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Review

Disciples III: Renaissance Review

  • Game release: July 13, 2010
  • Reviewed:
  • PC

The stellar artistic design shines, but the disappointing lack of strategic depth casts a long shadow over this lengthy adventure.

Exploration, combat, and unit progression have been the gameplay pillars of the Disciples series since its debut in 1999, enticing players into a rewarding rhythm of turn-based satisfaction. Disciples III: Renaissance is founded on these same solid elements and, thanks to the creative and sumptuous visuals, makes an appealing first impression even in spite of the poor tutorial. Scouting new territory, battling nasty foes, and leveling up your heroes and armies is an engaging endeavor, but Disciples III lacks the depth necessary to keep things exciting beyond the honeymoon period. Before a third of the lengthy campaign has passed, new sights are few and far between, most battles are foregone conclusions, and even leveling up your characters loses its luster. The three playable factions offer some variety, but they can't mitigate the troubling repetition that sets in, and those hoping to spice things up with multiplayer competition will be disappointed to find that hotseat is the only option. There is still a fair amount of lightly strategic and adventurous fun to be had in this lengthy and often beautiful game, but Disciples III will disappoint those seeking tactical depth, a rewarding challenge, or an exciting campaign.

There are three playable factions in Disciples III, one less than the four included in previous games in the series. The Empire are human knights, rangers, and mages; the Elven Alliance is made up of lithe forest dwellers; and the Legions of the Damned are populated by demonic creatures seemingly pulled from the bowels of hell. Each faction has its own sizable campaign, consisting of multiple scenarios, and they all chain together to form one long story. Unfortunately, most of the exposition comes during loading screens and is spoken by one of the worst video game narrators in recent memory. His dull, poorly-inflected voice-over makes the otherwise decent tale of high fantasy sound campy and lame, so it's best to keep him muted and read the accompanying text yourself. Even then, the irregular writing doesn't do the story any favors, and the wearisome character quips and music that loops too often for its own good make keeping the game muted a disappointingly appealing option.

It's a shame that the audio is lackluster, because Disciples III is a very attractive game. The creative creature models are a standout, including both stunningly original designs (like the lumbering, skull-knuckled incarnation of the mythical tiamath) and inventive reimaginings of genre standbys (like the glowering, leaf-maned unicorn). The lush environments are also a highlight, enticing you to explore every road and forest path. Trees reach high into the sky, giving the maps a refreshing sense of verticality, while elsewhere molten rock seethes beneath the surface, suffusing the land with a foreboding menace. As you explore and capture power nodes, your faction's influence spreads throughout the land. Not only does this bring vital resource-producing structures under your control, but it literally transforms the world. Turning a blackened lava field into a verdant forest is just as visually satisfying as when the tables are turned and you are the one scorching the lovely autumn woods.

The maps are littered with statues, caves, temples, obelisks, and a host of other objects just begging to be investigated. Some objects confer stat bonuses, while others offer valuable items for sale. Some hide nests of foul creatures, and still others are just there to enrich the landscape. At the outset of the game there is an abundance of new environmental items to reconnoiter, but after a few hours of adventuring you will be familiar with almost all of them. Finding your way through the busy landscape can occasionally be tricky, but the camera controls are fluid, and pressing the alt key highlights any interactive objects onscreen. The latter is a very handy feature, especially because some of the more interactive things on the map are hostile creatures blocking your path or hiding in an out-of-the-way spot waiting to ambush unwary adventurers.

Some baddies are bigger than others.

In Disciples III, you live and die by your hero and his army. Hero characters are the ones you guide around the map, and you can control up to three at a time. Heroes are unique because you can customize their gear, attributes, and skills, and this progression is persistent throughout a given campaign. You earn gear through map exploration and campaign progress, and the attributes you choose to boost depend on what type of attack your hero uses, be it melee, ranged, or magic. The clever skill board is the most interesting and varied way to increase your power. Every time you level up you gain skill points, each of which unlocks a skill-granting or attribute-boosting tile on your hero-specific skill board. You can see every tile from the start, but you can only unlock tiles adjacent to those you've already earned, and plotting your course through this field of bonuses is an entertaining way to customize your hero.

Your army, by contrast, can level up only in limited ways. They earn experience in battle and receive automatic attribute boosts for leveling up, but to really increase their effectiveness, you have to build certain structures in your capital city (as the tutorial fails to explain adequately). In keeping with Disciples III's excellent art design, the luminous capital cities draw on fantastical inspiration to create uniquely imaginative places, and each building you purchase and upgrade enriches the cityscape. Aside from a few special structures, most buildings enable a specific type of unit to upgrade to a more powerful unit. Most structure trees take branching paths, and your choices have important tactical ramifications for the rest of the scenario. Do you want mages with the ability to attack all your enemies at once, or mages that can summon elemental warriors to fight by your side? Demons that do heavy damage to one target, or demons that can strike any adjacent target? Working out the differences between units can be a hassle because of the inelegant interface, but exploring the upgrade possibilities and seeing how your lowly elven scout evolves his martial prowess is intriguing.

Yet for all the promise this system offers, it ends up feeling fairly limited. You can choose only one upgrade path per unit per scenario, so even though your faction may have 22 different creatures, you get to use only some of them over the course of a given scenario. Most upgrade paths do a decent job of balancing both sides, but some choices are clearly superior, leaving the inferior choice as little more than eye candy. The variety of units you can recruit is further limited by campaign-imposed restrictions that seem geared towards easing your learning curve with each faction. While this device is fine during the first third of the campaign, by the time you switch factions it feels like an unpleasantly artificial gimmick.

Still, there is satisfaction to be found in leveling up your hero and upgrading your army through combat. The spacious hex-based maps are a change for the series, and randomly placed damage-boosting spots add a nice tactical wrinkle to character movement. You control each of your units in turn, choosing where they should move and whether they should attack or take a defensive stance. Each unit can use potions to heal and buff your teammates, as well as a wide variety of spell runes that damage enemies, help allies, or even summon new creatures into the fray. Some units, including heroes, have special skills that further expand your tactical options, and using your army's might to vanquish a tough enemy is very rewarding.

However, despite the variety of actions at your disposal, combat is fairly shallow. While you are still familiarizing yourself with your units and your potential enemies, battles can be tense and uncertain. But it's not long before you know both your units and your foes well enough to reliably predict the outcome. Given that you can preview every enemy in every stack of creatures you encounter, you rarely get into a fight without knowing what you're up against. If things look tough, you can bombard an enemy stack with spells before even entering combat to soften them up. Once you're confident of victory, taking the time to sit through unit movements and attacks becomes tiresome, and the quick battle button becomes more and more appealing. Though you'll take more damage than you might if you were in direct control, the quick battle AI resolves the conflict in seconds in a reliable fashion. The enemy AI is not very challenging and almost never surprising, and precious few fights demand your full tactical attention.

The Legions of the Damned have an interesting approach to urban planning.

Disciples III tries to avoid this combat rut by busting your troops back down to recruit level often throughout the campaign. You must then repeat the process of saving resources, building upgrades in your capital, and leveling up your units. This cycle gets an injection of novelty when you eventually switch factions, but in between these moments there are hours of familiar monotony. Ultimately, your hours of playing Disciples III will blur together, and not in a good way. Battles become routine, even though the units you fight and spells you cast are often very cool looking. Exploration loses its appeal, because every element of the gorgeous environments looks familiar. And building structures and leveling up no longer feels like exciting progress, because the result is a foregone conclusion.

There isn't enough depth to Disciples III to keep things exciting throughout the whole campaign, but the reliable rhythms of exploration and combat offer a steady supply of languid satisfaction. The stellar visual design is a treat even after you've poured tens of hours into the campaign, but even hulking beasts with human torsos coming out of their backs lose their edge somewhere along that lengthy journey. There aren't many stand-alone maps available for non-campaign play, and the only multiplayer option is hotseat. Having a human opponent always offers more of a challenge, but the creeping monotony that plagues the whole game remains an issue. If you're looking for a beautiful, fantastical world where you can while away the hours in idle exploration and simple combat, then Disciples III is a pleasant destination. But if you want a tactical challenge, strategic gameplay, or an engaging campaign, Disciples III will disappoint you.

Editor's Note: Many customers have experienced a disc detection error with their retail copies of Disciples III, and while developer Kalypso Media has addressed the issue on its forums, the issue remains unresolved. This issue did not affect the downloadable Steam version of the game that we played.

Your army, by contrast, can level up only in limited ways. They earn experience in battle and receive automatic attribute boosts for leveling up, but to really increase their effectiveness, you have to build certain structures in your capital city (as the tutorial fails to explain adequately). In keeping with Disciples III's excellent art design, the luminous capital cities draw on fantastical inspiration to create uniquely imaginative places, and each building you purchase and upgrade enriches the cityscape. Aside from a few special structures, most buildings enable a specific type of unit to upgrade to a more powerful unit. Most structure trees take branching paths, and your choices have important tactical ramifications for the rest of the scenario. Do you want mages with the ability to attack all your enemies at once, or mages that can summon elemental warriors to fight by your side? Demons that do heavy damage to one target, or demons that can strike any adjacent target? Working out the differences between units can be a hassle because of the inelegant interface, but exploring the upgrade possibilities and seeing how your lowly elven scout evolves his martial prowess is intriguing.

Yet for all the promise this system offers, it ends up feeling fairly limited. You can choose only one upgrade path per unit per scenario, so even though your faction may have 22 different creatures, you get to use only some of them over the course of a given scenario. Most upgrade paths do a decent job of balancing both sides, but some choices are clearly superior, leaving the inferior choice as little more than eye candy. The variety of units you can recruit is further limited by campaign-imposed restrictions that seem geared towards easing your learning curve with each faction. While this device is fine during the first third of the campaign, by the time you switch factions it feels like an unpleasantly artificial gimmick.

Still, there is satisfaction to be found in leveling up your hero and upgrading your army through combat. The spacious hex-based maps are a change for the series, and randomly placed damage-boosting spots add a nice tactical wrinkle to character movement. You control each of your units in turn, choosing where they should move and whether they should attack or take a defensive stance. Each unit can use potions to heal and buff your teammates, as well as a wide variety of spell runes that damage enemies, help allies, or even summon new creatures into the fray. Some units, including heroes, have special skills that further expand your tactical options, and using your army's might to vanquish a tough enemy is very rewarding.

However, despite the variety of actions at your disposal, combat ends up being a fairly shallow affair. While you are still familiarizing yourself with your units and your potential enemies, battles can be tense and uncertain. But it's not long before you know both your units and your foes well enough to reliably predict the outcome. Given that you can preview every enemy in every stack of creatures you encounter, you rarely get into a fight without knowing what you're up against. If things look tough, you can bombard an enemy stack with spells before even entering combat to soften them up. Once you're confident of victory, taking the time to sit through unit movements and attacks becomes tiresome, and the quick battle button becomes more and more appealing. Though you'll take more damage than you might if you were in direct control, the quick battle AI resolves the conflict in seconds in a reliable fashion. The enemy AI is not very challenging and almost never surprising, and precious few fights demand your full tactical attention.

The Legion of the Damned has an interesting approach to urban planning.

Disciples III tries to avoid this combat rut by busting your troops back down to recruit level often throughout the campaign. You must then repeat the process of saving resources, building upgrades in your capital, and leveling up your units. This cycle gets an injection of novelty when you eventually switch factions, but in between these moments there are hours of familiar monotony. Ultimately, your hours of playing Disciples III will blur together, and not in a good way. Battles become routine, even though the units you fight and spells you cast are often very cool looking. Exploration loses its appeal, because every element of the gorgeous environments looks familiar. And building structures and leveling up no longer feels like exciting progress, because the result is a foregone conclusion.

There isn't enough depth to Disciples III to keep things exciting throughout the whole campaign, but the reliable rhythms of exploration and combat offer a steady supply of languid satisfaction. The stellar visual design is a treat even after you've poured tens of hours into the campaign, but even hulking beasts with human torsos coming out of their backs lose their edge somewhere along that lengthy journey. There aren't many stand-alone maps available for non-campaign play, and the only multiplayer option is hotseat. Having a human opponent always offers more of a challenge, but the creeping monotony that plagues the whole game remains an issue. If you're looking for a beautiful, fantastical world where you can while away the hours in idle exploration and simple combat, then Disciples III is a pleasant destination. But if you want a tactical challenge, strategic gameplay, or an engaging campaign, Disciples III is likely to disappoint you.

The Good
Lush, detailed environments
Creative, vibrant creature designs
Lengthy campaign
The Bad
Little tactical challenge
Repeatedly falls into a strategic rut
Poor tutorial
No online multiplayer
Some retail copies affected by disc detection error
5.5
Mediocre
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About the Author

With his Apple IIGS as the spark and his neighbor's NES the fuel, Chris Watters' passion for gaming caught fire early. Y

Discussion

1 comments
fbgbdk4
fbgbdk4

I liked it, and on this one I'm with other sites: I think it deserved a 6.0 at least.

Disciples III: Renaissance More Info

  • Released
    • PC
    In Disciples III, play as a Lord of one of the fantastic races of Nevendaar as you struggle to establish your patron god as the dominant deity.
    6.2
    Average User RatingOut of 487 User Ratings
    Please Sign In to rate Disciples III: Renaissance
    Developed by:
    Akella
    Published by:
    Kalypso, CyberFront, Akella, Auran
    Genres:
    Strategy, Turn-Based
    Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language.
    Teen
    All Platforms
    Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood