Empire of Magic appears to be yet another game in the long line of descendents of King's Bounty, the classic New World Computing game that helped create the fantasy turn-based strategy genre. It's a genre that has produced some great games, including the Heroes of Might and Magic series, the Age of Wonders series, and the Disciples series. Unfortunately, while Empire of Magic resembles these games on the surface, and it too features hero units who travel with support units, as well as towns where you can hire more units, it is entirely different from those other games. It can best be described as a turn-based role-playing game with a strange combat system, and at times it plays more like a poorly designed board game, where the rules don't make much sense but instead exist only to make you carefully scrutinize your every move.
The game might have been better had the designers actually made a decision between making a Heroes of Might and Magic clone or making a role-playing game. Empire of Magic has elements of both, but they just interfere with one another. The game is broken up into chapters, and in each chapter you'll need to make your way to some location, performing various side quests along the way. The characters you meet speak in a strange dialect, one that indicates that the game was developed outside the United States and localized by nonlocals. These characters will give you tasks, forcing you to walk your units across the map, one turn at a time. However, the game's designers don't seem to understand that there's a reason most role-playing games switch to real time when you aren't fighting. Slowly moving your units from one place to another makes up half the game, and it gets annoying quickly.
Each turn can take a fair amount of time. Often, you'll be engaged in battle alongside a large force of friendly units that aren't directly under your control. They fight, move, and run around while you watch, and when that friendly army is huge, the wait for your turn is accordingly lengthy. But until you get used to the game's bizarre combat system, you'll end up reloading several of your previously saved games and repeatedly sitting through many of these drawn-out battles.
Empire of Magic doesn't follow the traditional combat formula of most fantasy strategy games, wherein battles are a distinct game within the game. Instead, your units expend action points by moving around--but they carry over these same action points into combat, so you need to conserve these points at all times. The combat itself is simple--you just choose to cast a spell or attack, and your units get to it. Your options change depending on whether you are attacking or defending. For instance, when defending, you can choose to have one character protect another, but you don't have this option when attacking. The converse is true for fleeing--you can escape combat voluntarily only if you are the attacker. The attacker always moves first, so your units' speed does not play a part in combat. However, if your units happen to have more action points than your opponent's, you can keep fighting without retaliation once your opponent runs out. Likewise, if you attack an enemy party that has used all its action points, you can pretty much wipe it out without sustaining any damage, even if your enemies were much stronger.
The game's combat system is certainly unique, but unfortunately, it also doesn't make any sense, and it never seems like anything more than a set of arbitrary game rules that you must learn to exploit, using one group to go in and whittle down your enemies' action points and then sending in another to finish them off. The more obvious downside to this system is that your units can also be attacked, and easily killed, when they have no action points. You'll automatically fail a mission if one of your heroes is killed, which can be extremely frustrating in the early portion of the game, when one or two hits is enough to kill a hero and send you back to the load game screen. This particular issue becomes less of a problem as your heroes get stronger, but the combat system never gets more interesting.
It doesn't help that Empire of Magic looks as bad as it does. On the map, your units are primarily colorful little blobs with no real personality. In combat, they take shape but don't show any character. And the fog of war that blankets the screen is just a black mass, reminiscent of the fog used in Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. The audio is likewise poor and has very little in the way of sound effects. The game's occasional voice acting is generally terrible. The music--an appropriately epic orchestral score--is the only saving grace of the game's otherwise barren audio.
Regardless of whether you're looking for a turn-based strategy game or a role-playing game, Empire of Magic will probably disappoint you. The quest-based system is hindered by the game's turn-based movement, which requires you to use several turns just to travel across the map and talk to someone. And the game lacks any real strategic elements, other than making sure your units always have plenty of action points available, or performing hit-and-run attacks to make sure your opponent's units don't. The only real point in Empire of Magic's favor is that it's a relatively long game--but it's made even longer by the fact that you'll inevitably be forced to play the same turns over and over again.