This fantasy sequel is a good entry-level wargame.
- Artificial intelligence packs a punch
- Addictive gameplay makes you dream in hexes
- Persistent units make you care about the sanctity of elven life.
- Tutorial is broken
- Buggy cutscenes kill your post-victory buzz.
Elven Legacy is a 3D fantasy wargame that is easy enough for newbies to learn but challenging enough to earn the attention (and affection) of grizzled veterans. Although you probably wouldn't know it from the title, Elven Legacy is the sequel to 2007's aptly titled Fantasy Wars, and if you're still confused, think Panzer General plus elves, and you'll have the right idea. While it doesn't break any new ground, and it starts off with some embarrassing bugs, Elven Legacy is a colorful and accessible wargame that's also addictive and fun.
With the proud elven race precipitously close to annihilation, elf leader Lady Teya has charged you with a sensitive mission that will send you into foreign lands to determine the destiny of the remnants of your people. You play as Lord Sagittel, a walking diplomatic incident whose idea of negotiating with foreigners is to barge into their lands and skewer anyone who questions his credentials. You'll quickly earn the ire of your neighbors as you turn Sagittel's initially humble force into a battle-hardened army and cut a swath of devastation through the countryside. When he's not committing atrocities against the peasantry of neighboring duchies, Lord Sagittel shows his sensitive and literate side by keeping a journal, excerpts of which are recounted at the beginning of each mission. Along with the in-game dialogue, Sagittel's journal reveals both the storyline and his warped yet endearing psychology, which together provide ample justification for your increasingly brutal adventures.
However, before you can start pillaging peaceful townships and leaving mountains of orc skulls in your wake, you'll need to learn how to play, and unfortunately, the tutorial is a disaster. First, the voice-over switches schizophrenically between English and Russian, and the Russian sections are preferable, since they are stable and include English subtitles. The buggy English-language track, which is delivered in an absurd gravelly voice, on the other hand, skips over large chunks of the instructions, undermining the whole point of a tutorial. To top things off, the game dependably crashes to desktop at a certain point in the tutorial. When coupled with the opening cinematic, which has problems with skipping dialogue, the tutorial doesn't give you a great first impression. Thankfully, you won't have trouble learning the game without it, and the major stability issues end there.
While the awful tutorial feels like a bad dream, the gameplay is engaging and satisfying, with an appropriately challenging difficulty curve as you progress through the single-player campaign. Elven Legacy is a wargame, but like with Panzer General, you can jump in and enjoy it even if you've never seen a hex grid before. Your army consists of melee units, archers, cavalry, siege weapons, and more-fantastic troops like mages and dragons. Each unit gets one action (attacking, casting a spell, or using an item) plus one movement per turn, and this simple formula adds up to lots of different tactics to consider. For instance, will you move your archers into an exposed position so that they can attack an injured foe, or will you use them to attack a closer enemy so that they'll be able to retreat afterwards?
Another important factor to consider is terrain. Troops in castles and villages get a big defense bonus, hills provide a small bonus to defense but can slow movement, forests increase the attack power of certain archers, and any unit caught crossing a river is incredibly vulnerable to attack. As a result, your position at the end of your turn is just as important as the damage you inflict during it--you want your army in a defensively effective formation, on the right terrain, and at a distance from the enemy army that prevents enemies from seizing the upper hand. In addition, when a unit is badly damaged, its willpower will break, sending it fleeing into a nearby hex and ruining its effectiveness. Breaking enemy units is a joy, but the artificial intelligence excels at playing "whack-a-mole" with your broken units as well, forcing you to watch with horror as your troops retreat from one hex to the next with each enemy assault (No! Not the river!).
All units, from heroes to conscripts, gain experience and level up like in a role-playing game. With each level you get to choose one of three perks for the unit, which may be a straightforward upgrade, like additional movement points; a specialization option, like adding attack power at the expense of defense; or a new ability. Mounted units can learn to charge an incoming attacker before they strike, dragons can learn to use their massive wingspan to blot out the sun and damage the morale of nearby enemies, and mages can learn magic spells, culminating in the elven equivalent of a nuclear bomb. Such offensive spells, due to their unlimited range, can be incredibly powerful and effective against well-guarded enemies that might otherwise be tough to reach, and support spells let you heal or buff friendly units from across the map. Furthermore, any unit can carry one magical item, which often gives it a spell to cast, just like a mage. Instead of using mana pools, your magic users can cast each of their spells only a certain number of times during each mission. For instance, you can use the elf nuke only once, but lesser spells can be used multiple times.