From the producer of The Witcher 3 comes a new strategy city-building hybrid. We get a guided tour of Gord…
“Squishy” is a word that game director and Covenant.dev boss Stan Just uses a lot when describing Gord, his fledgling studio’s upcoming survival-strategy opus. But then again, squishy is perfectly apt for a dark fantasy world positively heaving with slimy, hideous creatures: there’s Ardavan, a bloated, pustule-covered Horror that is one of nine major threats in the game. “He has mosquitoes inside those [pustules],” Just says, grinning mischievously. ”He vomits those mosquitoes at your tribe. It’s kind of disgusting.”
Then there are smaller critters, such as slug-like enemies capable of burrowing underground and emerging in the most inconvenient places, or bulbous, froggy lifeforms called Foulspawn that lay poisonous eggs and ooze blood once vanquished.
It’s your job to create a safe haven from all this hideousness by building a gord – a Slavic term for a fortified settlement – in which your small population can grow its resources and gradually expand its reach across the shadowy landscape. Success in Gord requires a tricky mix of resource gathering and management, construction, and going out on quests, the latter often involving intense battles with dozens of those creatures mentioned above.
In the hands-off demo Covenant.dev showed Wireframe, the mission was to destroy a clutch of Foulspawn eggs that have been poisoning nearby swamp land. What unfolds is an atmospherically elemental bout of exploration and real-time tactical combat; as your party roams the benighted, misty landscape, you’ll have to use a variety of ranged and melee attacks, as well as spells to damage foes and buff your allies. There are further tactics you can deploy, too, if you’re feeling cunning; one wood-type creature is more powerful if it’s standing on dry land, and we’re shown that luring it out onto swamp land makes the beast more vulnerable to attack.
The air is grungy and harsh on this mission, with rain lashing down and the way ahead lit coldly by your scout’s lantern. If the style and insistent nods to Slavic mythology faintly recalls another major series from Poland, that’s no coincidence: Stan Just also produced the much-loved The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt back in his days at CD Projekt Red. “From The Witcher, we took this approach of ‘Design first, then work out how to do it afterwards’,” Just tells us. “So if you take enemies like Blood Worms, which have their young attached and can go underground, they’re a nightmare to code. We have a Spider Queen with all these spiders on her back, and the programmer went, ‘I don’t know how to do it’. This approach that we had on The Witcher was, just figure out something that’s cool, then we’ll figure out a way to do it. It’s an approach we’re using in Gord, and I think it’s working out really nicely.”
Safely back at your growing community, meanwhile, there’s the whole subject of base-building to explore. Your returning warriors can drink away their sorrows in a Mead Hall (the equivalent of your local pub) or rest up in a Bathhouse. There are also Temples (necessary for acquiring spells), forges, and military buildings among the 31 structures you can build and upgrade.
Then there’s Sanity to think about. If your people are subjected to the horrors of the outside world for too long, their mental health will suffer, which will cause all sorts of problems: subjects might begin to attack or steal from each other. Other incidents can also affect your subjects’ mental state – if they see a child or loved one killed, say, or they’re asked to repeatedly go out and do grim things like looting dead bodies, then their Sanity levels will decline. In extreme cases, your subjects will simply flee the gord altogether – one of several ways you can lose the campaign.
The Sanity meter also explains some of Gord’s gorier and grotesque elements – far from mere window dressing, the horror forms the game’s backbone. “Many games use fear and disgust just for flashiness or to provoke emotions, but we also wanted it to have this gameplay aspect,” Just explains. “Some enemies can use fear to decrease your unit’s Sanity. So you can have a unit that has all this HP and buffs and pieces of equipment, but an enemy can still use fear to make them run away. So all that equipment was for nothing. You need to take care of the Sanity of your units as well.”
Gord is a deliberately harsh game, then, both in its tone and level of challenge, though Just stresses that there’ll also be things like tooltips and an in-game encyclopedia to help newcomers to the genre. Obsessives can dig into the menus and explore a quite overwhelming array of stats and data about each of their units, but novices can ignore all this and concentrate more on growing their society and drinking in the grimdark campaign – a narrative that will take in ten central missions and last for around 15 hours in total.
Overwhelmingly, Gord feels like the product of a team who are truly passionate about making the best strategy city-building hybrid they can. How else do you explain why a new studio would choose such a big, complex project as its debut title? “It was smaller at the start!” Just chuckles. “I’d say Gord was three times smaller at the beginning. At some point, we had a bunch of ideas – even cheaper ones – but our investors said, ‘This is the one to go with’. They saw a huge target audience for this type of game. Most games in this genre are more ‘cute’ in their art style, and less dark, so there might be a niche for this as well, to combine the audiences that like strategy and dark fantasy. I proposed a lot of different ideas, and this is the one they chose.”
Development first began in 2019, not long before the studio itself was founded in Warsaw, Poland, the following year, just before the pandemic set in. “We started out with a very small team – we were selling shares to raise the budget before [publisher] Team17 came along,” says Just. “Thankfully we’re past that, and now we’re trying to push all that content. There are over 20 enemies – Horrors, humanoids – plus cinematics and motion capture. There’s a lot of story and lore to it as well. It’s all very heavy in regard to the number of assets we need to create. Currently we have over 20 staff, but we’ve also outsourced to over 50 people outside. There are about a dozen outsourcing companies to manage.”
While the bulk of Gord’s design and asset creation has been completed, the “biggest challenge lies ahead,” according to Just: balancing what amounts to a huge array of interlocking systems and variables. “The game’s in pre-beta, but in the next year, we’ll have time to have all this data analysed and balanced. It’s something we’ll focus on before release.”
Gord still has a hazard-filled quest of its own to complete before it’s ready, then. But having gotten our first look at Covenant.dev’s debut up and running, we’re looking forward to combatting some of those squishy horrors for ourselves – and trying not to lose our Sanity in the process.