Three warriors return from an expedition that left with twice as many. They bathe to tend to their wounds, they drink mead to calm their nerves, and they return to their families to rest until morning. Physically and mentally rejuvenated, they congregate at the temple in the center of the gord, where they are joined by two new archers and a scout. They look toward the perpetual darkness that plagues the land around them, and together they venture into the unknown — once more unto the breach.
Gord, which was originally pitched as a horror-strategy game, but later revised to be an adventure-strategy title with survival and horror elements, is the systemically dense and highly intelligent debut project from Polish studio Covenant. The team includes veterans from many high-profile local outfits like CD Projekt Red, 11 bit studios, Flying Wild Hog, and elsewhere. It shows; given what I saw at Gamescom 2022, there is definitely sufficient elbow room for Gord to not just make an entrance in the scene, but to barrel through competitors and cement itself as something truly great.
The events of Gord transpire in a world that is afflicted by eternal darkness. Your task is to lead the Tribe of Dawn south, uniting the lands you encounter on behalf of a shady monarch. In doing so, you will learn about your companions’ strengths, weaknesses, and personalities as you construct your own gord and build a society within it, which will grow as you improve its amenities, fortify its battlements, and support its inhabitants as they begin to have families of their own.
What’s interesting about all of the above is that every narrative element of Gord is informed by a corresponding system, and vice versa. For example, the fact the world is in constant twilight is addressed by Gord’s visibility mechanic, which functions similarly to something like Darkwood. The map will only ever provide you with a certain amount of information, which makes venturing farther away from camp simultaneously enticing and dangerous. On one hand, you need resources — on the other, you need people to actually make use of them.
Ultimately, Gord’s systems combine to form a complex and cohesive web of interconnected mechanics. It’s far too intricate to discuss in a preview, but to give you an idea of how they function in accordance with one another, it’s worth looking at how the game addresses death and fail states.
As explained above, you need to enlist warriors before exploring the area around your gord — and given that this is an adventure game with heavy survival and horror elements, these lands are naturally home to various kinds of enemies. There are monsters from Slavic folklore, beasts capable of ripping you to shreds, and fellow humans who have adapted to the darkness and been molded by it. It is highly unlikely that expeditions will go as smoothly as you’d probably like, meaning that you will inevitably lose some people from time to time.
So, say an archer is killed by a giant spider. That archer not just an easily replaced unit like it might be in other games. The first time the archer is downed, you can revive him, although he’ll be suffering from some kind of physical ailment — maybe his movement speed has been reduced, or he’s now prone to heart attacks. If he is defeated again, he will be killed, but it doesn’t end there.
Any companion who sees the archer’s corpse will instantly be affected via their sanity meter, which will deplete after encountering a dead body. This occurs to varying degrees: If they loot a corpse for resources in the field, they’ll take a minor, almost negligible hit. If it’s one of their companions, however, the decrease will be more pronounced. And if they’re related to the person in question — every character can have parents, siblings, and so on — the damage to their sanity meter will be immense. You can bury bodies to prevent this from happening, but it’s time-consuming.
Once a unit’s sanity drops to zero, they’ll develop a mental affliction that stunts their ability to perform in battle. Maybe they’ll forget their orders, or decide to desert the company. Either way, the fascinating aspect of sanity integration is that one person’s actions can then have a domino effect on the entire party, leading to a situation where multiple people die, the company’s sanity starts to collectively plummet, and all of a sudden you’re in grave danger.
It goes further, too. Sanity can be replenished back at the Gord by visiting the mead hall, although it can also affect the people who aren’t out gallivanting through the darkness. For example, imagine a god-fearing axman has started to regret the lives he has taken outside the gord. He may request to be placed on church duty, allowing him to repent for his sins. If you indulge him, his sanity may start to replenish itself. But if you send him out to loot the corpses of his fallen comrades, he will give into fear, rage, or some other emotion that puts the rest of his party at risk. There’s a lot of micromanagement in Gord that justifies its status as a strategy game, in that you must always be paying attention to not just what’s on screen at any given time, but also what isn’t.
This applies to your gord itself, too. You can’t just take everyone out to fight; people need to stay at the settlement to maintain the economy, gather resources, and upgrade amenities like your temple, meadery, and bathhouse. There’s a bunch of minutiae to consider here as well, but I imagine you get the gist — and all we’ve done is briefly summarize some of the mechanics that are influenced by the death of a single unit.
There’s combat, which transpires across different ranges and considers various environmental conditions while acknowledging unique synergies between units. There’s an entire spell system that provides you with access to incantations, all of which are preceded by a pre-Slavic language implemented into the game with the help of a Polish professor. There are enemies that can infiltrate your palisade while you’re gone, enemies with unique properties such as neurotoxins that instigate a slowing effect when absorbed, and enemies of a more deific nature that can send COVID-inspired plagues to your settlement if you don’t worship them enough (the only way to combat this plague is to make your townspeople isolate). Imagine the near-overwhelming complexity and significance of Gord’s other systems — of which there are many — all working in tandem, all the time. It’s bizarre.
Most of this is designed to support Gord’s main story mode, which comprises handcrafted levels that are deeply inspired by Slavic mythology, and even features a holiday mechanic that incorporates real-life Slavic celebrations into the game at relevant times of the year. Working on series like The Witcher inspired this in more ways than one — as well as adding monsters from Polish folk tales, the team looked at how The Witcher 3 slightly diverted its course from the more hardcore roots of the first two Witcher games to appeal to a broader audience. This is partly why Gord pivoted from horror-strategy to adventure-strategy, and part of why the game has now added an alternative survival mode called “custom scenarios” that features over 1,000 semi-randomized character profiles, dozens of customization toggles, and more.
What was most interesting to me, however, was that a significant reason for the devs leaning into their own heritage was not just to introduce it to the rest of the world, but to promote it within their own culture, too. According to Gord game director Stan Just, it’s often neglected in schools — even beyond mythology, it might not be obvious to some people that gords were real architectural structures from Polish and German history. He attributes this to Poland’s status as an orthodox Christian country, explaining that some of its older traditions might be considered paganism, before pointing to how his friend’s book was banned for addressing the fact snails are hermaphrodites.
“Because [according to them] it doesn’t teach us the right ways of having a family and genders,” Just told me during a hands-off demo of Gord. “Our teaching system is not great. We’re making a game showing a middle finger to everybody. It’s our world, and we can create it from scratch.”
As it stands, Gord already looks extremely impressive. Just says a lot of the systems are finished, and that the next year or so is strictly for balancing and fine tuning all of the interactions between them. He explains that some of these systems are as minor as a squirrel biting you for 1 hit point in RimWorld — due to economies of scale, you don’t always have to engage with these minor concepts, but if you do, you’ll be rewarded for it.
As Covenant’s debut title, there’s a lot riding on Gord. It’s extremely ambitious and more than a little niche, but after spending an hour watching a demo and discussing the game at length, I’m convinced it has an enormous amount of potential and promise. Maybe Just and his team will succeed in bringing their mythology and culture to the mainstream after all.