Friday, November 2, 2012

Fallen Enchantress - initial impression

I did it again! This is really dumb, since I'm still playing Skyrim and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I'm trying to get started with Achtung Panzer: Operation Star, I've hardly dented Crusader Kings II,... well, you get the picture.

But I have no willpower at all when it comes to computer games (or anything else, really), so I just had to buy Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, the new strategy game by Stardock. I was going to put it off, wait for a sale (and the inevitable patches), but... well, what can I say?

I watched a few YouTube videos of the gameplay (I especially recommend this tutorial series if you're just getting started), and I simply had to get it. It reminded me of Master of Magic, or perhaps Civilization with a fantasy mod. It's been a long time since I played anything like that.

In Fallen Enchantress, the world has been torn apart by magic, and there are dangerous creatures everywhere. But your hero is determined to create a new civilization which will unite everyone and everything under your banner. Of course, other heroes and other civilizations will resist assimilation. :)

Yes, it's your basic single-player, turn-based '4x' - explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate - strategy game, set in a fantasy world filled with magic. And although it's not perfect, it's got that "one more turn" appeal that kept me playing until 2 AM my first night with it.

It's also got options up the yin-yang. To start, you pick a leader. There are eight very different choices, each leading a different race of men (the kingdoms) or 'fallen' (the empires).

Note that, if you lead a kingdom, you can work to ally with other kingdoms, but the empires will inevitably be your enemies. And vice versa, of course, if you lead an empire. (They don't, however, begin the game at war, which is something I might have preferred.)

Your leader and your race have characteristics - advantages and disadvantages - and there's a story to go with each. If you don't like those choices, though, you can create your own leader and your own race, selecting from a huge number of options, starting items, and even appearance.

I can never resist those kinds of opportunities, so that's what I did. (I don't think I'd recommend it for a first game, though. In fact, you might be better served with one of their ready-made scenarios, which I still haven't tried.) And instead of choosing one of the maps that come with the game, I chose to play on a random map, with normal difficulty and normal level of AI.

The first thing you do is found your initial city. Now, cities in Fallen Enchantress can only be started at certain locations, and that has huge implications for gameplay. But you'll start the game at one of those locations - one of those areas with sufficient food, materials and, usually, magical essence.

Note that the exact location of the city is up to you. Unlike such games as Civilization, only the characteristics of one particular square matter to cities in this game, so you need to choose the best spot based mostly on that. (There is a tutorial in the game, but I highly recommend watching that YouTube "getting started" tutorial.)

One of the things this game doesn't tell you (the instructions could be a lot better) is that you can press Ctrl-N to get a new starting location, if the first one doesn't suit. Especially for your first game, that might be wise. And although you need to select the starting square with the highest numerical ranking (food, materials, essence), being close to other resources is also quite useful.

OK, this isn't a tutorial, so I won't explain any further. But there are a lot of variations - variations which will impact different civilizations in different ways and which will probably result in quite different starts.

A suitable location for a new city
(Note: images here are all from the official game site)

One thing which will be the same is the presence of a recruitable champion nearby - another hero who can lead troops and will almost certainly be worth the cost. These leaders are the only units which can gather and use treasure, and there will be some treasure chests nearby, too - some guarded by dangerous creatures and some not.

In general, you need to keep these heroes in separate parties (so they don't split the experience gained by winning battles) and send them exploring in different directions. They need troops, too. But, oddly enough, you probably won't be creating those troops in your city. You can do that - and you probably will, later - but your city has much more important things to do, first (and has to research better technologies in order to build useful troops, anyway).

No, in general, you need to get military units in other ways. Most leaders have ways of summoning powerful (for your starting level) creatures, or sometimes you can find loot which will do the same thing. Well, again, this isn't a tutorial, so I won't go further into that.

The basic idea is that your heroes will explore, while your city builds new buildings and researches new technologies. There's an odd disconnect between these two features, because you don't usually have to stay close to defend your cities. Your heroes just need to kill any weak monsters nearby, while avoiding strong ones (which don't usually move around). And as they continue to explore, they should continue to do that.

But it really seems odd that you don't need to stay anywhere near your cities. And indeed, the city-building part of this game - which is usually one of my very favorite parts of these games - doesn't do much for me. I just can't get too attached to any of my cities.

Sure, if you zoom in far enough, you can see little people working in them, but they never feel like my people. And most everything is built automatically. You can't even place the roads between your cities. The game does that automatically, if you have the appropriate technology, and you don't even see it happening. Apparently, it just happens overnight. No, the city-building part of this game really doesn't appeal.

Admittedly, there's a lot of strategy involved in all of this. This is clearly a strategy game. There are RPG elements, and those are nice, though I can't say that I get too attached to my champions, either. Still, I really wish the city-building parts of the game, the civilization-building parts of it, were better. I'd love to have actual citizens to control and care about.

I tend to be a builder in games, so I wish that building a civilization were a more important part of this game. Instead, it's more of a fantasy war-game where your city-building is mostly a matter of collecting resources for waging war (and for diplomacy, admittedly).

Unit details page

Anyway, my first city (on that random map) ended up in a narrow strip of land between the ocean and the mountains, both of which are impassible. To the east, I found another potential city location, but there were very strong monsters nearby. Building a city, or even an outpost, would have released them to roam my territory, and there was absolutely no way for me to defeat them in the early game. I couldn't even get past them to continue further to the east.

To the west, that narrow strip of land continued, eventually turning south. But there was no other city location available, and not even enough creatures to level up my heroes much. Eventually, far to the southwest, we encountered two other civilizations and some powerful monsters.

For a strategy gamer, that might have been an interesting challenge. For me, wanting to build a civilization, it just didn't sound appealing to have one city so far from anything else. Well, that's one of the problems with random maps. Sometimes, you can play for a long time before you realize you've started in an untenable position.

But there were two other things which bothered me. For one, my capital city was on the coast, but these people don't seem to use the ocean for anything. They don't get any resources from it, they don't build boats, they can't travel or trade even along the coast, let alone further out to sea. (Note that cities can build docks on rivers, but that doesn't seem to help with trade or travel along that river, either.)

Basically, the ocean is just a barrier, like the mountains. Again, this is an artificial limitation which might make sense in a pure strategy game, but not at all for a civilization-builder or even an RPG (both of which need to make at least some sense, even in a fantasy world). Why can't we have options when it comes to using the rivers and oceans, or even traveling in the mountains?

But also, every map I've seen has had tons of impassible mountains, and there doesn't seem to be any way to change their relative abundance when creating a random map. I would prefer a more wide-open world, and it's a real shame I can't specify something like that.

Also, I would kill for an engineer unit, someone who could build roads and bridges and modify terrain. As far as I can tell, I can't even use magic for such a purpose. I can't blast the top off a mountain to create a pass, and I can't build a road up it or a tunnel through it. OK, this is a strategy game, but there are RPG and city-building parts to it, so I was really hoping for more than this.

[Edit: As it turns out, an Earth Mage can cast a spell to raise or lower the land. So, apparently (I haven't seen this myself yet), you can remove a mountain or build a land bridge across the ocean. Well, that's why I called this an initial impression.]

Still, if it's not exactly what I'd prefer, it's still lots of fun. I started over with Queen Procipinee - one of the standard leaders and standard races - and tried one of the ready-made maps, and I'm still having a hard time stopping long enough to go to sleep at night.

Procipinee is very much a magic-oriented leader, and so I've been concentrating on magic to the complete exclusion of mundane military research. I started this game on easy difficulty (although normal AI), and that might have been a mistake. Certainly, I've got cities all over the place, and I'm still having absolutely no problems from my nominal enemies. (The empires are all still neutral towards me.)

But then, I'm not much of a strategy gamer. As a civilization-builder in games, I normally keep the peace with anyone who doesn't attack me. But on lower difficulty settings, I might never be attacked, I suppose. I just don't know.

As a strategy game, Fallen Enchantress does impress me with its variation. If you're smart, you can often win even hard battles. But with Queen Procipinee, I depend hugely on magic. So what do I do when I encounter strong enemies who are completely immune to magic? Well, so far, I've just avoided them. Heh, heh.

But my point is that these things happen all the time. My own units and enemy units alike can be almost anything, with different kinds of attack, different capabilities (magical and otherwise), and different vulnerabilities. You really have to pick your fights.

Fallen Enchantress tactical battle

Of course, you can't avoid fighting, not very often, because that's the only way you get experience (both your champions and the units they lead level up with experience). And you get a lot more experience from the toughest battles.

Luckily, you can examine your enemies before you fight. So there usually aren't any surprises, if you've been paying attention. But sometimes, enemies are a lot tougher than they look, for one reason or another.

(Note that the battles are also fun. They're turn-based, and they require careful positioning and clever use of your units' abilities. As your leaders level up, they get new spells and new abilities. And, of course, different leaders and different troops - not to mention different enemies - require different tactics.)

That's just with my current leader. There are eight very different leaders who lead very different people. And if you get tired of playing one of them, you can create your own (leader and race both) with an almost unlimited variety of options.

And then there are the modding opportunities. I haven't even looked at that, but there will be mods, I'm sure - lots of them, eventually. Extensive modding tools come with the game.

As usual, I've got complaints, but I'm still having a lot of fun playing this game. One thing that's absolutely critical for a turn-based strategy game is to keep you wanting to play just one more turn. Well, Fallen Enchantress has got that in spades!

Plus, I keep wondering what other types of leaders would be like. So this is likely to keep me playing for some time. I might not have needed a new game right now, but I'll almost certainly get my money's worth out of this one.

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