Strategy First's Disciples isn't exactly state of the art or even particularly innovative. However, it successfully combines various turn-based strategy and role-playing elements from existing games to create an enjoyable, satisfying experience.
At a glance, Disciples looks a lot like New World Computing's turn-based strategy hit Heroes of Might and Magic III. The resemblance isn't purely coincidental either - Disciples is clearly modeled after the Heroes games' basic structure. As in Heroes III, you'll hire heroes and armies, explore a vast overland map for treasures and resources, and wage turn-based combat against either neutral monsters or the roving armies of your enemy. In fact, the similarity between these games is such that if you keep your eyes glued to the isometric overland map, you might think for a moment that you've just booted up another game of Heroes.
Then again, it's highly unlikely that you'll focus all your attention on the map and those tiny sprites that represent its inhabitants. Despite its use of rather lackluster (and in some cases, downright lousy) rendered graphics in many parts of the game, Disciples is also chock-full of beautiful hand-painted art. The menu screens are adorned with gorgeous depictions of deities and legendary warriors, while in-game units are represented with excellent portraits that recall the stylized character designs of the popular sword-and-sorcery anime series Record of Lodoss War.
In seemingly perfect accord with its graphics, Disciples' sound, particularly its music and speech, also ranges from the crude to the sublime. The main overland map music is a single looped affair that alternates between blandly ambient outdoor sounds and an interesting fantasy theme whose chanting baritone choir and tinny glockenspiel suggest the themes from the Rankin/Bass cartoon adaptations of The Hobbit and Return of the King. The voice acting of the heroes and units is also inconsistent. At times, it's quite bad: The Mountain Clans loremaster sounds like he's been punched in both the head and stomach repeatedly before being allowed to speak, while the Legions of the Damned counselor sounds like a very, very depressed version of The Muppet Show's Gonzo. At other times, the voice acting is fantastic: The game's four campaigns are skillfully narrated, the shrill lamentations of the Undead Hordes' banshee are chilling, and the devious chuckle of the Legions' thief is dead on.
Under the surface, Disciples is also a solid game to play. Though it borrows a lot from the Heroes games, it also makes several significant changes and additions to the formula. The most significant of these is the experience system; experience points are earned not only by your generals, but also by your soldiers. Though you must upgrade your castle in order for your troops to advance, those troops must first gain experience levels. This essentially eliminates the traditional tech-tree scramble of the Heroes series: Even if you quickly manage to build every single upgrade structure available, your troops won't actually improve until they've survived enough battles to gain the next level.
Disciples' combat system also differs greatly from that of Heroes. There is a restrictively small limit on the number of units in each general's army, so padding a hero's ranks full of swarms of the best creatures available simply isn't an option. In fact, thanks to the experience system, high-level troops simply aren't available at first, as they must all begin as lowly greenhorns and gain experience levels. And when an actual fight breaks out - nobody moves. Combat doesn't unfold across a lengthy battlefield strewn with obstacles; it's a slugfest that takes place within a claustrophobically tiny box. Each unit in the game is limited to a single function; and since you have so few open slots in your roster to begin with, choosing a strategically sound war party is critical to your success.
Of all Disciples' gameplay mechanics, the exploration component seems to most closely resemble that of the Heroes model. Your heroes explore the overland map in search of treasure and resources in the form of gold mines and four types of magical mana. However, you don't claim resources by simply walking over them; you must transform the terrain beneath the resource, either by conquering the surrounding lands or by hiring a special unit to plant a rod nearby. As in the Heroes games, wandering monsters also populate the map and guard treasures and roads. But instead of avoiding powerful monster groups as you might have in Heroes, you will find yourself going after each one for the experience points, because units whose levels have increased become far more powerful. Luckily, Disciples also enables you to hire a thief unit, a uniquely useful ally with any number of special powers including the ability to poison an enemy army, assassinate its weakest unit, or challenge its leader to a duel to the death.
Though Disciples does borrow a great deal from the Heroes of Might and Magic games, it does many things differently and in interesting ways. For instance, its unit experience system sets a much more deliberate pace than the frantic tech-tree scramble of the Heroes games, and forces you to make significant tactical decisions when you upgrade your troops. Its smaller armies also feel less like squadrons of units and more like parties of adventurers, and all these nuances combine to make playing Disciples feel less like an orthodox number-crunching strategy game and more like a drawn-out RPG. Disciples is certainly derivative, though it draws much of its inspiration from worthwhile sources and uses these gleaned ideas to construct a package that looks good, sounds good, and plays just as well.