The legend of Robin Hood has always been the stuff of many fictional entertainment media, including games. The themes of a vagabond with a somewhat murky history leading a struggle against a despot make for an easy premise for a lot of games. Most of the titles so far had concerned the more adventurous elements of Robin of Locksley's saga and thus belonged to the adventure or action-adventure genre.
Therefore, this particular title is refreshing, because it belongs to the tactical/stealth subgenre of real-time strategy games. More importantly, adhering to this genre allows the game designers to shine the spotlight on more than just Robin Hood (though he gets the most attention); there are pivotal characters in Robin Hood's Merry Men to be played, and there are also some miscellaneous characters to be played too (so as to give the more generic of the Merry Men a presence in the game).
The premise starts very much like those of other games based on the Robin Hood legend: Robin of Locksley returns home from the crusades to find that a calamity had befallen him and reduced him to the status of an outlaw. However, the story appears to diverge a bit from the others, likely in order to fit itself into the gameplay.
Robin soon finds help from close acquaintances, which include Stutely (which is apparently a person who is different from Will Scarlet in this game), Lord Godwin and, of course, his flame, Maid Marian. As the story progresses in the first half, Robin will rescue characters both new and unknown to him, such as Will Scarlet (who appears to be his nephew), Little John and Friar Tuck, quite often in ways that do not conform to the more prevalent versions of the saga of Robin Hood. These ways do, however, make for great fodder for the missions to be played in this game.
In his and his Merry Men's struggle against the tyranny perpetrated by the treacherous Prince John and his vassals, Robin and friends will have to conduct missions to bolster their own forces and damage the efforts of Prince John to tighten his grip on England in the absence of his brother, King Richard.
The first of these missions will act as a tutorial of sorts, teaching the player the basics and fundamentals of the game.
The player will be informed that characters can be controlled while actively selected, though the player can also make pre-set actions for characters. Unfortunately, the latter form of control does not appear to have much documentation, and even when the player has figured it out, he/she is likely not to use it anyway as the conditions and requirements for making pre-set actions are very finicky and even when executed, may result in untimely failure to be fully carried out. The player is better off using hotkeys to help micromanage the multiple characters that are sent on missions, not unlike micromanaging groups of units in RTS games.
Characters can move about in a few ways: the standard walking, running and sneaking (activated by having the character crouch and move). Players who have experienced tactical/stealth games such as the Commandos franchise would notice the familiarity here. These movement designs work very well in this game; walking has a balance between stealth and speed, running gives the most speed (understandably) but also produces foot-steps that can be heard by enemies, and sneaking is the slowest method of movement but is also the quietest and allows the character to hide behind low-lying obstacles. The player will be using all three to tackle the challenges in this game.
In addition to these basic forms of movement which are available to all player characters, the seemingly more agile ones are able to make use of special scripted paths that may be in a level. These paths are scripted onto locations in the map that appear to be precarious places to be: rooftops, narrow and low walls, the tops of formations of rocks, tabletops etc. These characters can traverse these locations, with the appropriate animations of jumping, leaping and hopping in order to reach another location faster than other characters can.
These characters, which include Robin Hood himself, can also make use of these to gain a height advantage over opponents engaging them in melee combat. This advantage manifest in the form of beneficial modifiers for the dice rolls used in combat (more on this later).
This feature of acrobatic options is well-done, and also makes Legend of Sherwood refreshingly different from other tactical/stealth RTS games.
Unlike many tactical/stealth games, timing the execution of movement actions is not so critical in this game; some extent of mistakes/mishaps can be afforded here, because of the medieval setting of this game. Most enemies, who have been alerted to the presence of the player characters, still have to catch up to the latter to engage them in combat, or at least run up to within arrow/bolt range.
This allows the player to have player characters quickly retreat behind obstacles that break enemies' line of sight, as well as swiftly jink out of the reach of enemies who are intent on close combat and then run pell-mell away.
There is combat to be had in this game, as expected of a setting that had soldiers and other combatants armed with swords and other medieval weapons. Unlike many other tactical/stealth games where the player characters are often at a disadvantage against enemies that had managed to catch up with them, the player characters can hold their own against a small number of enemies, especially if their close combat skills happen to be well-developed (more on this later).
Player characters, when under the control of the player, can be made to perform a small range of types of attacks; the player has the character performing a certain attack by using the mouse to make gestures.
For example, a simple click on an enemy has the character performing a basic attack. A stroke drawn from the right of the character has him/her doing a sweep from that direction, and vice versa for a stroke drawn from the left. A forward stroke has the character performing a stronger-than-usual lunge; drawing a circle or arc has the character do a spinning attack. Finally, drawing an "S" has the character performing a very strong attack that can break through the defence of the lesser enemies in this game.
(Clicking on the character himself/herself has he/she reverting to the default, purely defensive stance, where he/she attempts to block as many incoming attacks as possible.)
This system of gestures is surprisingly well-implemented and smart enough to recognize the necessary patterns and the motions used to draw them. This is, of course, to the benefit of this game when putting itself above the rest of its peers.
In addition to learning these gestures, the player will have to study and learn the different combat prowess of different characters. For example, short characters like Stutely and Friar Tuck have very, very short reach (with the exception of the Disgruntled Farmer miscellaneous character, which is armed with a pitchfork as a makeshift polearm). On the other hand, big characters like Little John have long reach, but also slightly longer attacking animations to represent their additional inertia.
Enemies in the game have even more varied combat prowess, though this will be described later in an appropriate section.
For better or worse, melee combat appears to be affected by luck. Every attempt at attacking or defending will be subjected to dice rolls that govern the possibility of an attack hitting its target (or a parry managing to deflect an incoming attack), as well as the damage that it will do.
Modifiers are applied to the results of these rolls, depending on the difference between the skills of the combatants, how many combatants are engaging a single target at once and other rarer factors, but it does not change the fact that the resolution of combat is still mainly dependent on fickle Lady Luck.
This means that the player can have moments where a player character can fend off five enemies at once for a long time, while in some others, the player character is taken down with a single hit. In other words, the luck-based combat gameplay is both a source of glee and frustration.
The use of ranged weapons is fortunately not so much affected by luck. When a player character draws a ranged weapon or thrown item for launching, the would-be trajectory of the projectile will be drawn for the player's convenience in gauging where they land (and almost all of them land where they are supposed to). This trajectory also shows any obstacles that happen to be in the way of the projectile, handily enough.
Enemies in the game comprise of troops/soldiers that were familiar participants of battles of medieval times. Pikemen are the earliest enemies that the player can tackle, and they also happen to be the easiest to be defeated both in combat and wits. Footmen are a notch above Pikemen, and have shields that they can use to deflect arrows. Archers and Crossbowmen are enemies with ranged attacks that the player would face.
These basic enemies are led by Sergeants and Officers, who are burlier and apparently tougher opponents. (The latter is merely a variant of the former, albeit with a cape to look grander.) However, their most interesting ability is to gather the said soldiers above (and the latter can summon Knights as well) and send them after the player characters; in other words, they play the role of very effective alarm klaxons that can alert many soldiers and guards at once.
Knights are the worst enemies that player characters could engage in battle. All of them are completely immune to ranged attacks and have plenty of health to be whittled down, and even then they are terrifically difficult to land hits on, due to their well-honed martial capabilities. They also have a lot of attacks that are difficult to block.
Mounted Knights are the most difficult enemies in this game, mainly due to being mounted, and can be terrifically frustrating to defeat. They also happen to have a long and wide line of sight, thanks to their mounts. Fortunately, most missions, even the optional missions, are designed in such a way that the player can avoid fighting them. They are also very rare.
In addition to variations in models and offensive capabilities, enemies are also colour-coded to represent their difficulties. Enemies with blue trimmings for their clothes are the easiest sort to defeat in combat, while the ones with yellow trims are more skilled. These are followed by enemies with orange, red and finally black trims.
The game does not appear to inform the player of this game design in any way, however.
Yet, this is a tactical/stealth game; fighting enemies should take a backseat to outwitting them. The game appears to make the latter quite fun to perform, because enemies are designed in such manners that they are better defined by their behaviours than their combat prowess.
Returning to Pikemen, Archers and Footmen, these three are the lowliest troops, and thus have the worst discipline. All three can be duped with gold coins scattered on the ground, or bottles of ale placed along their patrol paths (more on this later). They also happen to be the most cowardly enemies, and thus are likely to run if out-performed in combat.
Sergeants and Officers have the ability to yell sense into the heads of the troops mentioned above if they are caught fighting each other over gold, and are also the ones that the latter go to when they have to report the presence of player characters or any suspicious disturbances.
Knights are the most stoic enemies, for they are not given to drinking ale or looting scattered gold (though they can still be distracted by either momentarily before they are reminded of their martial discipline). Crossbowmen are similarly difficult to distract by gold and ale, though that is so because of their jaded personality instead.
As a plus to the mostly excellent AI programming, many of the voiced-over lines that accompany the execution and running of enemies' AI scripts are very entertaining and amusing to listen to, because they also happen to express the personalities of the various enemies in this game quite well.
In addition to individual AI scripts, they also have some interesting group AI scripts. The basic design of alerted enemies alerting other enemies that is in almost every tactical/stealth game is here; enemies who are alerted within sight of other enemies will also alert the latter; therefore, a tight formation of enemy troops can be entirely alerted very quickly.
A more unique example is that archers (and crossbowmen) will work together with footmen to set up firing lines; the former will fire from behind the latter, who will shield them against any player character that happens to have a bow handy (including Robin Hood). Then, there is also the aforementioned ability of Sergeants and Officers to muster lower-ranked troops (who will not retreat while under their command).
There are also some slight differences in AI scripts for patrolling enemies and enemies posted at fixed locations. Static enemies do not just stand and do nothing; they often regularly look from side-to-side, thus increasing the arcs of their effective visual cones.
Patrolling enemies of course have patrol patterns, typically enough. However, enemies on patrol patterns in certain maps (usually the ones for the critical missions) are also designed to have existing knowledge of any static enemies that their patrol paths have them pass by. Eliminating these static enemies and dragging them away from their posts will alert these patrolling enemies to their absence when they eventually pass by. This game design is likely intended to be used against players who eliminate enemies willy-nilly.
To contend with such (usually) smart enemies, the player characters have been given means to defeat them outside of combat (though this is still a viable option, though fraught with risks). These means also happen to be more entertaining, so there is an incentive of sorts to encourage their use.
All player characters have special abilities, with the unique player characters having one or two unique abilities each. Robin, in addition to being able to use a bow (and fire arrows much further than most characters), is also able to throw pouches of gold at groups of guards (who haven't spotted him) to have them fight over the scattered coins. (It will not work against groups with Sergeants or Officers, but doing that anyway rewards the player with a terrifically amusing commotion – as well as stalls the patrol pattern of said group, if they do not happen to be static.)
Will Scarlet is the only character to be able to sling-shot stones (oddly enough) to knock out enemies, including those who are already alerted to his presence; a quick player can have Will knocking out entire squads. This ability appears to somewhat thematically clash with his ability to strangle weak foes, though it is a very stealthy (if but lethal) move.
Maid Marian can listen for enemies, revealing enemies and their archetypes in a huge distance. (Otherwise, they appear as shadows moving across the map until they are seen by player characters.) Friar Tuck is perhaps the most useful of the lot, having two special unique abilities; one, which is the planting of bottles of ale, can be used to inebriate patrolling guards and render them unresponsive to things that would have alerted them otherwise if they were sober, while the other, which involves chucking wasps' nests, can severely distract groups of enemies, allowing characters with instant K.O. (or instant death) abilities to wade in among them and annihilate them.
Friar Tuck and Stutely both have the ability to pick locks open, though not all locked doors can be unlocked due to constraints of mission design.
In addition to the unique player characters, there are also miscellaneous characters, of which there are three types with abilities that are shared with some of those for the unique player characters.
There is an archetype of a disgruntled farmer, who shares the same ability that Will Scarlet has, which is to slay knocked-out enemies. He can also heal characters with herbs, like Maid Marian. Then, there is the rogue archetype, which can also shoot arrows like Robin (and Marian), use a shield like Will Scarlet and tie up knocked-out enemies like Friar Tuck and Stutely (which is an alternative to killing them – at least until they are discovered by their comrades). Finally, there is the brute archetype (of which Little John is one) who can haul bodies around, whistle loud (to attract enemies to advantageous locations) and chomp down on meat to recover health like Friar Tuck.
Assembling the right mixture of player characters for the right combinations of abilities is often integral to having smooth missions, and the player is reminded of this in the game and in the documentation.
Sometimes, the player can get the better of enemies by simply riling them up and hiding. Having whole swathes of guards going on high alert and search routines may be an inconvenience if the player is attempting to move around, but the game designers have wisely included an opportunity for a patient player to take advantage of the enemies' state of high alert. Such enemies will scatter themselves all over the map, disrupting their usual patrol patterns and sending them far away from their posts. With some luck and careful timing, the player can slip past them, or pick them out one-by-one.
The many fables of Robin Hood appear to agree that he and his compatriots have a home-base in the forest of Sherwood. This is represented in this game with a very lush and very well-detailed map, showing a natural clearing in the forest adorned with a feast table, campfire, brewery and other lavish details like tree-houses and a make-shift archery range. All these pretty spectacles are not just for show however; they serve actual functions, and also give the game a bit of an RPG vibe.
The home-base is where the player gets to receive new Merry Men, who have been attracted to the cause; the number of new recruits depends on how the player has been approaching missions. Lethal measures would not enamour many would-be recruits, while sparing as many lives of enemies as possible would attract more. In any case, having plenty of recruits is not crucial to the gameplay, for reasons that will be mentioned later.
Locations like the archery range and melee practice area are places that the player will send the most characters to, because these places increase the combat skills of the characters that get sent to them. Characters with increased combat skills generally perform better in combat. The increase depends on the completion of missions.
Locations like the brewery, fletching shack and foraging hut produce the items that characters can collect and stock on their persons, provided that the player has sent characters over to them to work these buildings. Like the training areas, they yield results only after the completion of missions. However, generating these items are not as important as collecting resources in other RTS games (of the base-building subgenre), as the player will often have more than enough items that he/she can use if he/she has assigned just three or slightly more characters to these locations.
The home base also stocks the special items that players can grab in certain critical missions, like the royal crown jewels and other treasures. These treasures are difficult to obtain, but they mainly serve to boost the score counter that accompanies a player profile; nonetheless, capturing them rewards the player with text passages which are hilarious to read.
As for the missions themselves, they are split into two categories: story-critical missions, and optional ones. The story-critical missions, as expected, further the story, as well as introduce new unique characters to the roster. They are also missions with the most entertainment value, as they have side jobs that the player can perform in order to obtain rewards like additional gold, snippets of amusing text to read or learn about additional ways to overcome an obstacle in lieu of those that are already apparent. That last activity is facilitated by the advice given by beggars who apparently have seen much of the city or town's defences and current happenings, and are willing to loosen their lips for some alms.
The optional missions are those played in between the critical ones, and are usually meant to be conducted with the goal of collecting money towards achieving one of the overarching primary goals of the goals of the game, which incidentally requires a tremendous amount of money to be achieved. In these missions, the player gets involved in activities that gave Robin Hood his main source of fame: robbing from the "rich" (e.g. wagons carrying paychests and travelling merchants associated with the ruling regime) and giving to the "poor" (which in this game's case is either the beggars or the Merry Men themselves - mostly for the Merry Men).
Some optional missions also serve to assist the critical ones, such as those concerning the storming of a settlement (usually a castle) under the control of one of the ruling regime's top cohorts. These critical missions often require the achievement of a tremendous number of objectives, so these optional missions serve to lessen the number of objectives that have to be attained or better yet, reduce the density of enemy forces. The game informs the player of the benefits of performing these side missions, though specific details of said benefits are withheld, despite the benefits being static in form.
The maps and sprites in this game are some of the most detailed to have graced the tactical/stealth genre. There are grand castles in the midst of a dense township, formidable keeps sitting within a serene village and paths cutting through lush forests of shades of green and yellow. Much of the environments in Legend of Sherwood are pleasant to look at and admire for the hand-made artwork that the game designers have invested in this game.
Sprites are also well-done. While they are drawn such that they are most optimally looked at from quite a far-out zoom distance for the camera, they still have plenty of details to make every type of a sprite sufficiently distinguishable from another. They also have quite a lot of animation frames too, such that a player can usually tell their current status with just a glance. The game also has icons floating above their heads to clearly indicate their current status and level of alertness.
The audio designs in this game are also as impressive, if not more. The first aspect that the player would encounter is the voice-acting. The voice-actors and -actresses have many accents which belong to a variety of provinces in England, ranging from the refined to the thick. The voice actors for the main characters deliver their lines in manners that do a more than decent job of expressing the respective personalities of their characters, though the presentation is somewhat a bit blunted by image stills of the characters' heads accompanying these lines and their text. (To the game designers' credit though, most conversations have heads that appear to have image frames with their lips synched to the dialogue.)
The stars of the game however are the voice talents for the enemies in this game, especially the lowly ones. Many of them are very hilarious to listen to, especially when they are caught in matters involving their lack of discipline.
The game does not have sound effects for every in-game occurrence, but the important ones such as attacks being performed, enemies being taken out and gold being retrieved do have them. Most of them are aurally appropriate, crisp and clear, though some appear to be too loud, especially the sound effects of gold being retrieved, which are jarringly sharp.
There are only a handful of soundtracks in this game for enhancing the ambience of maps or alerting the player to situational changes, so the player would encounter some repetition. However, most players would find them pleasant to listen to and quite fitting into the themes of the game, as well as its medieval setting. The notable ones are the soundtrack for the Sherwood home-base and that for the game menus.
As sophisticatedly designed as the game seems, it is not without serious flaws, however. Sadly, many of these appear to affect the gameplay.
Tactical/stealth games often have a common design oversight, which is the lack of autonomous AI scripts for player characters that are not currently under the control of the player. They are often doomed if they are unwittingly detected by enemies and if the player cannot have them (or the others) perform something fast enough to save them. This is, of course, intended to punish a player who had neglected characters other than the ones under his/her control, but it is undeniable that this is a major cause of frustration with such games.
Legend of Sherwood appears to be no different. Characters that are left alone often just stay where they are, and can be detected by enemies who happen to take patrol paths that the player did not expect. Fortunately, they are smart enough to defend themselves if engaged in close combat (and there is a visual indicator under their icons if they are caught in it), so the player has some time to save them. Unfortunately, they are completely defenceless against ranged enemies, who can freely plant arrows and bolts in them without any retaliation of any kind.
It is disappointing that the player does not have the option to assign automated behaviours to them when they are not under the control of the player.
There are also player characters and abilities whose designs do not appear to have much practical worth in gameplay.
Robin has an ability to knock out enemies like Little John's, but it is hampered by the fact that he causes enemies to topple a short distance, often into another enemy if they happen to be in a formation. This makes his supposedly more stealth-oriented ability difficult to use against groups of enemies. It is also quite weak, e.g. incapable of incapacitating anything tougher than a Footman. Compared to Little John's much more effective K.O. ability, Robin's is pathetic.
Stutely is the most useless unique player character, due to the abilities that he has. Throwing apples at enemies are poor ways to distract them, because they are dependent on the presence of nearby children (whom affected enemies will blame for the apple being thrown). This tactic is also only effective on enemies who are designed to have bad tempers, e.g. Sergeants, Officers and some lowly guards – the rest simply shrug off the annoyance.
Stutely is also the only character that can throw nets and retrieve them. Nets can incapacitate a large number of closely packed enemies, but the player cannot do anything to enemies caught under a net; retrieving the net simply releases a bunch of angry enemies. Furthermore, enemies caught under the net, even without the help of enemies who happen to pass by to rescue them, will eventually cut themselves out. This makes nets some of the most impractical items in the game.
Stutely can also dress up as a beggar to escape the attention of any enemy patrol that he cannot outrun, but the player is really better off simply having him running away pell-mell.
Little John's ability to give nimbler characters a vertical boost would have been entertaining and useful, if there had been more level designs that make use of such an ability.
Shields take too much hassle to set up. First, the player has to designate a location where the character will always face regardless of his location, and then has to enact another mouse-click to activate the shield. Considering that hostile ranged attacks cancel any action that the player is trying to have the character perform, using shields while the characters are already under ranged attack is a futile effort.
There are also flaws in having characters perform actions on other characters; these flaws are often caused by sprite collision hiccups, especially on moving targets for these actions. Characters attempting to perform said actions often go up very uncomfortably close to the target, and appear to have their action scripts frozen and/or terminating prematurely. This is especially acute for Knock-Out actions; Little John or Robin often ends up touching his target and alerting the latter to his presence.
Fortunately, most of the flawed in-game actions have alternatives that are more effective and practical. Still, they should not have been designed so, especially since the game explicitly suggests through text "tips" that they are very useful.
In addition to flaws that are a detriment to the gameplay, there are also exploits in the game that starkly remind the player that he/she is playing a game that isn't splendidly, thoroughly well-done.
Enemies with patrol patterns will periodically stop, so that their patrol leaders can examine their men. However, this design of patrolling enemies appears to have been included merely as a convenience for players; the patrol leaders will not notice anyone who is missing. A patient player can whittle away the patrol group until only the leader is left, and stops once in a while to check his group that is no longer there. It is a minor exploit, but one that generates a sense of disbelief.
The biggest exploit concerns the entering and exiting of buildings. Characters may only enter and exit buildings; they generally cannot do anything while inside. Characters can flush out hostile characters by entering said buildings, but that is just about it. The only exception is the brute character archetypes, which can carry bodies into buildings and dump them inside. Enemies who have been dumped inside buildings are as good as having been thrown into oblivion; other enemies will not discover them even if they enter the very same building.
There are also mishaps in the designs of visual indicators. The player can toggle the highlighting of characters that are obscured by pieces of terrain, especially buildings, but the completeness of the highlighted outlines that these characters have are dependent on how obscured they are. If they are partially obscured, then only the partially obscured region is highlighted. This means that if they are obscured by porous objects, the canopies of trees in particular, their outlines are so broken up that they might as well be completely obscured.
The colour choices for the outlines are also not very carefully chosen. For enemies, their outlines are typically red, and fortunately there are not many maps with too much red in them. However, for player characters, the colour of their outlines is green, which blends into forests and trees. The player will have to resort to looking at the mini-map for their icons, as even focusing the camera on them may not reveal their location if they are hidden under copses of lush trees.
Training characters in their combat and archery skills (if applicable) is an important home-base activity, but the benefits of training are only apparent after critical missions have been completed; optional ones do not count to the "time" that characters have spent training. Considering that many critical missions require Robin to be in the team, Robin has little opportunity to train. This setback is compounded further whenever there are missions that require Robin to engage in close combat duels, often against enemies who are better at sword-fighting than he is. Luck becomes a factor in winning these duels, and this can detract from the fun of the game.
Furthermore, training characters often perform animations while the player is still in the Sherwood home-base map. These animations can carry them outside the training zones, thus resetting their activity to 'idle', when the player is not looking, thus resulting in wasted opportunities to improve their skills if the player does not make sure they are still within the training zones before starting missions.
An observant player would not be able to help but feel that an otherwise superb game has been marred with design oversights that could have been addressed if there had been more play-testing to assess the effectiveness of the game designs concerned.
In conclusion, Legend of Sherwood is a great game and a great entry to the tactical/stealth sub-genre of strategy games. Unfortunately, a number of deficits in gameplay and graphical designs hold it back from being a thoroughly superb game.