This time it's not a ripoff.
The Elemental fiasco will still tarnish Stardock's reputation for a long, long time.
Giving Fallen Enchantress away for free to early buyers of War of Magic was the only sensible thing to do to hopefully mitigate the backlash and do some damage control, but only time will tell if it will be enough.
That being said, what kind of game FE is? Does it manages to be what Wardell hoped Elemental would be?
In short, it's a good game in a genre which is kind of dead, and as such it makes it a good choice regardless if you crave for a fantasy TBS. But it still is quite far from those ambitious goals.
When I wrote my review for Elemental (good lord how many upvotes I got on that, we really were angry, uh?) I tackled the long list of broken mechanics, basic features missing, engine shortcomings and so on. This time I can finally write a review that will mention, yes, several unsatisfying aspects, but that will also be able to list several good things.
First and foremost, the game this time isn't broken. There are some issues that can affect certain systems, but nothing major that they won't be able to optimize through common patches. Overall the game is quite stable, and the performance isn't half bad even though the engine doesn't take advantage of the most recent technology. The engine is still the one from Elemental, as such a quite crude one that isn't very smart in handling resources, but they managed to polish it quite well and get to a good working end from lacking means. Graphics are still quite mediocre, but not amateurish as they were, and overall it feels solid in that department too.
As for the game itself, when you compare it with Elemental everything in this game is 10 times better. There's a lot more variety in everything you can do, apart from the tech tree that still is a bit streamlined and, maybe, oversimplified.
The spell system is interesting, varied even though there aren't that many spells, and together with the much improved leveling system for champions and your sovereign avatar it's often worth to specialize in a certain school of magic. Or, why not, to specialize in combat proficiency, as the champions skills really come aplenty with several interesting abilities.
There's a lot to do on the world map, managing your cities and armies offers you some significant choices, and you have a good degree of customization to play with that, this time, is more than just cosmetic.
Quests are still a bit linear, simple and straightforward, but they at least come in decent number and are well written: they might still be go from tile A to tile B to battle monster group X and get magic item Y, but their short stories are interesting to read at least the first times.
Finally, the tactical combat phase is much improved - well, it really didn't need much to be better than the godawful joke it was in Elemental - especially thanks to the new skills and spells, but it's also still the weakest part of the game; more on this further down.
So, this is the good, let's now tackle what's not so good as soon as we don't compare the game with Elemental but with other good games of this genre.
The interface is a bit clunky. While better than in Elemental, newcomers especially will sometimes feel the lack of information: it's often unclear how certain bonuses and resources affect your cities, and you might struggle to grasp why exactly that city isn't growing as you planned, or what exactly a certain skill is meant to do (and on levelups, for instance, no way to check elsewhere before confirming which skill to take). The ingame encyclopedia is quite lacking and crude: for instance it doesn't include several important things such as champions and skills, nor you have any sort of smart index (want to know what a spell does? Look in the alphabetical list of spells; want to know what spells are under the Fire spellbook? Good luck). All in all the interface pales in comparison to the one in Civilization, where you always have relevant information at hand and where the built in Civilopedia is dynamic and omnicomprehensive.
This is the reason why I rate the difficulty of the game as hard: as the interface is not very user friendly, the game probably won't be easy on newcomers to the genre.
While indeed there's a lot more variety between factions and heroes, still the game revolves around the dichotomy Kingdom factions vs Empire factions. And while your Kingdom might have some valid differences from other kingdoms (certain units, weapons, base skills etc), many things are still shared. Probably where that's felt the most is with champions: as a Kingdom (or Empire) you have access from all heroes of your alignment, but this often means that while playing for instance the Ironeers (kind of men/dwarves so to say) with a sovereign specialized in Earth magic, it will often only take a couple of heroes to have access to the full spellbook of other schools, which kills most of the flavour playing that factions should mean.
Two comparisons are inevitable. The first is Age of Wonders II (either the original or Shadow Magic): there too you could get all the good heroes if you were playing a good factions, and some of those heroes came with spells. However they only contributed in the battles they where used: in the world map you only had access to the spells contained in your sovereign's spellbook. Here as soon as you find a champion proficient in, let's say, fire magic, you have quick access to all the strategy, worldwide spells the Fire spellbook offers, as if you sovereign had it.
The second comparison is even more obvious, Fall From Heaven II, the awesome mod for Civ IV Kael made and thanks to which Stardock hired him to lead FE development and save the sinking ship. In FFH all the factions were completely different, both in gameplay and flavour. You went from elves to dwarves to centaurs to undeads, and most factions required you to approach the game in a whole different way. You could play with an atheist faction sacrificing the whole religious game component to instead being able to build custom heroes, or you could play the sea travelers Lanun and making them convert to the Cthulhu inspired religion and rule the seas. You had factions for turtling players and factions for rushing ones, and everything was unique: heroes, spells, skills, graphics. Combined with the further layer of uniqueness offered by the religion system and its own skills, spells and heroes, the possibilities where endless. Here those possibilites end quite soon. While this time there is a point in choosing Tarth over another faction if you like archery, as an example, the game still plays more or less the same.
Then the quests, that as I said come in a decent number and are a decent read, still are limited and will begin to repeat pretty soon. Plus most but the few higher level ones reward you with the same common equipment you would sooner or later unlock anyway to buy and to give your common troops. Well, it's nice that you can customize generic troops too, of course, but having more unique items specifically meant as rewards to be used by your champions would have been better. Unfortunately, the real problem here is the fact there's no modding tool for creating quests. Mod tools are a bit buggy (which of course I don't take into consideration in the rating I'm giving, they are offered "as is") but functional enough to potentially soon see a lot of material to increase the variety in several other aspects of the game. But for quests manual editing of the xmls is the only way to go, which means relatively few players will have the means to offer something relevant in this category.
Diplomacy is still very limited and impersonal pretty much as it was in Elemental. This time around the AI is sensible enough in proposing treaties or trades, so you can't complain about how the game plays out, but still there's a very limited choice in the treaties you can stipulate. While diplomacy is often a touchy subject even in the latest installment of Civilization (no map or tech trading?) there's no doubt it's much more interesting there with declarations of friendships, denounces, alliances and city state disputes, and the AI leaders in CIV feel much more alive than their speechless cousins in Fallen Enchantress.
Finally, we come to the weakest spot of the game, the tactical battles. They are decent enough as your champions have access to a plethora of skills, as some creatures do, but the battlefields themselves are still extremely behind the times. First and foremost the maps for tactical combats are premade, not dynamically created based on the spot on the world map where they take place. Thus, while you will see grassland maps if you start a battle in a lush valley or (finally!) walls if you attack a city, their number is limited and you might happen to attack an army from the right and spawn on the left of the battlefield. More of these scenes can be created and tagged for specific conditions, though, and we will probably see some tactical maps pack from modders to download soon enough, but still the mechanic has an evident shortcoming.
What's worse, though, is that it really seems like playing Galciv: as in, you are playing in space. Tiles have no effect, whether they are hills, plains, forests or whatever. Walls are just unpassable tiles, they don't block the line of sight of units, and as such there's no concept of cover: you can just tell your archers to make a pincushion of those units behind them. Fun fact: when you "siege" cities you do see walls, yes, but anyway the defenders usually spawn outside, so - apart from the passive bonuses they get from being garrisoned - the battle will still be the same field one.
There's no altitude in play either: even when - rarely - you happen on a map with some hills, it will still be only cosmetic. In short, all this detracts the game of most of its "tactics" potential.
The comparison goes again to AoWII, released 10 years ago: there you had covers, real sieges where archers on (destructible!) walls had enormous advantages, different terrain tiles affecting movement, visibility, stats. AoWII even took altitude in account when dynamically calculating the chances to hit of archers, as well as their effective range, and units themselves could block the line of sight and cause friendly fire losses.
Nothing of the sort happens in Fallen Enchantress, which doesn't just look lame when you shoot arrows through buildings or your troops backs, but also deprives the player of the chance to tackle and beat a stronger army by smartly taking advantage of the terrain and environment in conjunction with skills that would interact with it.
Tactical battles as such become extremely repetitive fairly soon: once you have had your fun seeing how a certain spell or monster looks (admittedly, this time around some monsters look really impressive), there's hardly any point in playing through them again, and you might easily end up autoresolving most encounters. It's probably not a coincidence the game gives much more relevance than usual to the errant mobs: as battles themselves are quite boring and repetitive, the variety and epicness of monsters you can encounter in the wastelands give you a reason to not skip at least some of the battles.
So, all in all, the impression is that the game is indeed fairly good, but is kept from greatness by some limited engine mechanics. Kael seems to have really done all he could do to build a fair game on the admittedly pretty lame platform he was given, and sure enough the game manages to be quite - at times even plenty - fun. But while the game is enjoyable it is far from being able to compete with either a colossus like Civilization when it comes to worldwide strategy and overall polish, or to old classics of this same hybrid TBS/RPG genre like Age of Wonders.
Considering that since AoWII 10 years ago the best game in the genre was (and honestly still is) the aforementioned Fall From Heaven, a free mod for a game that wasn't even meant to have any RPG element, there's anyway no doubt Fallen Enchantress is worth giving a chance. It might not be anything revolutionary, and it still is really far from letting us relive the splendour of the old days with the looks of today like Wardell dreamed (and ridiculously claimed to have accomplished with Elemental before being laughed at by the whole gaming world when that thing was actually released), but it's fun.
A fun game is still infinite times better than no game at all.