed this time around. It even introduces the travel systems better, as Kepri is left stumbling through the desert on foot, low on food and water, showing players just how dangerous it is to run out of supplies.
A great opening, then, but Beyond the Iron Wall suffers a bit from being a sequel. Vasena itself is relatively small compared to the rest of Illyria, which sets the scale of Kepri’s story and makes it feel less important and epic than it deserves to be. It’s also resolved quickly, because she must (inevitably) be let loose to explore the rest of Illyria afterwards. This part of the game is a very different kind of story, and while it was nice change of pace from the revenge plot, it does feel like the big high stakes finale happened near the start, and then the epilogue is actually the majority of the game. I found the actual ending quite anticlimactic when I first reached it. But then I went back to an earlier save to finish up some other loose threads that were bugging me, and realized that Beyond the Iron Wall has some structural changes that — provided one approaches the game with the right mindset — improve the pacing a lot.
During Lord Elric’s adventure in the first Tales of Illyria, I was always heading towards the next destination that would advance the main story. I encountered some side quests, but they arose naturally during my journey. I might find a few random encounters that strung together into a larger side story, popping up as I went along as a nice bonus. Or maybe I would find one of the relatively rare dungeons, offering a string of battles without a chance to heal in between, but done with in a single go. Beyond the Iron Wall scraps these dungeons, although there are a few similar encounters handled with text-based choices rather than a dungeon map. But it adds several side quests that are much more involved than anything in the first game. These are actually really cool, but they don’t add markers to the world map or anything like that. To complete them, players simply must travel around, and find the right encounters on the road.
My mistake was thinking that would happen as I pursued the main story. Always heading towards the next story destination — which I did until reaching the end of the game the first time — means only finding one, maybe two steps of these side quests, a small fraction of each. When my party members discussed how they needed to keep traveling in order to uncover more of these stories, they actually meant that they should take a break from the main story and travel around a bit to investigate. This felt odd to me. Why travel 60 miles in the other direction to some small town when I had no real reason to go there? Yet once I finally started doing that, I saw how complex and interesting these side stories are. I was pleased to see that many of them are specifically associated with Vasena, giving me a reason to return there after (or perhaps an extended stay during) the early part of the game, and making Vasena feel more substantial despite its small size. The extra travel also afforded an opportunity to boost my party’s skills, which comes in handy for all sorts of situations, including securing a better ending. Which is exactly what I achieved the second time around, feeling much more satisfied as a result.
If I’d played Beyond the Iron Wall this way from the start, I think I would have had a better time. Given the similarities with the first game, I didn’t expect to need to change my approach so much, but now I’m here to warn you from making the same error. If you decide to embark on Kepri’s quest, take your time. The main objectives will wait for you. Don’t be afraid to go on detours to investigate leads, earn some money, and build up the party’s skills. You’ll be rewarded with better outcomes on the main story, and some cool side stories to boot. And the optional DLC offers another reason to travel around. There are several sets of powerful equipment that are sold as DLC extras, but I was pleased to see the option to have these items appear for sale (at high prices) in the capitol cities of different kingdoms, rather than simply appearing in my inventory and giving my party a huge advantage from the start. There are other ways to get powerful items without the DLC, but they are the same ways as in the first game, and indeed the exact same selection of items. The new equipment from the DLC is more memorable and often better, and strangely usually a little cheaper. But the difficulty curve still felt right, and it was cool to have my party sporting these unique weapons and armor in the late stages of the game. I recommend the DLC for those who don’t mind spending a little extra, offering another objective to pursue while investigating side quests.
I should note, however, that the side stories can still suffer from poor direction. Some effectively add locations to the map, reliably found on certain roads, but these are still not marked on the map itself. One of the quest lines, about a conflict among the Lamia (snake people) of Vasena, seems be be rather nonlinear in that its various random encounters can happen in a different order, and a wrong choice in any of these can lock off the rest of the quests forever. I think I was unlucky in what I encountered first, and never ended up finishing it.
I might play Beyond the Iron Wall again someday, however, because it seems to have an even more fleshed out morality system than the first game. During Lord Elric’s inaugural adventure, he can choose to be righteous, pragmatic, or selfish, but this seems to only affect how he approaches the story, which retains its main objective. Kepri has the same options, but also what seems to be a momentous choice as she leaves Vasena and explores the rest of Illyria: she can come to these new lands in peace, or as a conqueror. I chose peace, but I’m curious to see how differently things would play out if I’d decided to be hostile. Perhaps it would not change things as much as I imagine, but it would still be fun to be wicked for a change. Both games do an admirable job of acknowledging and reinforcing a player’s moral stance as they play, so I expect the tone, if not the actual events, to be quite different.
One final thing I should say is that, while the later parts of the game may feel like an epilogue after the excitement of the early Vasena-set story, they do a great job of tying events back to Lord Elric’s adventure in the first game. Many years have passed, and through Kepri’s travels players can see what happened to each of the kingdoms in the east. Some are flourishing, while others — including the remnants of the evil empire that served as the antagonist in the first game — are floundering. Some are ruled by familiar faces, now lined with age, while others have new leaders, young and full of ambition. The political landscape was a highlight of the first game’s story, and the way that has evolved by the time Kepri arrives is believable and just as compelling. She is even able to meet the heroes from the first game, so see what course their lives took after their journeys were over. I don’t know if this reflects choices I made in the first game or not; what I saw fit with my decision to make Lord Elric a just and selfless person despite his hardships, and wouldn’t have made sense if I’d decided to be ruthless and cruel instead. Maybe if Kepri chooses to be cruel, she’ll find that Elric and his company had been cruel too? Or perhaps a heroic Elric is canon. Even if that is so, these callbacks were nice, and helped make Illyria feel like a real place that was growing and shifting in response to a turbulent past.
Overall I enjoyed Beyond the Iron Wall at least as much as its sequel. It has a few missteps but also some cool new ideas, and the core play is still just as satisfying. I definitely recommend players start with Fallen Knight, but if you enjoy that, I can recommend Beyond the Iron Wall without reservation. I’m looking forward to the third game in the series, Tales of Illyria: Destinies, which seems to embrace the idea of nonlinear travel by turning the game into a fully open adventure with various starting points to choose from, each with their own main objectives. Yet it also lets players ignore the main story and side with different factions instead, or simply wander off and make their own way as a mercenary or wanderer. It sounds great, in short, and I’ll be sure to check it out soon and write about it here when I do.