Fallen Enchantress might be considered something of an apology letter as much as a game. Stardock Entertainment's strategy/fantasy role-playing game mash-up attempts to make up for the disaster that was 2010's Elemental: War of Magic, finally delivering the game that many were expecting way back when. Virtually all of the missing features and bugs that were lamented two years ago have been addressed here. The result is a much more accomplished game, complete with rewarding empire building on an expansive scale and brutally challenging enemy forces. Some flaws remain when it comes to a steep learning curve and the repetition seen in tactical battles, but this is still an enjoyable epic guaranteed to keep you up late playing one more turn.
At its heart, Fallen Enchantress is a turn-based 4X game in the tradition of the fondly remembered Master of Magic. You take on the role of a hero sovereign leading one of eight factions warring for dominance of the ravaged magical land of Elemental. All have varying philosophies and viewpoints on worldly matters that go well beyond fantasy stereotypes of good and evil, along with a lot of history. It's unfortunate that the world isn't as visually distinctive as this rich history might suggest; the monsters are so generic (does anyone ever want to see any more giant spiders in a fantasy game?) that none of them stay with you.
You can safely ignore most of the lore, however, and concentrate on the gameplay. Everything breaks down to lingering enmities between the good-guy Kingdoms of Men and the bad-guy Empires of the Fallen in a post-cataclysmic world most distinguished by elemental shards that serve as generators for magic. So: good, bad, spells, swords, cities, monsters. You don't really need to know anything else.
There are two ways to play. You can either choose the story-heavy Fallen Enchantress scenario that sets up the gameworld with a look at all the factions and main players, or go for sandbox challenges. The latter is the real meat of the game, where you pick a pre-rolled sovereign or whip up one of your own, and then sally forth on a custom map with selected opponents and general game conditions. The complexity can be overwhelming at first. While there is a tutorial, it skimps on a lot of details and leaves you with more questions than answers, so you need to play the scenario first.
The scenario is quite different from the sandbox mode of play, but it's invaluable because it leads you by the hand for a good while by cutting down your options and giving you a tight focus with simplified quest objectives and a well-written story to follow. It's just too bad that this isn't outlined more clearly in the main menu; there are no clues that this scenario features so much on-the-job training. Jumping from the inadequate tutorial straight into a custom game without checking out the scenario first leads to a fair bit of frustration as you immediately encounter all sorts of options that the tutorial never touches on.
Starting slowly is necessary, largely because the game has a tremendous amount of depth. The scope isn't quite the same, but there is a lot of Civilization here: you build a main city, complete with all sorts of facilities to improve army building, commerce, and the like. Resources are gathered across the map. You stockpile everything: the gildar that functions as the game's main currency, resource points, mana, metal, crystals, and more. Virtually everything is collected automatically based on what you build and where you build it, thankfully, so there is no serious micromanagement.
From these early beginnings with one city, you expand across the land with outposts and satellite cities. Each new city can be established with a different purpose. You might have a town that comes with a bonus to the area of control it establishes, a conclave all about scholarly pursuits that buffs research, or a fortress that gives a level to all troops trained there.
The end goal is to build a multipurpose empire by extending your territorial borders as far as they can go. This can be done either peacefully or militarily, although your territories eventually collide with others, so conflict is almost inevitable. Massive tech trees are split into three branches--civilization, warfare, and magic--and can be used to give your burgeoning kingdom any focus that you want. You can go heavy on civ with things such as civics, restoration, and literacy. You can get serious into your military with techs such as weaponry and warg riding. Or you can do hocus-pocus and delve into the arcane arts with sorcery and spellbooks. The other option is to blend everything together, but there are so many possibilities that this approach can cause you to not be powerful enough when you inevitably clash with your rivals.
Combat is more straightforward. Your sovereign gets down and dirty on the field of battle as an integral part of the armies you send forth across the map. Said armies are small, more squadlike than actual battalions of soldiers. This keeps the scope narrow, making your combatants feel more like a band of adventurers than a conquering army. Furthermore, sovereigns and champions (special recruitable heroes) can be equipped with various weapons that you acquire via exploration, quests, and battles, and this customization lends the game a great role-playing flavor. Champions also acquire permanent wounds in battles that cause issues for entire games, which makes for some laborious management, but is also a real plus if you're looking for RPG-style character elements.
When you encounter a foe, the screen switches to a tactical map where units are moved around in chesslike fashion and given attack orders. A range of units are available, going from melee warriors best at close range to forces with ranged attacks. Most come with special abilities earned over time as they level up. Magic is a huge part of combat as well; your sovereign and other recruited heroes can be trained with formidable spellcasting skills. Nothing beats having a mage in the back row ripping off fireballs or healing your front grunts. You can even customize unit loadouts in towns to make for personalized armies.
So you feel like a powerful general organizing your troops and sending them into the fray. Unfortunately, the act of fighting isn't as interesting. You go through the motions most of the time on dull battlefields with few distinguishing elements. Visuals are poor across the board, with blobby units and battlefield backdrops that consist of little more than the odd scrub and some gently rolling hills. You can zoom in very close to units, but you really needn't bother since nothing looks appealing. Little gets in the way of your fighting, either; you can storm right at one another as soon as battles begin. The game tends to reward stacking armies with powerhouse units that can decimate most opposition. Get a few experienced heroes together, and you can lay beatings down on most challengers, especially in the scenario. It isn't long before you start auto-resolving most battles, saving your direct involvement solely for the times you battle evenly matched forces.
All of the tactical planning and empire building make matches in Fallen Enchantress lengthy and involving. This one of those "one more turn" games. The design is so well constructed that hours fly by before you know it. A big part of this is the musical score, which is so spooky and atmospheric that you keep playing just to keep listening to it. Enemy AI is both cutthroat and cunning, to the point where you should likely play your initial games on either the default easy setting or the even easier beginner setting. Rival powers might show up on your doorstep just moments after you build your first outpost, adding tension to your progress from the very beginning.
But while enemies are aggressive, they don't always seem too bright: they frequently wander right past free loot on the map and ignore monster lairs right near their settlements. Foes aren't extremely skilled when it comes to diplomacy, either. Enemy powers talk to you about treaties and trades, although they seem so tightfisted that it's hard to make a deal that doesn't involve you groveling and handing over a lot of gold. It's difficult to swap techs, for instance, because foes just don't want to give anything up.
Nonetheless, you cannot react to enemy moves or diplomatic arrogance in a knee-jerk fashion. Games are drawn-out affairs where every unit and building is constructed over numerous seasons that play out as turns. The games can be a bit ponderous, with you spending a lot of time fast-forwarding through turns in the early hours while waiting for buildings to go up or units to be constructed. This can be annoying, since it's not sensible that it should take more than a dozen turns to build a lousy militia unit, or three dozen to research magical armor. Be ready: this is a game about long-term planning and patience.
Fallen Enchantress nicely wipes lingering memories of its predecessor from your mind. This is a much better game, a fresher and much-improved take on the same concepts of forging a kingdom and fighting epic battles like a warrior mage without design problems and bugs weighing everything down. With that said, Fallen Enchantress isn't quite as accessible as it could be due to the initial learning curve and the dense nature of the fantasy world that you've been plopped into. That doesn't take much away from what the game does very well, though, so even with these minor flaws you still lose yourself in building a magical empire.