Close and Distant
When Ryan Laukat announced that his latest crowdfunded project would be a sequel to the much-loved Above and Below, it was always going to kick right past its funding goal. Above and Below might have been flawed in some ways — the seams between its euroish town-builder and storybook adventures occasionally resembling potholes, the writing often halting, the mechanisms perhaps unbalanced (invest in beds, kids). Yet it wasn’t ever about balance or euro mechanisms or even its storybook. Or, well, not entirely about its storybook. If anything, it was about place. It was pleasant and whimsical and provided just-hefty-enough stakes to make its fans care. Also, you could recruit a cat who would occasionally fall asleep in a sunbeam.
For those who were enamored with Above and Below, I can absolutely assure you that Near and Far is creeping in through the window, tossing the watchdog a slice of bacon, and smothering Above and Below in its sleep. It’s more coherent, more thoughtful, and that beloved sense of place has never been more carefully formed, illustrated, or realized.
And for everybody else? Well, those heartstrings aren’t about to become more pluckable anytime soon.
The first notable difference between Above and Below and Near and Far — what delightsome gibberish! — is that where Above and Below was a bifurcated design, split evenly between its card-combo town-builder and adventure book, Near and Far is trifurcated. Which is to say, it’s got the town, albeit in a severely streamlined form, where your champion will recruit followers, purchase pack kiwis, and occasionally do other less important things. And it’s got the adventure book, this time approximately 45% better written and 100% more streamlined. But it also has a map of the countryside, littered with both bountiful opportunities and the occasional danger.
Meet the centerpiece of the game. Divided into eleven different maps, the atlas is perhaps one of Laukat’s cleverest ideas. It’s a showcase for his particular style of illustration, heavy brush strokes and bright colors blending together in what amounts to some of his best work. It’s an accomplishment in its own right that hanging around the Crimson Forest manages to feel entirely different from navigating the Cloudy Valley, even though your heroes will be doing almost exactly the same things in both locations. Like I said earlier: place.
Perhaps most importantly, the act of moving your champion from one point to the next is more delightful than it has any right to be.
A lot of that comes down to the tempo of the game. For instance, it’s likely that your champion will spend a turn or two in town. Maybe you’ll work the mine for some coin, pester the mystic for trinkets, then recruit a lizard-buddy at the saloon. From there, you’ll plunge outward into the landscape, hopping between sites. Your hearts, determined whenever you assemble your crew as you depart town, will dwindle with the exertion of traveling far or trampling bandits. Then, when you’ve either reached your limit or want to save some hearts for the next turn, you’ll come to a stop and maybe pitch a camp or go on an adventure. Cue the ruffling pages of the adventure book.
Right up front, I want you to understand that the feel of this process is absolutely perfect. Every decision you make is about getting on the road again, just as it should be. Stopping in town is no longer about maximizing beds or assembling resource sets, one of Laukat’s go-to systems that I’m relieved to see jettisoned here. Rather, the town has already been built, the beds maximized, the resources sorted. That was the work of the first game. Which means that your stops in town will likely be brief, one or two days of busywork before you’re forging through forest and field, setting up camps to rake in gold and gems, and going on adventures that confront you with sentient piles of leaves or whatnot.
It’s less disjointed than the original, is what I’m getting at. Taking too long in town reads like an admission that you perhaps didn’t plan things out quite right. Clever adventurers will likely bounce between the two, spending a couple days in the bush, taking a morning in town to refresh and nab a new addition to their gang, and then heading right back out again.
Of course, that’s after a game or two, once everybody’s realized just how true the adage is that the early hog gets the truffle. As before, it can drag once somebody hits the adventure book, especially when you’ve got that guy who insists on reading everything in a dramatic Gandalf voice. But for the most part, Near and Far is a brisk spring walk, more about getting out of doors than optimizing build slots.
It’s unsurprising that the tightness of Near and Far also serves to highlight its less fortunate aspects. When everything is running smoothly, it’s only natural to feel the pebble in the boot all the more acutely.
For one thing, Near and Far does a perfectly fine job of providing goals and the means to accomplish them. Foremost among these are artifacts. These babies require some investment, a combination of coin, crystal, faction allegiance, and reputation. Once fulfilled, not only will you unlock that artifact’s tidy handful of points, but also some helpful perk. There are also trade resources to lock down, faction leaders to woo, and…
Well, here’s the problem. For all its narrative slickness and talk about searching for some magical lost ruin, Near and Far manages to feel so infuriatingly unfocused. Camps are worth points. Treasures are worth points — and that’s in addition to artifacts. Gang leaders, sets of coins and gems, particular faction banners, a white-hat reputation in town. Every little thing in the game must provide some avenue toward victory, ultimately feeling less like you’re pursuing any particular goal and more like you’re just doing stuff — any stuff — and hoping you’ve correctly assessed that your chosen stuff will be worth more than the other guy’s stuff.
The issues pile up. Why is it that the game’s only true form of player interaction is when you duel in town? Can’t two champions both occupy a general store at the same time? And if not, why wasn’t more care invested into the dueling itself? A dice-off, really? For that matter, while it’s incredibly cool that your characters can level up in campaign mode, or even encounter quests that lead to future sub-quests, which lends this incredible sense of narrative coherence that was entirely lacking in Above and Below, why don’t the various maps riff on that some more? Why should every scenario feel exactly like the scenario before, right down to the general difficulty of each adventure? There are glimmers of difference, but never anything corporeal. And why is the adventuring so limited? Wouldn’t it be neat if your companions could get tuckered out or even scratched now and then? Sure, we were tired of beds showing up in every Laukat game, but hey, sometimes a hog-man gets punched in the snout and needs a snooze.
My point isn’t that these issues overwhelm Near and Far’s soaring sense of place. It’s just that everything is so polished that these issues feel more pronounced than they ought to. When you’re working at the level of an auteur, as Laukat undeniably is, there’s something to be said for sanding down the rougher edges of your towering edifice. Near and Far has plenty of rough edges.
That said, anyone who was charmed by Above and Below is going to have a ball with Near and Far. It’s more coherent, more self-assured, and significantly cleverer. As I noted above, there’s a wonderful tempo to its play, a willingness to chop out some of the busywork in favor of the good stuff — namely, the walking to distant places, the plotting of a route, the measuring of treasure, the gathering of powerful companions and artifacts, and the occasional dive into the adventure book. So what if it’s rough? More than before, it provides somewhere marvelous to visit.