When Stardock’s Elemental: War of Magic flopped onto the market in 2010 the general consensus was that beneath the game-breaking bugs and abominable design choices there was a glimmer of a hope. Mixing up the standard 4X game with some roleplaying and fantasy elements sounded like a great idea, but War of Magic couldn’t deliver on that promise. Two years later and we get another title in the Elemental series, though you’d never know it if I hadn’t told you. Elemental: Fallen Enchantress has gone out of it’s way to make sure that you only see the “Fallen Enchantress” of the title, presumably to prevent you from associating it with 2010′s stinker. Does Fallen Enchantress rise above it’s predecessor? Yes, yes it does. Should you play it? Read on to find out!
The first thing I have to address when talking about Fallen Enchantress is the game’s functionality. War of Magic may have been inexcusably broken when it launched, but those problems seem to have been ironed out for the sequel. I did notice one bug where the game would lock if I tried to close it via the classic ALT+F4 shortcut, but while this was annoying it wasn’t game-breaking. Other than that, I never really had a problem running the game.
Another big flaw with the original was the uninspired art design. When it came out, reviewers bemoaned the sparse maps, unoriginal creature design, and generic art and I’m sorry to say that this is still a bit of a problem. It’s not that the game is all that ugly, but it’s not interesting to look at. It does make great use of some really beautiful artwork to set the scenes and mark important events, but you don’t get to see those very often. Monsters have really stylish, moody painted portraits. but it’s a shame that the style doesn’t reach the rest of the game. I can understand that the developers don’t have a huge budget, but making great games on a budget is what Stardock does! Both GalCiv and Sins of a Solar Empire look amazing, and have their own definitive styles, which is where Fallen Enchantress really fumbles. The strategic map where you spend most of your time does have a few nice features that I appreciated. If you zoom out far enough, the campaign map fades to a brown vellum texture and all the information turns into lines of ink, giving the impression of looking at an actual map. It’s worked into the zoom feature seamlessly, and I though it was a neat trick, even if it doesn’t add much information. Another feature I really enjoyed was watching the way cities actually grow outward from the center as you build on them. You won’t find a massive metropolis occupying a single tile in this game—the cities can get enormous. I found this really helpful when planning out my strategy, as it’s easier to identify the high value cities when you can easily see their worth. But those two things aside, the map is,just plain boring to look at. Some brighter colors or fewer empty tiles would be nice to see.
If you’ve ever played any turn-based 4X strategy game, you know how to play Fallen Enchantress. Build your scouts to eXplore the local area, build towns and outposts to eXtend your influence, use trade and diplomacy to eXploit the local resources so you can build and army to eXterminate your foes. What separates Fallen Enchantress from other 4X games like Galactic Civilizations is the inclusion of RPG elements. When you’re starting a game you can chose a Sovereign, a powerful unit with special powers and abilities, such as fire magic. That Sovereign is the king or queen of the land, and is essentially the player’s avatar in the game world. The player character can lead in battle, monitor progress in a city, explore, and recruit other powerful units called Champions who serve a similar function. You can even pick up loot laying around the map or after battles to equip your Sovereign and your Champions with powerful magical items. One of the major ways you’ll get good loot is by doing quests. Certain tiles in the game will have a small scroll icon hovering over them, and if you bring your Sovereign or a Champion to that spot you’ll be given the choice to undertake a short task. You may be asked to donate resources, or you may find yourself in combat. It’s a nice idea and there are a lot of varied quest types, though I did catch a few repeats even in a small map.
Your Sovereign and Champions really shine when you and your foe duke it out in turn based combat. You can have a small army of units, but generally speaking it’ll be the Heroes who do most of the heavy lifting, because they have a lot of abilities that other units don’t. One might have access to healing life magic, another might have a feat granting her extra damage against higher-level enemies, and so on. You’ll want to protect your heroes, though, as if they fall in combat they’ll take permanent penalties. All in all, though, the RPG elements feel really thin. Bonuses don’t seem to have a great effect on the game, and the characters are really just blank slates you fight battles with, not developed characters.
Combat itself is actually fairly underwhelming. The problem is that here doesn’t seem to be much strategy involved. I didn’t notice any bonus for flanking or attacking from behind, so all you’re left to do is just stab and shoot. It might have been endurable if the tactical battles looked good, but this is where the art design really fails the game. The maps and character models look muddy and bland, and the cool spells they can cast are all really underwhelming. I found myself skipping the battles by asking the game to auto-resolve itself, which I couldn’t imagine doing in other games.
Fallen Enchantress has a the Grand Campaign you’d expect, but there is also a shorter, more directed single-player campaign scenario you can play. Unfortunately, this mode is a real let down, as it removes almost all of the strategy from this strategy game. It follows a young royal and his merry band of adventurers as they travel to a far eastern land to awaken a woman with prophetic powers from a mystical sleep. What this means is that you’re essentially playing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, following a group of adventurers as they move from battle to battle. As I said before, the tactical battles in this game are really disappointing, and this scenario severely limits the city building, research, and ecomic aspects of the game. The story the game is trying to tell isn’t bad and it has a few moments of real emotion, but the game’s decision to highlight its worst aspects at the cost of everything else means you’ll probably just want to skip the campaign.
Fortunately, the Grand Campaign is much better. As you’d expect in any proper 4X title, there are multiple paths to victory. The obvious conquest and diplomatic victories are par for the course, and the Spell of Making victory is essentially a research driven victory. The wrinkle is in the Master Quest victory, where you can complete a long list of objectives to be declared the winner by saving the world from a monstrous evil force. This was a nice addition that slotted in with the fantasy theme nicely. Unfortunately, I found that starting a new game was a somewhat random affair. More than once I had to restart a game because the area my puny nation began in was stuffed with high-level monsters my meek Sovereign couldn’t hope to take on. The AI in the game is okay. I never noticed the AI doing anything completely crazy like throwing an army into a battle it couldn’t possibly win . Once I got a particular nation down a bit, they started engaging in guerrilla tactics, which was a pleasant surprise. The base 4X gameplay here is solid even if the RPG elements are a bit thinly spread over top. In all honesty, Fallen Enchantress felt a lot like Galactic Civilizations, which isn’t a bad thing.
In fact, like Stardock’s previous 4X title, you can customize damn near anything. When you’re starting a new campaign you can custom build your own personal Sovereign, choosing a skill set, an elemental affinity, and so on. You can even design your own custom nation complete with your chosen bonuses and flag. I created a stealthy ranger at the head of a nation of deadly, rebellious brigands. All of this means that when you go to get into the game you feel a personal attachment to the character you’ve created. You can even type up a backstory for both your avatar and for your nation! The ability to create doesn’t end once you get into the game, though. If none of your current forces seem up to a specific task, you can just create exactly what you need. You’re given a few options for body and face type, and then adding armor, weapons, mounts, even special perks like increased strength. The game will automatically calculate a cost and build time for the game, and you can start pumping them out of your towns. The game even has a built in effects workshop so that you can create special effects for new magical powers you create. If you like to tinker, Fallen Enchantress may have what you’re looking for.
For the rest of us, however, this game falls a bit flat. It’s hard not to compare Fallen Enchantress to the King Arthur series. Both King Arthur games are flawed but they at least have a distinctive style to them. Fallen Enchantress never establishes it’s own identity. It’s not that Fallen Enchantress is isn’t broken like it’s predecessor War of Magic–it’s just that it doesn’t grab hold of you in the way that a 4X game should. I often found myself thinking about other games while I was playing Fallen Enchantress, and when I walked away I found I really had to force myself to sit down to play the game again. I guess that’s what it all boils down to: Fallen Enchantress isn’t bad, it’s just boring.