To try again or walk away, that is the question.
“Wanderjahr” or “wander year” refers to a year of traveling abroad, the type of journey often undertaken by students prior to starting university or college. The game’s subtitle seemingly requires less interpretation: Get gud or Get rekt. With level caps for each world, grinding is largely ineffective in this RPG/strategy hybrid; you either figure out the right approach for each encounter, or you don’t. A game of highs and lows, Wanderjahr welcomes the perfectionist, the strategist, and maybe even the masochist, but few others. Don’t let the cute graphics and characters fool you: this is truly the Dark Souls of… actually, never mind.
Developed by Workyrie Game Studio and initially released on Steam in 2016, Wanderjahr feels like a game developed with a mouse in mind. The game uses a cursor that is controlled with the Switch’s joysticks with the ZR button used for inputs. The L and R buttons allow you to toggle between enemies for your characters to focus their attacks on, which is crucial. There are touchscreen controls as well, and some will find that the optimal way to play the game. I’m more of a traditionalist, and to be honest, I might have driven a finger through the screen had I played with those controls.
As you progress through eight worlds with 7 to 10 stages in each, the core gameplay centers on choosing which of your roster of characters to have on the screen to take on waves of incoming enemies and eventually a boss at the end of each world. You rotate through your party members frequently based on the enemies you are facing and your party’s needs. You bring in a healer when you take damage, a tank when you need a damage sponge, and a thief when the enemy has a special item to steal. All of the job classes are required for you to be successful. The unique mechanic of Wanderjahr is that you don’t actually control what your characters do; they will attack, heal, and cast spells automatically. You can use healing items and weapons to help your party members live to see another battle, but I found many of these less useful as I progressed through the game, with a few exceptions. It is not difficult to figure out how to play Wanderjahr. For the most part, it plays itself. You can easily exit a stage or replay an earlier one, and you keep your gold and EXP when you die. However, the lurking deep strategy can be equal parts frustrating and rewarding. With enough persistence, you can eventually discover the best way to take down each boss: defeat the lackeys first, send out your tanks before a devastating attack, constantly buff yourself and debuff the enemies, or often all of the above. Unfortunately, you may want to give up based on the inflated enemy health meters and cryptic advice from “C,” the game’s “operator” (read: quest-giver/narrator).
One of the most important pieces of advice I can give for playing this game is to read the digital instruction manual. It provides detailed explanations of gameplay and tactics with visual examples. The manual also delights in taunting the player: “99 percent of testers can’t pass the GATE” (the game’s third boss). Admittedly, it took me a dozen tries to take down this particular foe, and only after watching a few videos of those who had been successful.
Wanderjahr is a fun game to play, for a while. It turns into a real slog when you repeatedly spend minutes doing what should take seconds. Beating up minions and collecting the gold-granting items they drop is enjoyable, but spending five minutes to take down a heavily-armored golem and then fighting two of them at the same time and then fighting the same golem on the next stage—it takes a toll.
Wanderjahr is a hard game to recommend because it is a very specific type of experience. Some battles allow you to put the controller or system down and wait for your characters to dispatch all of their targets. Other situations require focus on minute details and constant swapping of party members. It is fun to unlock all of the party members, but this happens before the end of the third world, and most of the new members belong to job classes you already possess. As you reach each new level cap, your characters can gain new abilities, but these only affect their stats and damage output without changing the gameplay in any interesting way.
A free demo is on the eShop that consists of the first world, including the end boss, and it is worth a look since it gives a very good impression of how the game plays and what it is. With the full game, you get 15+ hours of content for only $9.99, and you can return to completed stages to improve your completion times for crowns and a better star rating, which are tied to in-game achievements. Just don’t expect a ton of variety or hand-holding. Wanderjahr won’t take you a year to beat it, but it might just feel like it.