Mirthwood looks to level up life sims with RPG elements - PAX West 2023 hands-on/interview
At PAX West 2023, the Video Games Are Good team finished out our time at the show with Mirthwood, a game pitched as 'Stardew Valley meets Fable.' We went hands-on with Mirthwood's first-ever playable demo and then wrapped our PAX experience with a lovely chat with the team at Bad Ridge Games, Daron and Brian.
It felt like the next big indie hit was waiting around every corner at PAX West. That simple fact, tied to the idea that you could turn around and just chat with the person making that game, is what makes events like these so exciting.
We had that exact feeling — of playing something that'll one day blow up big — while playing our last appointment of the weekend, Mirthwood. The game's simple pitch is that it blends farming and life sim shenanigans with more traditional RPG elements. That was more than enough to get us excited. Coming from a team that had been working on the project for years on the side before finally getting the chance to go full-time with it recently, you could almost feel their excitement as people cycled out of the demo stations all weekend long.
Our hands-on time with Mirthwood's demo cemented it: This is one to watch.
Hands-on impressions with Mirthwood
Developer: Bad Ridge Games
Genre: Life sim, medieval RPG, farming sim
Mirthwood is an upcoming single-player life sim RPG set in a lush high-fantasy world. Players inhabit a refugee from a war-torn world, fleeing to accept a new shot at life in Mirthwood. You build a character with a nuanced background and set of skills, then begin your new life at the docks outside of Mirthwood.
The Mirthwood demo starts as any great RPG does: with an interesting character creator. You start by customizing your appearance. It's fairly limited, but once you get into the game, you get the sense that all characters are built within the same tools, which goes a long way in visual synergy.
After that, you're asked to pick your character's origin country, class status, and profession. Each decision alters your stats, both socially and physically, showing the potential for some unique builds and interesting mixes. As we both got the opportunity to play the demo side-by-side, we went two different ways; I chose to build a charismatic noble actor from a land that boosted my social energy, and Julie chose to don the cloak of a hearty peasant criminal.
Each step of the way, the character builder reveals surprisingly deep nuance in how you set up your place in this world, and it pretty instantly revealed how differently two people's playthroughs can end up. After you build your character, you're let loose, free to explore the land and follow whatever path you desire. As I had built a social character, I followed the path straight to town to see who I could meet. Julie, on on the other hand, felt the call of the wild. They wandered off into the forest and instantly got into a fight. Or two. And met a pack of wolves.
Combat in Mirthwood, at least in the very beginning with brand-new characters, is a much more methodical deliberate affair. You'll have to pick and poke at enemies, staying more on your backfoot instead of just slashing through them. My character wasn't built for fighting, so I tried to stay away from conflict, but Julie, off the beaten path, was stumbling into bandits left and right and managed to come out the other side. Somehow, the world felt like it was meeting the expectations of the characters we'd built. I went for a nice stroll and Julie was fighting for their damn life.
As I made my way into town, I noticed a man pinned to a tree with a sword. This introduced me to the first of the game's events, dynamic moments that ask your character to react and have lasting effects on your morals and your character's overall build. I was asked whether I wanted to loot the man, taking the sword for my own, or give him a proper burial. As a nobleman from a land of caring, I chose to bury the man and continue on my way. It was soon after this that I met a man on the road.
While Julie was looking to end lives, I was looking to start one with someone. I was flirting instantly. Mirthwood's social aspect pulls from the ultimate life sim, The Sims, in the ways that you simply pick through vague discussion topics with characters that either end in positive or negative reactions from your conversation partner. For example, I wandered up to this man on the road and was able to see that he was a gentle, nervous soul. The options presented to me were: Chat, Jest, Romance, Gossip, Influence. So naturally I chose romance and tried to select the gentlest option on my list. He did not like it and rejected me pretty quickly.
I wandered about, stopping in at the tavern where folks were chatting and sending those Sims-like pluses and minuses into the sky, before finally heading toward an abandoned home that I could call my own just outside of town. Oddly enough, around the same time, Julie had finally left the dark and eerie forest and found themselves just outside the same abandoned home in their own world.
It's here that we finally got introduced to the farming sim of it all, as both of our characters could start to settle this land for their own. You've got all your classic tools, seeds to plant, resources to gather to build up the homestead, all that good stuff. One of the most intriguing twists I found was the free placement of seed plots. So many of these games are often rigid in placement, grid-based and all. Mirthwood has that option, too, but it defaults to this free placement system, which allows for some more natural feeling rough and ready placement of berry bushes and hoed mounds of dirt. It's a small thing that goes a long way in making it feel like your farm is your own, something you actually have decision-making power in.
We hardly got any time with the land before the demo ended, but as you'll learn from the dev team in our conversation below, there's a lot worth getting excited about when it comes to building out your homestead. When the demo ended, I was amazed at how vastly different our 30-minute lives in the world of Mirthwood were. How, through the freedom of its tools and systems, we were able to have such different experiences in such little time, even in a demo session, which is typically a very guided introduction to a game.
I was also left thinking about the beautiful painted storybook art style that gives the game a look unlike any other in the genre.
Mirthwood is going to be something pretty special, and after our hands-on demo, we were so excited to chat with Daron and Brian from Bad Ridge Games about this long-gestating project and what the future looks like for it.
Daron and Brian on crafting your own life in Mirthwood and telling stories in an evolving world
VGG - Julie: This has been in the works for several years now. Can you talk a little bit about like what the journey has been like so far to bring Mirthwood to life?
Daron: Yeah, it's been about three years in development. Most of that has been part-time, up until about this year, when we started working on it full time. It's been a labor of love to get it to this point, but now we're kind of full steam ahead with it.
VGG - Julie: This is a pretty great milestone, putting out your first playable demo and all. How are you feeling about your experience here at PAX?
Brian: It's pretty incredible. Nobody's really seen much of the game up until now and definitely nobody's played. Getting to watch people react and smile, laugh, things like that — it's cool. It's pretty much all been positive up to this point.
VGG - Nate: Do you have any interesting stories about how people have been receiving the game so far?
Daron: I think people are really enjoying the character creation, the role-playing parts of building your character. Picking your traits, having to balance the positives and the negatives. And encountering some of the environmental storytelling in the world, like the guy pinned to the tree that you ran into with your demo, seeing they have some choice in there with our morality and renown system.
It's been good to see people enjoying that aspect and the NPC chat system. [Gesturing to Julie.] I don't think you got to play with that. You just fought everybody. You found all the bad guys.
VGG - Nate: Meanwhile, I was a noble and an actor, so I was ready to go and flirt and chat with people... but I got rejected.
Daron: You guys followed your paths. [They laugh.]
VGG - Julie: Our community is actually full of farming sim fanatics. Obviously, Mirthwood takes a pretty unique spin with the customizable traits and skills and the more RPG-like elements. Could you share about the freedom that players have in creating their homestead and how it differs from the traditional farming setting?
Daron: There'll be a lot of similarities, especially within the homestead. We want to give you a bit more creative freedom in setting that up. For placing items, we'll have a grid system, but you can leave it freeform. We think you'll be able to create some more organic storybook looks for your farm with placement.
And you'll also be able to specialize a bit in what you want to do with your property. Whether that's orchards or livestock, you should be able to raise and butcher animals as well as just get the typical products like milk and eggs. You can build structures, brew beers and ales, that sort of thing. There's some freedom within just your property.
But, if you want to kind of put that aside and go adventure, there's lots for you to do there as well.
VGG - Julie: How can we expect to see the narrative unfold in Mirthwood? Is there a clear story and ending for every player? Or is it more about those emergent gameplay moments?
Daron: There will be a main story to follow with an ending, but the goal with Mirthwood is also to keep it pretty open-ended and keep the world moving and changing a bit. So, lots of environmental storytelling, lots of stories to stumble across.
Brian: Another major inspiration for us was the storyteller of Rimworld, for those emergent story moments. Getting some of that sense that the story, the world, it's all continuing, and the player can see stories unfolding within it. Whether you're really there or not.
As you explore, you can go somewhere, and then a couple of days later, come back to that same spot and there could be something brand new. Like... there was a bandit camp at one point, but then it got cleared out by the guards, or you. Then, later on, there's a traveling merchant that has a camp there instead.
Daron: I'll also add to that. The world affects the NPCs too. They're not just robots. They have to work to survive. So their crops, their animals, it's all actually really meaningful to them. There's the potential for them to pass away. So, the world is really trying to make it realistic.
VGG - Nate: It feels like it's a nice blend of the two narrative structures. There's the more structured Act 1, Act 2, Act 3. But then there's also, you make friendships, and then, "oh my god, my friend died."
Daron: Yeah, I really like that. That's a memory that a lot of games don't give you.
VGG - Nate: After our demo session, I really appreciated just how different our first steps into the world were. It reminded me vaguely of how different people's lives in playthroughs of Skyrim can be. When you pick two directions to go and just have completely different stories that you tell about it. You can already get that feeling from the demo so far.
VGG - Julie: Speaking of which, in Mirthwood, players are encouraged to pick one path or another. You can settle down at the homestead or go out and be an adventurer. Your card system offers some flexibility but seems to promote choosing a specialization and sticking to it.
Are there opportunities to, years after you've been farming for a while, switch up and do a mid-life change? Maybe even the other way, be an adventurer for a while and finally settle down?
Daron: So, the character creator is really... it's a bit more about your background, about where you came from. We do have a fully-fledged skill system, so as you do certain activities in the game, you level those skills.
It's a bit like Skyrim. You'll unlock skill cards by doing that and build a hand. If you want to be a charisma player, you can do that. If you want to be a farmer, a fighter, focused on trades like fishing or crafting, you can build your hand [of skill cards] to suit your playstyle.
That'll be a little bit malleable, so you'll be able to change it over the course of the game.
VGG - Nate: Is it possible be the 'farming adventurer' or do you have to pick a side there?
Daron: You can do a jack-of-all-trades build, but I mean, there's a trade-off.
Brian: You can't go full charisma and full farming at the same time. You only have so many cards you can have at a time, but you can change over time.
VGG - Julie: What's next for Mirthwood? And how people can support you?
Daron: We're full steam ahead on development. It's been great to get some feedback this week. But so far as support, I think just following us on social, reaching out if you guys have questions or comments or ideas. Throw it in our subreddit. We'd love to hear what players want to see from the game.
The Mirthwood duo were a delight to chat with. And they really do mean it, they want to hear what you want from the game! So follow Bad Ridge Games and Mirthwood on social media, join their subreddit community, and above all, wishlist the game on Steam to be a part of this journey. In the same way you can build the character and life you want in Mirthwood, you can help watch the game itself get built and maybe even be a part of it through your support and feedback.
Want to see more like this? Check out all of our PAX West 2023 coverage.