Have you heard of Fantasy Wars? Neither had I until recently. It was a reasonably well received turn-based strategy (TBS) game that came out in 2007 but got little notice in North America. Some of this was undoubtedly due to getting released squat in the middle of the fall release blitz, some due to it being an entry in the relatively niche TBS genre, and some due to not getting much press outside of Europe. Perhaps the publishers got the message, because the new follow-up game Elven Legacy was released in the midst of a weak period of the year and got attention from many gaming media outlets as a result. The good news is that the attention is at least somewhat deserved, because while the game doesn’t nearly reach the dizzying heights of last year’s King’s Bounty, it is a solid game that fans of the genre shouldn’t miss.
Turn-based games such as Elven Legacy are seldom known for their strong stories, but we do get a reasonable premise: the Elves are a peace-loving group who are willing to live and share with all others peacefully, but the greedy humans are forever pursuing the magical secrets of long life and other wonders. One day a traitorous elf gives all of the elves’ secrets to a human who runs off, leading to a cataclysm in which the Elves survive only due to an intercession by the dragons. All of this is told through an opening set of scenes, and you are left in control of Lord Sagittel, a veteran of centuries of battles against humans, who has to pair up with another elf named Gylven to hunt down the human mage at the center of the whole mess.
The story unfolds in between battles as is typical with games in this genre: you get some banter at the beginning and end of each mission, but most exposition happens in between missions and comes in the form of cutscenes. You choose missions from a map based on your pursuit of the human mage. Often you have a single linear choice, but other times you can actually choose from more than one path of pursuit. At times you can choose between a longer path that offers you some advantages or a shorter path where you will be at a disadvantage. Your choices impact the likelihood of winning a mission, and also impact whether or not you can finish the game and capture the human mage.
That is correct – it is possible to eventually control the entire world but fail to capture the mage and therefore fail at your task. This ties into the overall sense of success and failure throughout the game. At the end of each stage you get a rating – this is fairly typical in a strategy-RPG game, but in Elven Legacy it has broader implications than in most other games. I have read rants by folks about this, but really, it is so thoroughly integrated into the game I cannot see the point of the complaints. The bottom line is this – you need to complete your missions quickly and efficiently. If you do so you are rewarded with bonus missions, if not you are penalized by not only missing out on added content but also suffering potential loss of the main game. Unlike Fantasy Wars which had four shorter campaigns, Elven Legacy has a three longer ones, making your choices even more important.
I will not say it isn’t frustrating – seeing that you only have a certain amount of turns left to achieve Gold victory is highly unsettling and led me to replay many missions more than once to get Gold status and unlock everything. But the practice leads you to make better decisions and become more efficient in unit selection and mission execution… and in a strategy game that is what it is all about! You are intended by the structure to be pursuing a foe, so time should matter, as should your ability to quickly eliminate enemies.
Combat is not trivial, and will take some time to become competent. Fortunately the game helps you out with context sensitive information about terrain and enemies and fortifications. You can better estimate what you are up against as you begin each turn by simply mousing over areas near your troops. Sometimes the most difficult choice is who to bring into battle – you will always have more units than open slots, and you will seldom know the full extent of the enemy forces until you are well underway. Generally a well balanced force will be your best bet, but whenever you have some foresight into what you might face – undead, ranged fighters, mages, whatever – it is best to prepare accordingly.
One nice thing is that all of your units gain experience from all combat, meaning that your choices will be purely strategic. This is a great way to balance the other trade-offs you’ll make along the way. Rather than constantly ensuring units see combat time to keep experience on par, you can focus on meeting the challenge ahead of you. That is important enough in a normal strategy game, but where you know you are tightly turn-limited it is critical.
As you progress through the campaign your units will gain enough experience to acquire new skills. There are a ton of available skills, making this a great way to broaden the capabilities of your units and build an even more diverse fighting force. In addition to skills you can gather artifacts during missions that will grant the unit that finds it some form of enhancement. These can make units radically more powerful, but of course a magic power artifact in the hands of a focused melee warrior is wasted, and on more than a rare occasion one of your lesser troops will gain the artifact instead of one of your veterans or leaders. Sadly there is no way to trade artifacts.
Technically the game is solid but not stunning in any way. The graphics are nicely detailed for all of the environments and each of the characters has a distinct look and feel. The landscapes don’t have the same bright and saturated look as King’s Bounty, but they are still vivid and feature that wonderfully out of proportion feel as many games of the genre. Combat plays out on the hex grid accompanied by wonderfully rendered and detailed animations that are a blast to watch. The voice acting is acceptable but not a star feature of the game – the translations are actually pretty good even if most of the acting falls fairly flat. Also, there is precious little audio in the game: you get some environmental sounds and some battle sounds and sound effects, but there is generally not a lot going on in terms of audio. This is particularly disappointing in contrast with the excellent battle animations.
Unless you are a hardcore fan of turn-based strategy games, there is a good chance you’ll find Elven Legacy very frustrating. And the reasons for that are actually something I hold in high regard – it is a game that knows what it wants to be and pursues that aim throughout with consistency. The game is turn-based, slow-paced, yet with an implied time-limit that rewards you for fast and efficient action. It isn’t the best turn-based strategy game in recent memory – but then most games in any genre pale when compared to the excellent King’s Bounty. But it is a solid game that I thoroughly enjoyed. Fortunately there is a demo available, and I strongly suggest you download the demo if you are even mildly interested and give it a try. By the end of the demo you will have a clear indication of whether or not you’ll like the full game. For me, I enjoyed it enough to launch into its’ predecessor Fantasy Wars right after finishing the main quest.
+ Solid turn-based combat system
+ Nothing else really matters, but …
+ Decent story
+ Solid graphics
+ Possibility to win … but still lose
- Limited info for each mission
- Time limits can be frustrating
- Yet sameness creeps into missions
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: 4/7/09
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
ESRB Rating: Teen