Elemental: War of Magic seems a long time ago. The 2010 turn-based fantasy game from Stardock came with a lot of expectations, most of which were soundly dashed due to a tremendous number of design flaws and bugs. The developer has been making amends, however. First came the generous announcement of two stand-alone expansions that would be given away to buyers of the original Elemental. Second came the news that these expansions were actually very good. What started with 2012's surprisingly strong Fallen Enchantress has been continued with Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes, a follow-up that refines just about every aspect of its predecessor to create an impressive 4X strategy game.
With all that said, don't expect to see a total reinvention of the wheel. The game utilizes stock-standard 4X mechanics ported to a fantasy setting. You're still out to build an empire, throwing down the cities and outposts needed to lay claim to wilderness that includes both resource points (the usual metal, food, and the like) and magical shards that increase spellcasting power. Creating your kingdom is done through both peaceful and militaristic endeavors. You push the boundaries of your land by founding new settlements and erecting new buildings fueled by research from a hefty trio of tech trees. You can also crank out small-scale numbers of troops (they sort of sit in the middle ground between parties of adventurers and armies) and conquer enemy strongholds through battles on tactical chesslike maps.
The gameplay doesn't wander far from the template established in Elemental and firmed up in Fallen Enchantress. It has evolved in some fairly significant ways, but these aren't the sorts of improvements that slap you in the face--these are the sorts of improvements that creep up on you and increase your level of satisfaction with the game over many hours of play. It's only after you've gotten a good dozen or more hours in that you can sit back and take stock of just how much this new game ups the ante on its predecessor.
What's more, all of the changes work together to improve matches across the board. Building your kingdom has a more realistic progression, starting with quests. Those random adventures where you clear out monster lairs and help strangers now serve a purpose beyond simply providing gold and loot. Now you score fame points for each successful expedition, which then results in attracting a champion to your service. You always get to choose between two such heroes with differing skill sets, so you are guaranteed to come away with a follower that fits into your style of play. Champions now also level up, with access to traits that allow them to buff attacks, heal, perform magical attacks, and so forth. This establishes a risk-reward system that gives your heroic endeavors real meaning and removes the random champion aspect of the previous game that made the concept feel a bit gimmicky.
More options are available for empire building, as well. Matches can be tweaked in new ways before beginning play. The production pace can be cranked up if you want a faster game, or if you want to play on the new massive map size without giving over a solid week of your life to a single campaign. Cities can now be set to automatically produce core resources on their own. Just click a button if you want to turn a town into an engine that cranks out wealth, research, growth, or magic. This moves the game even farther away from micromanagement and allows you to nicely deal with midgame shortages of gold that so often afflict you when you're rapidly expanding.
It isn't all easy, though. The number of cities that you control affects unrest now, so the bigger the kingdom, the higher the chance that the peasants will revolt. This system is a good idea overall, because it adds more challenge to the later stages of campaigns when you've gotten past midgame growing pains. But the mechanic can also seem a bit arbitrary, foisting an artificial problem onto a prosperous land for no apparent reason other than to emphasize the point that you are never too big to fail.
Combat now has a great deal of added depth. Hundreds of tweaks have been made to the tactical system, providing much more satisfying battles. Maps now come in more varieties, and tend to start up with the opposing forces closer together than before, which lets you get to the good stuff more quickly than ever. The only serious problem is that the starting location seems purely random, which can get you into trouble depending on the makeup of the forces involved. You don't want the enemy popping up too close to your front lines when you're taking a bunch of archers and crossbowmen into a scrap with powered-up brawlers, for example. This can be an issue at times, in part due to the new swarm ability that provides bonuses to melee units based on how many friendly units they have surrounding a foe. That said, you can make swarming work for you as well, which additionally increases the importance of positioning and moving your troops smartly around the tactical combat screen.
Every faction now comes with special abilities, too, a new characteristic that further increases the need to think during battles. Many of these skills are incredibly useful. The Altarians, for instance, can now rush their movements, which lets them close quickly with enemies at the beginning of battles. The Tarth can attack twice in a single turn, while the Trog can go into berserker mode with pluses to attack and initiative at the price of you losing direct control of the unit. Urxen double up on the swarm bonus, a boost that can swing the tide of battle with ease if you have enough troops on the front line and are smart about how you position them for attacks.
Weapons have also been adjusted. Spears can impale lined-up pairs of enemies, effectively doubling up damage. Axes can be used to cleave up to three adjacent enemies, and shields can be employed to bash foes, knocking them backward. All of these adjustments add a lot of tactical strategizing to battles, and have been implemented so well that everything feels nicely balanced.
And then there is the usual assortment of additions that come with most expansions. Legendary Heroes comes with around a dozen new monsters, a handful of new champions, and hundreds of new traits, spells, items, and quests. Nothing really stands out for being dramatically different from what was on offer in Fallen Enchantress, although the new content freshens everything up enough that you almost feel like you're playing a new game.
Like its predecessor, Legendary Heroes isn't a good-looking game. Units are little more than multicolored blobs, although they are at least slightly more detailed multicolored blobs here. Animations stutter and stagger. And slowdown is commonplace once you start to open up larger maps. The game also shudders a bit when enemies are taking their turns. Crashes take place occasionally, as well, seemingly due to the slowdown and due to issues with magical effects on the main map. The game is generally quite stable, but it does crash just enough to make you thankful for the always-on-duty autosave system. The whole engine looks and feels more than a little creaky by contemporary standards, so it isn't surprising that the game seems to be a bit bulging at the seams with all of the new added features.
It many have taken a while, but we finally have the game that Stardock tried to create back in 2010. Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes is a terrific 4X strategy game that builds upon the good work done in its immediate predecessor last year. While there isn't anything showstopping in terms of additions and changes, so many subtle enhancements have been to make the entire game a more complete and fulfilling experience.