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Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles is too abstract for its own good

Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles screenshot
Image: Tomas Sala

Remember The Falconeer? Developed by Tomas Sala, it was a launch title for the Xbox Series X/S that saw players engage in sky-based combat set in the nautical world of the Great Ursee. Solo developer Sala has returned to Ursee once more with Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles — and this time, things are rather different.

Rather than dogfighting, the focus of Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles is to build up a settlement in the sea. You’ll gather resources, set trade routes, expand your colonies and recruit captains — all without a proper menu in sight.

What Sala has tried to do here is admirable: Bulwark wants to be a meditative world building experience that focuses on freedom and expression. Theoretically, you can build however you want, simply by selecting an area of available water and pressing a button. Certain structures can be improved over time, and as you explore the waters around your starting settlement you can take over others that you encounter, or create allegiances which will open up new trade routes and suchlike.

Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles screenshot
Image: Tomas Sala

The thing is, without a building menu or even a task list to refer to, your growth in Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles is a little too abstract for its own good. Sure, it’s nice seeing a new building pop up, and placing a harbour that allows for a new ship to set sail. But to what end? There’s no real way to measure your growth or success: you just simply… keep going.

The lack of end goal, even when you’re playing Bulwark’s campaign, is intentional, but we’re just not sure it makes for the most fulfilling gameplay experience. Perhaps the problem is that we went into Bulwark with predetermined expectations about what a city building game should be like: at the very least, that we can choose the buildings, that we can measure how our citizens are faring. But this is a game that subverts your expectations. It’s unlike any world builder you’ve played before.

That fact alone makes us rather like Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles as a concept, but the truth is we just didn’t have much fun playing it. Some of its ideas are difficult to get to grips with, and its tutorial does a poor job of getting players up to speed. The first time we were attacked by enemies — something that can happen in campaign mode — we had no idea what we were supposed to do, because this isn’t the sort of game you can actively fight back in.

One thing that we do love, though, is how wonderful Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles looks. Like The Falconeer before it, it shines on a large screen at high resolution, where you can appreciate the sheer amount of detail that has gone into build its world. Its muted, greyed tones work well to create a foreboding atmosphere: it gives the impression that, even though everything might be going well right now, trouble is only ever just around the corner.

A big selling point of Bulwark is that you have freedom to build a world however you want to, and choices are yours alone to make. The problem is: will you actually want that freedom? Will you care enough to make choices? Stuck in some sort of limbo between city building games and meditative experiences, we’re not exactly sure who Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles is for. No doubt some people will get a kick out of its novel approach to growing a settlement, but for us, we think we just need that bit more direction.

Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC.

Editor in chief // Kim's been into video games since playing Dizzy on her brother's Commodore 64 as a nipper. She'll give just about anything a go, but she's got a particular soft spot for indie adventures. If she's not gaming, she'll be building Lego, reading a thriller, watching something spooky or... asleep. She does love to sleep.