The first Spellforce was an ambitious game – perhaps too ambitious. It was not the first game to try to pair role-playing elements with typical strategy gameplay, but it was more extensive in its attempt than most other games that did the same. Unfortunately, it had many shortcomings in the implementation of its vision, chief of which is a disappointing party system that treated each party member as just a mere killing machine and a by-stander in the protagonist’s saga, which also happens to have him/her being a mere by-stander to another person’s saga.
The sequel, Shadow Wars, would deliver a much better executions of the ideas of Spellforce, as well as a story that would be more satisfying to the player.
The story of the game takes place chronologically after the events in the first game, but its saga is a new one and has nothing to do with the Rune Warriors and their creators from the previous game. In fact, the Rune Warriors are all but gone, having become mortal after they regained their free will.
Instead, the saga in Shadow Wars concerns the travails of the “Shaikan”, humans who have been gifted with the blood of a dragon, or the blood of one who is already a Shaikan. In return for what is practically immortality, these people are irrevocably bound to serve and protect their patron dragon. The Shaikan and their dragon happen to live in a secluded community on one of the islands of the broken world.
It just so happens that the prologue of the game has the island being invaded by dark elves. The Shaikan’s patron dragon senses that more is afoot and chose to send some of his champions – one of whom is the protagonist himself/herself - abroad to gather help. Thus begins an epic journey of Shaikan making new friends and enemies in an effort to save their home.
REVIVING PLAYER CHARACTERS:
The game introduces the Shaikan and their capabilities early on. One of the victims of the invasion happened to be quite dead when the main protagonist came by. This is where the game introduces one of the perks of being Shaikan: they can resurrect each other with small blood transfers that can somehow occur over short distances.
However, the game does not clearly inform the player that there is a limited time to revive them. Moreover, the game does not make it very clear that each character in the party must survive. Failure to revive any before they die permanently leads to a straight game-over.
Fortunately, there is a timer on the portrait of a fallen character, so more observant players may realize what they should do. On the other hand, the resurrection process that a Shaikan can do to another person takes a while, and it can be easily interrupted by any enemy. Moreover, enemies appear to sometimes linger around the corpse.
In addition, a recently resurrected party member has very low health and mana, making them not every effective at returning to the fray immediately.
TUTORIALS & THE MANUAL:
It has to be said here that the manual for the game was designed like an afterthought. Most of the things about the game are told in-game through pop-ups and voice-overs by characters instead of being read from the manual.
An example of these is the main player character’s ability to summon party members, which will be further described later. This is explained briefly in the tutorial, but not mentioned at all in the manual.
PARTY OF PLAYER CHARACTERS:
Throughout the single-player campaign, the player will come across new party members by making use of their resurrection ability: characters die through violence and the Shaikan protagonist conveniently revives them and gains their gratitude and friendship.
In the case of human characters, they are turned into Shaikan and are irrevocably bound to the Shaikan cause. Amusingly, this is a decision that the Shaikan do not take lightly, as they would express in the course of the game.
Anyway, these characters band together into a party. At the top of the user interface, the player can see portraits of each character, as well as icons that depict the actions that they can perform. Merely clicking on these buttons allows the player to have a character perform actions without having to manually select him/her first or using hotkeys.
This is actually Jowood’s trademarked and cheesily-named “Click’n’Fight” and “Quick-Action” system, having returned from the previous game. Despite its still-silly name, it is still a splendid convenience and thus remains fundamentally unchanged. In fact, it may be even more useful in the sequel, as party members are now just a few levels below the main protagonist in terms of power.
The player only has full control over the development of the main protagonist’s powers right from the start, e.g. the player can pick his/her starting class and distribute ability points as he/she sees fit. The player does have control over the development of other Shaikan characters, but not always over their starting capabilities. Some characters already have a career before being turned into Shaikan; the player would have to be wise enough to know that they are more efficient if they stick on their previously chosen path.
The only exception is a certain character that is encountered early on. He is the only other character to start with a blank slate and can be given a profession, apparently through a scripted story event.
The player can activate automation for the Shaikan’s development, but the automation scripts tend to be inefficient. Moreover, the player may miss out on important information on the use of certain skills.
There are also non-human party members who, while they cannot become Shaikan, would join the party later via a predictable event that has been mentioned earlier. They only develop their abilities in pre-determined ways, and their gear cannot be tweaked mainly because their models are rigid. These characters are also not able to revive other party members like Shaikan can.
In the previous game, the player has to hold the hands of his/her party members so that they do things at the right time. In the sequel, there are A.I. scripts that provide the characters with some degree of efficient autonomy. These are most useful for characters that the player has developed as dedicated healers and buffers (to use RPG terms). However, the player may need to micro-manage the others.
As mentioned earlier, the main player character can summon party members to his/her side. There is a narrative explanation for this, though this will not be mentioned here for fear of spoilers. Anyway, this can be used to regroup the party for important battles, which is certainly very convenient.
Unfortunately, this very feature is also the developer’s way of overcoming a design flaw with the game that concerns the use of teleportation devices. This will be described later.
There is a cap on the levels of characters in the single-player campaign, specifically 30 for the main player character and 24 for the others. This is enough for players that run through the campaign without being particularly meticulous, but for other players, this can seem inadequate and unrewarding.
INVENTORY & GEAR:
Speaking of gear, the Shaikan can swap their gear around, even for outrageous-looking ones, and they would not even remark on their appearance. The inventory and gear system is strictly only there to satisfy the looting and gear-tricking elements of combat-heavy role-playing games.
That is not to say that these elements are not fun in Spellforce 2, however. Like in the previous game, a player character with changeable gear has many slots for items, which often confer the usual benefit of statistical bonuses. There are items with more interesting effects, such as spells that trigger when an enemy hits a player character with special armor.
The use of items is still dependent on the skills and statistics of the player character. For example, only warriors that specialize in martial skills can make use of heavy melee weapons, and they have to be strong enough to use them. These limitations are nothing new, but at least they are not so much of a nuisance as they were in the previous game, where only the main Rune Warrior can develop the skills and statistics to use gear.
Therefore, it is a lot easier to create a well-balanced team of fighting machines in the sequel. In other words, Spellforce 2 did what its predecessor should have done.
Like its predecessor, the inventory system in Spellforce 2 is practically a “magic bag”, meaning that it has no limits to its storage capacity and it does not encumber the party in any way. However, unlike its fore-bear, it has more user-friendly tools to help the player manage his/her inventory with.
A major issue in the campaign of the previous game was that there was a lot of backtracking between lands, as well as within lands, especially the large ones. In the sequel’s campaign, this has been addressed to a limited yet still unsatisfactory degree.
There are edifices – known as “Journey Stones” – that are located throughout the lands that the main player character happens to be able to use, due to a reason that will not be mentioned here as it is a spoiler. These stones allow the main player character to shift from one point to another on a map. (They can also be used to move to another land entirely, though this will be described later.)
This method of travel, which occurs within a single land itself, can seem handy, considering that it was hardly present in the previous game. However, it only works for the main player character, but not other party members and certainly not any army that the player has. The player can transport party members over to the main player character at least, but this is a hassle, more so if there are enemies on the destination end.
Speaking of enemies near Journey Stones, these Stones are disabled if there are enemies nearby. The player must eliminate any nearby threat before they regain their function. The player is not informed of this, at least not beyond mere exclamations by characters that the Stones have been disabled.
Gates are still the main method of travel between lands, one that would be quite familiar to most players that have played the previous game. The player does not need to re-summon party members, because they appear together with the main player character when he/she moves into the next land, unlike in the previous game. If the player has entered a land for the first time, an in-game cutscene typically plays to provide narrative context for the shift.
However, any army that the player has raised stays back at the land that they were created, unless there is a scripted event that wipes them out along with any bases that the player has created.
Gates are always available for use, unlike Journey Stones, but they are not as versatile as the latter. Interestingly, Journey Stones can be used as an easier method of moving between lands, though this is not told to the player at all. Players that are not inquisitive may encounter a problem later when they are stuck in a location with only a Journey Stone available for use but do not know how to use it for inter-land travel.
The resources that were seen in the previous game return in the sequel. To cite some examples, Lenya, which is a magical herb, is still around and is still needed to recruit spell-casting units, and stone is still there as the main component of buildings. Some other resources do not return though, such as wood.
In the previous game, the different factions use all resources, but with different proportions. This led to the issue of factions having predictable strategies, namely ones that have them going after resources nodes that they use the most.
In the sequel, the factions have been re-designed so that they can have armies that do not emphasize the use of one resource over the rest; there will be more on factions later. There are units that particularly utilize specific resources, but if the player does not have enough of these resources to create them, there are alternative units that can somehow compensate.
As in the previous game, any resources that the player has extracted from the map are permanently gone. They do go into an off-screen stockpile, but in the single-player campaign, this stockpile is reset whenever the player leaves the land and re-enters it. This can be a disappointment to some players who did not like this in the original game. On the other hand, for some lands, the army that the player has created stays, so the player can attempt to convert all resources that he/she has accrued into standing armies before leaving them.
In the single-player campaign, there are lands that lack resources of certain types. This shoehorns the player into specific base-builds, which can be displeasing.
In most scenarios in the single-player campaign, the player is given a headquarters building, some resources and a handful of worker units to start building a base with. Sometimes, the player must have the party of characters clear the way to a plateau that has enough space for a base. In multiplayer, the player tends to start with a big enough space for up to high-level builds.
Like the previous game, units come out of one main building instead of the building that unlocked them for creation. However, instead of coming out of the racial Rune Monuments in the previous game, new units come out of the headquarters building.
At first glance, to some RTS followers, this may seem like more of the same lazy programming. To more observant players though, it is a solution – however simplistic – to the exploitation of unit-producing buildings. The huge size and cost of the headquarters building, as well as the cost of upgrading them so that they can produce more advanced units, prevents the player from resorting to placing forward bases to control territory.
Of course, one could argue that creating forward bases is a legitimate tactic, but to others, it can seem a bit cheesy. Besides, most of the maps in Spellforce 2 lack wide enough spaces that support the placement of a headquarters building.
In the campaign, some base buildings have uses for the party instead for the armies. The Altar of Life is one of them. By paying a fee, the player can revive a fallen party member and have him/her reappear at the building, which is probably a safer place than where he/she died. However, for such convenience, the altar itself is a very expensive building and the resurrection cost is steep enough to prevent the player from exploiting it.
It should be noted here that the defensive structures that all factions have are far less effective than those in the previous game, which allowed players to “turtle up” and “farm” enemies that spawn from hostile buildings (to use various terms from the RTS lexicon) in the single-player campaign.
In the sequel, these buildings are much bigger, preventing the player from concentrating his/her defences to a critical point where they are virtually self-sustaining if tended to by nearby worker units. They can be kitted out with special upgrades to make them more compatible with defensive strategies that are based around units, but they can no longer stand on their own against enemy onslaughts.
In addition to the restrictions of limited space for building bases and the scarcity of resources, there is a cap on the number of units that the player can have in his/her army. This cap is represented as a number of “slots” (for lack of a better word to use).
Any unit takes up at least one slot. However, there are units that take up two or more, so the player will have to consider the composition of the army and its constituent squads carefully in order to have an army that is balanced yet not too small as to be vulnerable to enemies with numerical superiority.
Interestingly, instead of using the usual “farm” buildings that do nothing but raise the aforementioned caps, the headquarters building is the one that does this instead. To be specific, whenever the player unlocks the next tier of units for any component of a faction (more on this later), the cap is raised. It is a tough building, so it is very resilient against raids. Such a design can please players who are tired of old-school RTS conventions.
The previous game had factions that are broken down into races that the player can use in any mixture, including even mixtures that are volatile where units of races that are unfriendly towards each other would fight each other given half the chance.
Although this design was peculiarly refreshing for its time, it was terribly clumsy. The sequel will not repeat this design, but it can be a bit disappointing that the developers chose to cut this design entirely instead of reworking it.
Therefore, the factions in Spellforce 2 resemble those typically seen in RTS games with cookie-cutter faction designs. In other words, the player has to pick one faction (or is shoehorned into taking one, in the case of the single-player campaign) and stick with it all the way.
Anyway, the factions in Spellforce 2 are the Realms, the Clans and the Pact. The Realms are actually the humans, elves and dwarves from the previous game, having come together for mutual survival. The Clans are a conglomeration of orcs, trolls and other savage races. The Pact is an alliance between races with domineering outlooks on the world.
The component races in any faction have different roles. For example, the elves are (stereo-)typically the ranged and magical support of the Realms’ armies, whereas the humans are the meat-shield and the dwarves are the line-breakers.
That is not to say that another faction has units that are counterparts of those in the other factions. As an example of a difference in the factions’ capabilities, the Clans’ trolls are peerless mobile siege units. Another example is the Pact has units that can summon expendable units, which make them handy for overcoming static defence lines that are not being focused on by the enemy.
There may be some balance issues with certain faction-specific units. For example, the Pact has a unit that can immediately destroy buildings with its strikes. It does have a slow rate of attack, thus requiring players to protect it from mobs, but for those that can do this, they have practically won.
Whichever faction that the player takes, he/she must keep in mind that each component race of a faction must be “upgraded” individually via tech-unlock options available at the headquarters. These options happen to change the look of the headquarters building, so opposing players can see the progress of a player if they can spot his/her headquarters building.
OTHER MENTIONS ON SINGLE-PLAYER CAMPAIGN:
The method that Spellforce 2 used to address the issue of “turtling” is not the only solution that Phenomic has implemented to address exploits that were discovered in the previous game.
In the previous game, the scripts that spawn waves of hostile creatures that come over to the player’s base only trigger when the player actually started building a base. This allowed for some unscrupulous exploits. In the sequel, this is no longer the case. As soon as the player starts a scenario that pits him/her against enemy establishments, they start spawning hostile units.
In the first Spellforce, most quests are boring fetch chores or search-and-destroy tasks. There is more variety in the Shadow Wars campaign. This variety includes a peculiar mini-game that has the player collecting game pieces to enhance his/her capabilities at this game. There are also long-term collecting quests that reward the player with good loot, assuming that he/she has created a balanced party of specialists that can use them.
The most important change is that the player’s party can only gain experience by completing quests. Killing hostile enemies does not grant experience, with the exception of certain enemies that the player must kill in order to progress in a quest.
OTHER SINGLE-PLAYER MODES:
Interestingly, there is a “Free-Play” mode, which allows the player to play through all lands that are seen in the single-player campaign. However, without a feature to make save-games, the value of this game mode can be difficult to appreciate.
There is also a Skirmish mode, which is typically a single-player version of the multiplayer mode that will be described shortly after.
Being a game made by developers that have roots in RTS games of yore, Spellforce 2 has a LAN match-making feature for players who want to play close to each other.
Unfortunately, Spellforce 2’s online multiplayer was dependent on a centralized matchmaking service, which has been shut-down since 2009. There is no client-side tool for finding the IPs of other willing players that are looking for matches.
Anyway, in multiplayer, players can choose to either play with Shaikan-like characters or not, if they prefer a pure RTS experience. Furthermore, the experience of using these “hero” units (to use a term from RTS jargon) is dependent on the map in play. To elaborate, the map may need to have lairs or clusters of “neutral” critters that can be cleared to yield treasure for use by them, if they are to be any useful or powerful. On the other hand, these characters gain experience from mere combat instead of completing quests.
Moreover, on certain maps, it can take a while for opposing players to reach each others’ strongholds, as the maps may contain clusters of monsters that are hostile to both sides. Some even have buildings that spawn them repeatedly to harass the players.
VOICE-OVERS & CHARACTER DESIGNS:
The first Spellforce title had voice-acting that is lackadaisical. This is not the case for Shadow Wars, fortunately. The English-dubbed version may have voice-actors that veterans of the first game may recognize, but they have since improved on the delivery of their lines. The characters in Spellforce 2’s story have convincingly empathetic voice-acting, which is appropriate as Spellforce 2 has a typical but otherwise epic tale to tell.
On the other hand, Spellforce 2 still has some idiosyncrasies typical of RPGs. For one, despite the protagonist having been given his/her own set of voice-overs, specifically one for each possible gender, no other character refers to him/her by name. Instead, they conveniently refer to him/her with titles or are simply looking at him/her when addressing him/her.
There are some entertainingly funny lines that certain characters deliver. One of the most memorable ones pokes at the visual design of the poster-girl of the game.
The Shaikan are the main characters of the story, but only the first few that the player is introduced actually have any character development. The others are hangers-on, beholden to the main character if only because the latter saved their lives. In fact, the secondary characters are much more critical to the story, because they are the ones who provide the narrative impetus by giving goals for subsequent missions.
The first Spellforce title had major problems in its writing, or at least its English translations. There were spelling errors and lines that are completely different from those that the voice-overs are delivering, among other issues. Spellforce 2 fortunately has much better quality control in this aspect, though its writing would not seem stellar enough to have particularly memorable narratives.
For a game that blends RTS with RPG elements, Spellforce 2 fortunately has a functional camera. By default, it is oriented obliquely to the plane of the map that the player is in, so it strikes a good balance between giving the player a practical view of the battlefield and a picturesque view of the map.
The camera’s orientation can be altered to give a view of the horizon. However, doing so usually causes the frame rate to drop because the game has no efficient scripts for limiting draw distances. The game does use clever angles for most in-game cutscenes, fortunately, so they are smooth to watch most of the time.
Like the previous game, Spellforce 2 resorts to creating fog and smoke to obscure the transformation of base buildings when they are upgraded in order to unlock units for creation. However, this lazy technique is a lot less prominent this time around. There are more animations to depict the changes, such as polygons for structural add-ons coming out of the ground (the intersecting area between them and the ground being obscured by smoke and dust, of course) amidst actual scaffolding. These animations are also surprisingly kind to the frame rate.
When a hostile enemy is slain, he/she/it may leave behind some loot. The game is not consistent in how this is depicted, however. Sometimes, their corpses appear to bleed sparkles, which is an adequate visual indicator. Sometimes, treasure chests appear where they lie, which can seem silly (albeit functional as an indicator).
The first Spellforce game could only do so much with its graphics, yet outright displayed its limitations via its in-game cutscenes. Spellforce 2 does not make the same mistake.
Certain cutscenes have animations that are custom-made for them, such as the main player character blowing a large horn for a purpose that will not be mentioned here. These are few though, so the player should expect to see the same set of body language being used many times over. Fortunately though, Spellforce 2 does feature convincing lip-synching, which the first title did not.
There are many creatures and units in the game, so it is well that the developers have designed animations that seem unique to most of each of them, or at least they have managed to hide any recycling.
The lighting and shadowing of the game is particularly noticeable, if only because if it appears to be much more efficient than that seen in the previous game. There can be some oddities though, such as the shadowing and lighting being applied after a saved-game has been loaded instead of during the loading sequence.
Spellforce 2 also boasts more detailed and varied textures than its predecessor. Most of these can be seen on the gear that the Shaikan uses. However, as the Shaikan practically have the same model for each gender, most of the silhouettes of the models of the gear pieces can seem unremarkable. Still, the developers should be commended for implementing a variety of textures and colours on them.
The different environments that the player would see also have their own distinctive textures and polygonal modelling. To cite some examples, the cobbled stone paths of the towns of the Realm can look very different from the stylized murals on the obsidian floors of Pact establishments.
There can be more that can be described about Spellforce 2’s pleasing graphical designs, but for the purpose of brevity, it would just be said here that it would be difficult for any player to find them dissatisfying.
SOUND EFFECTS & MUSIC:
For better or worse, Spellforce 2 reuses most, if not all, of the sound effects that were heard in the first Spellforce title. For example, there is the uncomfortable screeching that undead creatures make, and which made them aurally indistinguishable from each other.
However, there have been some new sound effects, mostly for spells and creatures that were not in the first game. These at least made these spells and creatures easier to recognize aurally than those that used the old set of sound effects.
Fortunately, the music has not been recycled. Composers Pierre Langer and Tilman Sillescu return to work on the music of the sequel, and this time they appear to have used authentic orchestra. Woodwind and string instruments are particularly dominant in their soundtracks, which make for pleasant and sometimes lulling music. The composers have also managed to obtain the contribution of European choirs, which add haunting lyrics to some of the soundtracks.
For better or worse, JoWood, which was the publisher of the game at the time, was still a firm believer in problematic copy protection schemes, such as the maligned StarForce. This can annoy players that use legitimate copies of the game.
Overall, Spellforce 2 has a much more pleasing presentation than its predecessor, even if it did recycle some assets from the first game. The sequel has a much more conclusive and satisfying story for its single-player campaign as well. Most importantly, it has addressed many of the gameplay issues from the first game, bringing it up to par with other competently done strategy and even RPG titles.