Every strategy game designer has to make the same set of basic decisions, regardless of theme or genre. When units contact each other, can they just move away or are they somehow engaged? When an archer shoots through cover or other units, is it harder to hit their target or not? How hard is it to hit a basic enemy with a basic attack? Can units move then attack or some other combination of actions? These little decisions shape a strategy game much more than the setting or specific creatures, monsters or stats.
Maybe it’s the game, maybe it’s me (it’s the game); but in this case it seems like every one of those decisions was wrong. It’s like the opposite of Battle Brothers, a very similar type of game that I thought made all those decisions correctly.
Should you get it?
No, and I feel badly about it. Some games are willfully bad and disrespectful of their audience and in those cases there’s no remorse when savagely reviewing. This isn’t one of those games. It’s an indie game with limited production but that’s not the problem – the problem is that it’s poorly designed. There’s care put in, thought, effort, it just all comes together to be fatiguing and uninspiring. A long, boring slog that I subjected myself to only to finish this review. There are a few bright spots, but not nearly enough to be worth your time when there’s so much better available in the genre.
There are 2 full campaigns. I only played the first. The story is original and uses an interesting storytelling device, but it’s poorly written, paced and executed. You play a dryad and a drider who had been captured and forced to fight in an arena for sport. They escape and run around the world for a while before heading back for vengeance. The story is told from the point of view of their captor who is receiving letters from the agent sent to hunt down the two “monsters”. In practice the two move from location to location, recruit new units for their growing team, have a battle, distribute XP and then repeat.
This structure has worked for hundreds of games and there’s nothing wrong with it. Give me units that evolve and stay with me and let me use them over and over against interesting foes. String it all together with some story and I’m perfectly content, assuming the combat works. Here the combat does not work. I’ll go into detail below in the lengthy con list, but the overall feeling is one of extreme sluggishness.
Your units just can’t get around each other, and since any move ends the movement phase for a unit, they can’t move aside and let someone through. They’re also inaccurate and have generally short ranges. That combines to make a thick soupy mess, where most of your units do nothing most turns as they wait for logjams to slowly clear as you grind through the enemy and make forward progress. It’s very frustrating and removes most of the tactical decisions you’re used to making (and enjoying) in this kind of game.
Lets get the indie problems out of the way first because they are the most excusable and not the reason for the low score. The art is bad in an early 80’s AD&D game book way. The sound is sparse and grating. The words they are saying are dumb and poorly delivered.
No animations or customization. Just overhead units that move like board pieces. The UI is fiddly, making the normally joyous task of leveling up, picking skills and upgrading equipment a pain in the ass. Again, I would “forgive” these issues, as I have many times for indie games, if the core game was fun. It’s so not.
Movement – the most annoying aspect of the game. Once you move a unit a little bit, they are done moving for the round. Once you attack (or use most powers or spells), you are done moving for the round. Units have bases much wider than their graphic. Here’s the craziest part – units can’t turn while moving. They move in straight lines. So if there is a stationary unit in front of another, the only way to get around it is to spend one round moving on an angle left, then the next round on an angle right. During those two rounds you’re not firing or casting. And often you’ll think there’s enough room to get by and find out there isn’t, because there are no hexes or a grid. And some units are quite big.
Combine all that nonsense and you never feel in control of your formations. Every other one of these games I know where my units will end up at the end of the round and I can plan for it. Here it all jams up constantly. Units get stuck in corners. Giant’s can’t step over tiny snakes on their own team. I hated every round because of this. Half way through the game I gave up and recruited mostly ranged units so I could minimize maneuvering.
Zone of control – there isn’t one. Any unit can run past any other unit without slowing down or being impeded.
Disengage rule – there isn’t one. It doesn’t matter if a unit is in melee, they can move away without being attacked.
Cover rules – literally none. Anyone can shoot through anything, including very solid seeming objects. No penalties for shooting through enemies, trees or allies.
Range Rules – none. Shooting near or far has the same accuracy (although there are range limits for various attacks).
Line of Sight – not a thing. Everyone can see everyone.
Fog of War – nope.
Unit Accuracy – generally quite low, and often I don’t even know why. I’ve had many cases where an archer could choose two targets. Same size, same defensive stat. One had a 10% chance of being hit while the other 80%. None of their skills or powers seemed to explain it. <edit – as the developer let me know, this is likely due to the unit’s resistances which I guess I did not find when looking>
Surround Rules – none. It doesn’t matter if you surround a unit and bash it from all sides. His defense is the same as 1 on 1. This, combined with the accuracy problem above, was exasperating. In one combat I had 4 mid-power creatures plus my melee hero all wailing on a single weak mushroom guy. It took two full rounds and looked just so dumb and anti-heroic.
Random crates – are spread out on each combat map. You have to hit them multiple times to break them open and get the loot. So once you kill most/all enemies you are supposed to find the obvious and hidden loot on the map. But everyone moves slowly and can’t shoot far, so it takes a while which sometimes spawns new monsters. Every part of you wants to ignore them and get through fights as quickly as possible but they have far better loot than you get from completing missions. Once I realized the game was easy and I wouldn’t need all that loot to advance I did just ignore them.
Enough, you get the point. I could go on for another 1000 words. It’s clumsy and slow and not fun. I want to stress again that these are all design decisions, not budget limits or even programming skill shortcomings. So maybe some people will love this direction. I did not.
If this game sounds like a shovelware mess, it’s not. It’s the 3rd game in a series (never played the first two) and presumably someone likes them enough to keep making sequels. It’s also got a surprisingly large team. I expected a lone developer with a few friends providing (terrible) voices. There’s a whole team behind this who put a lot of thought into the game.
Unit Variety – this is probably the oddest cast of allies and enemies I can remember playing. Your starting characters are a dryad and a drider, already bizarre. By the end my team included mutant plants, ents, bears, harpies, insectoids, a witch and elder mushroom archers. This level of crazy could cause the game to be too zany for some, but I enjoyed it here.
Unit Upgrades – your units gain big chunks of XP after each fight and have plenty of interesting things to spend it on. Aside from moving up levels they each have appropriate skills and powers to choose from. I would have really enjoyed this part of the game if the interface didn’t make it so painful to move from character to character, choose new skills and equipment and so forth. I only paid careful attention to my heroes and a few favorite units. Everyone else I just clicked on whatever and often did not even do that, bothering to level them up only every 2 or 3 missions.
Damage – units have few HPs, generally between 1 and 6. This isn’t the kind of game where you have to whittle down health. Lot’s of creatures do more than 1 point of damage so units can’t take too many hits before dying (which I like). There’s also a critical system that causes various injuries which was also nice although I never did figure out what concussions or deep wounds do in game terms.
Mission Losses – some of the missions lead to alternate missions if you lose. The game was too easy for this to happen naturally but I did try a few times to see and in one occasion it lead to a very interesting little scenario.
Extras – there appears to be some design tools so users can make their own adventures. I didn’t bother checking since the underlying engine is so unpleasant.
Story Device – it was interesting reading from the point of view of the guy tasked with capturing your heroes. Some amusing parts came from his blase attitude and cynicism. It’s an original way to tell a story and with better writing it could have been great.
Characterization – again, with better writing this could have been funny. Dryads are basically nature hippies. Driders are evil corruptions of already extremely evil dark elves. The two constantly bicker (and both bicker with the witch once you add her) and this could have been hilarious and full of growth. Instead it’s occasionally worth a chuckle.
Loot – there was some loot (nothing dropped from enemies, all from crates or rewards), split into the typical weapon, armor, ring, potion, amulet, etc. Many of the items had interesting effects. The problem was the brutal interface. There’s no paper doll that shows you what you have equipped. It’s all mixed into the stuff you have in inventory and even what you can buy (from where you’re buying this stuff I have no idea). The end result is that it’s hard to tell what you’re wearing, carrying or can buy across 6 or 7 categories. And you also can’t tell which of the items up for sale are actually usable by your character. I stopped bothering after about 6 or 7 missions. My characters finished the game with whatever they had on at that point.
Length – there’s a lot of game here. The campaign I did had 21 missions and I did not go on any of the optional missions (obviously), of which there were at least 7. There’s also a whole other campaign. So if you actually like this game it certainly gives you some value. The individual missions can be long as well, although that’s not due to any complexity. It’s just the interminable speed and maneuverability of the units. One easy mission lasted 20 mind numbingly boring turns before I finished it.
Difficulty – so very easy as long as you play a certain way. I died and reloaded a lot at first because I was trying to make the game fun. For example, you start with a dryad, a very weak creature whose whole “thing” is that she can control plants. And low and behold, your first bunch of encounters have a bunch of plants in them. The story even talks about how dangerous the dryad is on the loose, as she’ll start converting plants to her side and grow her army. So I really tried to take control of the enemy plants with my dryad.
The problem is that she’s squishy, and her plant control power has a shorter range than the enemies. I couldn’t even move into range and take one over because once you move you can no longer cast. It took 2 full rounds (one for moving, one for casting) and on the second round she couldn’t move back out of range (because once you cast you can’t move). That’s a very long time for a squishy character to just be hanging around in archer range and she kept dying. You can’t screen her with a hardier unit since cover and LOS don’t matter. She also couldn’t heal herself for some reason, just others. <edit – at the developer pointed out, she could heal with potions. However I wouldn’t expect players to have potions at this early stage of the game>
After 3 or 4 tries of playing according to flavor I stopped and just placed her far out of archer range. That made her largely useless (she has no ranged attack of her own) but it was fine because the AI was really dumb. If I didn’t mind waiting as they (so fucking) slowly approached me they were easy to beat. The AI contended with the full range of movement issues I describe above so it could never manage a concentrated attack either. Units milled around trying to get around each other and I could kill the ones who managed to get free and close.
Once I stopped trying to do anything cool I thankfully sailed through the rest of the missions without losing once. Keep in mind I did the bare minimum of loot collecting, side missions or even upgrading and could still breeze through the game. I imagine it would be considerably easier if I bothered to level up and gear efficiently. I played on the 2nd of 4 difficulty levels and have no desire to try again at a higher level.
There’s nothing maliciously bad. They tried to make a good game and probably largely accomplished their design goals. I just disliked how it came together and had very little fun. If I did not force myself to finish so I can give a fair review score I would have stopped after the first hour or two, once I realized the underlying tactical engine was missing most of the things that make these games fun. There are a few good ideas, it’s stable and bug free. Final score – 54.