When was the last time you played a game that just understood you? Where you turned it on, dropped you into its virtual world, and somehow it felt like you had come home. It doesn’t have to be a perfect game, it doesn’t have to come with pre-order bonuses or a roadmap, it just scratches an itch you didn’t know you had.
Wildmender is that game for me. And it’s a game where you grow plants.
Author's Note: this is my ‘review’ after playing the game for somewhere between 10-15 hours. I’ve experienced two full zones, and think I’m probably just at about halfway through the game, maybe more if I want to collect everything. I intend to write a full review after I 100% complete Wildmender, but still wanted to recommend the game before getting too lost in the journey.
It’s The Ecology, Stupid
Wildmender is a game that feels wholly unique while also reminding you of a dozen other very different games. It’s Breath of Wild but you are a botanist instead of a revived war hero. It’s Satisfactory, but you actually care about the environment instead of strip-mining it. Yes, you do a LOT of planting, but you aren’t selling crops to anyone or have to worry about relationships with simple townsfolk.
What actually happens in Wildmender is that you wake up in the middle of a desert that feels like it goes on forever. You are alone. The art style and graphics really make the sunlight feel oppressive; the sunlight is so bad in fact that you see a little debuff appear in the top of your screen, sending your thirst meter shooting way down. Fortunately, there’s a little spring of water at the bottom of this old gnarled tree. There’s a shattered spirit of knowledge buried under rocks nearby that doesn’t remember its name. You manage to scrape together your first tool, take your first drink of refreshing water, and the game asks you: “What if we could make this place feel just a little better than it does now?”
This is the world you are thrown into. Vast, desolate landscapes with hints at a terrible fate long ago. The difference here is that you actually have a chance to bring tangible life back to the wasteland.
It’s a question that’s asked countless times in gaming. In Stardew Valley, it’s an abandoned farmstead. In FPS games like Halo, it’s an alien threat that you have the chance to stop. In RPGs like Final Fantasy, it’s realizing you have to go attack and dethrone a god somewhere, maybe stop a meteor from destroying everything. Somehow, Wildmender makes that question feel new again by just how it poses the question. It’s an absolute desert, and you have the chance to make it something besides a desolate landscape.
Within an hour, you’ve dug up some dunegrass seeds and planted them along the restarted spring. You begin to see the sprouts, and you begin to see the sand turn into soil again where the plant has taken root. The spirit guides you to the seeds of grain plants and shade trees; if you plant them in the new soil and they stay watered, soon enough you have what feels like life starting again… and you are the one that is making it happen.
That’s the set up: the world has somehow been broken and left mostly lifeless, but you have a chance to start again by bringing life back to the world itself. There is some combat; its simplistic, but satisfying, not trying too hard to make a complicated system but instead focusing on the sense of exploration, adventure, and then building up these new havens of life as you recover new seeds to plant and new tools to do it more effectively.
Confession - this picture is a press kit screenshot. There is no way my gardens look half as well put together at this point in the game!
As this is a quick first look, I want to focus on what captured my attention and my need to play more. Part one was that initial concept of rejuvenation and rebirth. The second part is how they’ve made the world feel haunted, nostalgic, and beautiful.
The beauty happens at night. There is a day/night cycle that is incredibly important to Wildmender; as you start to explore and open up the world, there is a story to find, teleport gates to unlock (which you’ll be thankful for every time you find one), and new resources to uncover. Much of this takes up essence, the main magical resource of the game. When you find yourself back home to refill your water bottle and eat some food you’ve stored away, you also get essence back from the plants you’ve managed to make thrive in the middle of a desert… but again, only at night.
It’s fitting, for nighttime is full of magic in Wildmender, including ghosts and haunting visions… but its a haunting that is welcomed. The world has ended after all - the ghosts you find are ones from the time before. When you find spectres wandering the landscape and you have a chance to talk to them, they give you ‘memories’ of the time before, little lore snippets that have that melancholy longing that drips off most things in the game. The memories have a mechanical function too: you have tech trees of a sort, but its you accumulating knowledge from these long dead hunters, mages, and artisans. Learning lessons from the past lets you build better tools, walls for your garden, and more.
Nighttime isn't just pretty, its beautiful. Screenshots are nice, but it doesn't do justice to the first few times you see the ghost leaves and illumination appear while out exploring.
However, the night-time change which took my breath away the first time I saw it was the trees themselves. As the sun goes down, the music cues shift into something slightly more ethereal and gentle. That vast landscape of desiccated dead trees ripple with otherworldly light, sprouting ghost leaves and blooming flowers that lend a glow to the world around them. For a little while, for a few short hours, you can imagine a landscape that was once used to exist, and one that maybe, just maybe, you can help happen again.
Rough Edges To A Great Concept
When I said before that this is already one of my favorite games, don’t take that endorsement to say that Wildmenders is perfect. There are a few glaring flaws and shortcomings that take it down a few notches, and you should be aware of them before you decide to throw your money at such an amazing concept.
The first issue is probably the biggest: frame rate. This is a fantastic ‘indie’ game that uses art direction to paint a gorgeous world, highlighting how empty and dead it is and making the colors of plantlife and ghostly spirits pop brightly in contrast. However, Wildmenders atmosphere can occasionally grind to a halt when too much appears on the screen.
For example: I was in a forest of massive dead oak trees on day as I tried to find acorns to plant. Night came on before I realized, and all the dead brown wood bloomed into a wondrous forest floor with lights glowing all around me. It was a touching scene… until I tried to move, and the world stuttered around me, dropping to fifteen frames per second for a short while. The frame rate drop is only occasional, but going into wooded areas at night definitely can be a trigger.
Graphic ‘pop ins’ are also very common. By this point in the game, my original location is a glorious wooded meadow, filled with flowers of many colors, a dug out river with a beautiful bridge over top it… and my game cannot seem to handle it. When I teleport back home after adventuring, for a short while, my ‘home’ looks barren with floating fruit, taking 2-3 seconds for all the various plants and crafted items to appear.
These issues are technical ones, and I hope that a few optimizations or patches in, will be fixed. I also don’t have a top-end gaming PC, so your mileage may vary on these two issues. Again, these aren’t dealbreakers for me - they might be for you - they just hurt the immersion I love in games like this.
Besides that, there are a few smaller non-technical things that can be frustrating. One are grave quests: sometimes you won’t find a ghost, but a gravestone. Leave an offering of the right type of items, and the next night a ghost will appear to give you a quest. The great thing about these quests is they don’t require you to return to the grave when they are finished; you get the reward right away! However, if you don’t have the items needed for the offering, the game map doesn’t mark where the graves are for you - you have to manually leave a marker.
There are a few quality-of-life issues like this: nothing game breaking, but situations where you want a little more explanation for a quest or a slightly faster way to dig ditches in order to create rivers, that sort of thing.
A Builder Of Life, Not Machinery
Despite all the issues I just listed, I am still willing to state that Wildmender will be one of my favorite games ever. I don’t say this lightly, and I don’t say this believing it will be your favorite game. But I knew I had to write about it, I had to recommend it only a few hours into the game just because of how much it does right with mood and world building alone, and how it manages to do something that feels so obvious and so unique at the same time.
This game reminds me of stories like this. Hikmet Kaya, a Turkish forest manager who restored a whole forest over decades, planting approximately 30 million trees. You can read the whole story at My Modern Met.
For context: in the last year, a lot of my friends got really deep into Satisfactory, a game where you essentially try and build an automated factory that can outproduce the EU. Recently, I just beat Factorio, a game where you build… a giant automated factory that can outproduce the EU. It comes with a twist however, as you are doing this on an alien planet in order to build a rocket ship to escape. The side effects of such mass industry? You create clouds of pollution that mutates the local alien bug life, turning parts of the game into a tower defense.
They are satisfying games to play. The feeling of progress as you manage to start extracting coal in thousands of pounds at a time is tangible. The knowledge that you can manufacture uranium tipped bullets by the ton gives you a rush of superiority. It also left me feeling… dirty. Yes, I know these are games, yes, I know there aren’t real world consequences, but as someone who grew up with an environmentalist activist mother and as an elder millennial watching the world slowly burn around me due to climate change… I couldn’t help but wonder if there were games out there that honored the environment instead of subjugating it.
Here is my game at about 10 hours: my first grove, now full of flowering trees, slowly pushing back the desert.
Wildmender is exactly that game. I jokingly call it the sequel to Factorio in my head; long after the world has been wrecked, after the strip mining and resource extraction is over… someone is going to come along and try and put things right. Many games are focused on destruction, on killing the final boss, showing dominance over another team of players, or surviving in a world that’s too far gone to even try. In comparison, Wildmender is about restoration - in remembering a world that had its own beauty, and trying to put things right.
For $25 dollars, I think this game is worth your money. The parts come together with the theme to make something that feels unique, refreshing… and satisfying in a way I wish more games tried to be.