by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
THE 7 YEAR ITCH
But then, slowly but surely, the rose coloured glasses start to fade. You see patterns in the game's behavior that just don't add up. At first, you dismiss them as anomalies, quirks that are not worth fussing about. Yet before long, they become difficult to overlook.
The first hint is that, even though there are seven enemies on the map, you only need 2 cities to produce enough units to keep up with your losses. Why aren't there stacks upon stacks of enemy armies hurling themselves at city walls? You're mopping up small fry armies left, right and centre, almost all of them neutral. Even after you've set the AI difficulty level to hard, little comes for you.
The next hint comes from your interactions with the AI kingdoms, who will profess hatred of the King but readily ally themselves to the villain a handful of turns later. You'll soon learn that these are just... actors, unintelligent extra's in a play that required some extra flavour. There is no intelligence to speak of that guides them, they have no master plan, they barely expand and they're 'given' the units that make up their armies. If they would - do - something with those armies, the game would have you work a lot harder that it does. Unfortunately you're far more likely to find stacks consisting of 10 or more armies standing around their headquarters, war or no war. You'd think they'd come for you if your army came near enough, but mostly they will just disperse when you do. On the plus side, some will finally make their way to your cities so you can work up a sweat.
THE NIGHT ON THE COUCH
By now you are on the lookout for what else is wrong. With your eyes wide open, some more worrying design flaws become apparent. Spells are one. With research, you have a tremendous amount of spells available to you, most of which you will never ever use. In part this is due to how spells work during combat. Strangely, casting is done by your units, not by you. They lose their turn which means you're not positioning them to be at their most effective. Casting a spell to get a minor buff and losing an action? You'll only ever cast the 3 or 4 useful ones in combat. Another is ranged combat. Simply put, it's superfluous. The combat arenas are fairly small and you'll be trotting around with warriors on fast horses and griffins within no time. Armies are rarely big enough to stop you from quickly reaching the ranged units positioned in the back. As a result, only in the early game do archers play any role of note. In truth, combat in this game revolves around tanks in the frontline and hero abilities.
Other things point towards a game that's not been properly been play tested. The dwarf hero's skill tree offers a dragon when a battle lasts more than 10 rounds. I've played 40 hours and not a single encounter went over 7, maybe 8 rounds. A spell that turns barren tiles into lush ones requires 9 suitable tiles to work - a situation that simply does not exist. AI units that have the shadowshift ability to trade places with one of yours will do so just for the heck of it, often shifting themselves completely out of range of anything to attack. But perhaps the most difficult to overlook is the lack in variety. None of the AI factions are playable, you'll only ever play as human. The selectable leaders do offer some differences in play style through variations in their skill trees, but it's really not enough.
The above pains me greatly. The list is long and would be longer if I wasn't reaching my maximum word count. This marriage is under siege but I have to believe it is fixable. Why? Because there is an absolutely fantastic game - screaming - to be let out. It's not a bad game, but imagine the possibilities if we can play with the other races, if the AI would do more than standing around, and if ranged units were more than fluff. You'd have a game that can measure itself with the best 4X games on the market! Until it does, it's the little engine that could, but did not.
Wonderfully crafted gameworld, well written mini-quests
horrendously bad AI, only one playable race.