Attempts to merge the elements of role-playing games with those of the real-time strategy genre is nothing new at the time of this game; Warcraft 3 and similar games that either came after or before it has already done this. This did not deter smaller, less well-known game-makers from having their own attempts.
Perhaps one of the reasons for Phenomic Interactive having decided to make one such attempt is that the games that did this previously did so in rather simple ways, so that they fit into their design goals of fast-paced gameplay (as was especially the case for Warcraft 3, which has a competitive multiplayer component). Such simplification ultimately resulted in the RPG elements feeling more like just another variant of the mechanics that are tech trees, which had long been in real-time strategy games.
Phenomic intends to retain the more deliberate pace of RPGs, though the results of its efforts can be considered to be a mixture of blunders and successes. (Fortunately, Phenomic did learn from its mistakes, but that is for the review of its next game.)
The premise of the game may seem a bit refreshing to veterans of high-fantasy stories, though not necessarily original. The player character is one of the fabled Rune Warriors, human-like but otherwise virtually immortal champions who lack a will of their own, so long as the runes that bind their souls are held by someone else. However, in an odd twist of fate, the person who has summoned the player character from oblivion hands his/her rune over to him/her, allowing him/her to decide his/her own fate and thus develop his/her powers any which way.
(More observant players would recognize this as the narrative reason/excuse for the inclusion of RPG elements.)
However, despite the player character's new-found independence, he/she is given the task of hunting down a nefarious character that aims to change the world in a hardly beneficent manner, as well as to clean up the messes that he made along the way. Having little other concerns, the hero/heroine decides that pursuing this person is better than trying to think of something to do with his/her freedom.
When the in-game cutscenes for the prologue end, the player is introduced to the RPG elements of the game first. The first few troubles in the game concern a bunch of rather weak monsters terrorising the typically helpless, peace-loving folk of the land, thus giving the opportunity to test the combat prowess of his/her player character. Eventually, the game will introduce the real-time strategy elements when the player has tracked down the lair from which these monsters came from.
As a game with RPG elements, the player character typically has the mechanic of experience points and levels governing his/her development. Experience is gained through the conventional ways: killing enemies and completing quests. The latter will give constant and certain amounts of experience points, so completing them is always a lucrative endeavour, regardless of the level of the player character. The former method does not require the player character to land the killing blow, only that it is dealt by any unit or building under the control of the player.
However, as Spellforce is also a strategy game that gives enemies bases from which they can requisition fresh forces, there can be a lot of cheesy exploits with the experience-gaining system. One of these involves building defences and stationing armies in front of monster spawns, having them killed as soon as they appear before eventually destroying their spawn point to reap whatever they would yield.
However, to prevent the player from resorting to such exploits, there is a mechanic of diminishing returns as the kill counter starts going up; this is in addition to the usual technique of diminishing returns that uses the player character's level as a factor. It is also worth noting here that a kill counter for a certain creature is unique only to the map that it is in; if it is recycled in another map (which is rare, palette swaps notwithstanding), it will have a kill counter that is unique only to that map.
Such designs encourage the player to move on in the story, but do not discourage the hunting down of lower-level creatures, if they do appear in a map (though it has to be noted here that the factor of level differences still contributes to diminishing returns).
The main player character is the only Rune Warrior who can gain experience; the others do not. Using the same narrative-based reason earlier for the Rune Warrior being able to decide his/her own fate, the Rune Warriors under his/her command is not able to gain experience as the main Rune Warrior holds their Runes. This means that the player will be swapping out Runes (and thus the Rune Warriors) like they are little more than accessories; the other Rune Warriors can hardly be considered party members, even though they can equip items (as long as they fulfill the necessary requirements).
This can seem very detracting from the RPG convention of having a party of companions that grows along with the player character.
Speaking of requirements, Spellforce appears to go further than the usual restrictions on equipment and skill-developing choices. Not only do the player character needs to be of a particular level before he/she can take up the next level in a skill, he/she needs to have the required stats levels, which in turn are restricted by the player character's level.
More often than not, the player will end up with spare points for stat and skill development that he/she cannot spend because of these restrictions; this can get annoying and may even cause careless players to spend points outside of specializations, which is a disaster as the game is hostile to character builds that are jacks-of-all-trades.
The other RPG elements would be easier to stomach. There are the usual stats like Armor ratings, attributes like Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence, and these mostly do what RPG veterans would expect (though there are some pleasant differences, such as Armor reducing damage from Earth spells in addition to physical attacks).
What would be more exciting than the usual conventions are the skills that the player character can develop; after all, these are what will define the player character's archetype.
There are seven main schools of skills, and these in turn have sub-skills (fittingly called "Specializations") that are meant to satisfy different playstyles – and satisfy, they certainly do.
Light and Heavy Combat Arts concern the use of melee weapons. Light Combat Arts concern the use of one-handed weapons, armor of the chain mail and leather variety, and, oddly enough, piercing weapons like spears. Heavy Combat Arts involve the use of two-handed weapons, shields and heavy armor. Considering that shields do not go too well with two-handed weapons, lumping both of them under Heavy Combat Arts is another odd design decision. On the other hand, the player can mix Light and Heavy Combat skills together without much of a problem as long as their usages are not obviously mutually exclusive.
If a player prefers not to get too close to enemies, then there are the Ranged Combat Arts that govern the use of crossbows and bows. However, using magic may yield better results at dealing death from afar; perhaps the only benefit that Ranged Combat Arts has is that they can synergize with the use of armor, whereas magic cannot, as is typical for a high-fantasy RPG.
Spells tend to be typically more powerful and effective at inflicting more damage in a short moment, which makes magically-disinclined player characters little more useful than at anything other than out-flanking and tanking just to divert attention away from the relatively frail spell-casters; the complementary inclusion of de-buff spells that can be cast on enemies to reduce their effectiveness or make them vulnerable to even more spells makes magic even more useful than plain wailing or poking away at enemies with steel. Buffs may be even more powerful, because in Spellforce, they can affect whole armies instead of smaller-scale parties.
It appears that Phenomic somewhat realizes this and has attempted to balance this by requiring the equipping of spells that have to be bought from merchants. These spells are of fixed level, and can only be upgraded by purchasing spells that are of the same name but of a higher level.
In practise, this feels very inconvenient, and more importantly, has a factor of luck as vendors have randomized mixtures of spells on offer, with the only certainty being the level of these spells, which are commensurate with the player's progress in the story. An unlucky player may be denied the spell that he/she needs to complete the build of his/her player character.
On the other hand, if the player can stomach the oddities in the rules that govern the use of spells, he/she will notice some refreshingly different – and perhaps odd – designs for spells.
While some spells do the usual things like summon extra help and deal damage over time to enemies, some others work differently from the conventions for spells. For example, Aura spells are not an area-effect spell as much as they are auto-spell-casting powers; buffing Auras will immediately buff any friendly units within the radius of the aura, while offensive Auras automatically harms any enemies within the radius, and both types consume mana whenever an individual target is affected.
Another example is the different targeting properties that various area-effect spells have. Some powerful spells affect everything caught within them, making them only useful for opening battles (or as a last-ditch effort to turn their tide), while some affect only enemies (thus allowing the player to spam them into the thick of the action). This makes for some amusing builds for spell-casting characters.
The schools of spells would seem familiar to most RPG veterans, though they will have to learn how
Phenomic adapted them for real-time strategy gameplay. Most of them appear satisfactorily designed, gameplay-wise and theme-wise, with the exception of White Magic.
As to be expected from a generally benevolent school of Magic, it mainly offers buffs and healing magic. This supports strategies oriented around commanding armies, as players who pick up White Magic would expect; the spells associated with this school makes the player's armies more than likely to win battles of attrition. On the other hand, there are moments within the story campaign when the player does not have any army to command, and this is where a White Magic user falters; such a character is simply underpowered in such scenarios.
If the player perseveres in the story and reach the end, he/she will notice that the balance of power had been upturned. To prevent the mention of spoilers, only the traits of the end-game opposition will be mentioned; they have tremendous resistances towards many kinds of damage, with the exception of Holy magic, which the White Magic school has plenty of spells for. Whereas the other character builds would have a hard time dealing with them, the White Magician can demolish them very quickly. This can be very jarring to a player that had focused on White Magic.
Although spells usually out-damage non-magical weaponry, the Combat Arts do provide some special abilities that can be activated in a manner that is similar to spells. For example, "Berserk" allows Light Combat Arts practitioners to hit above their weight temporarily, while the adepts of Heavy Combat Arts have access to area-effect buffs that are not mirrored in the selection of spells that more magical characters have access to. However, many of them do appear to strengthen the impression that they are designed as damage-per-second and tank characters.
Being an RPG, Spellforce also includes the aspect of looting. Loot can be obtained from the usual suspects: treasure chests, quest rewards and spoils from defeating exceptionally powerful enemies. To make picking them out from the background easier, Phenomic has implemented visually convenient particle effects for objects containing loot.
As for the loot itself, some of them happen to be vendor trash, like gems and pretty but otherwise useless jewellery. Most would be pieces of gear that can be equipped on the Rune Warriors, but it is likely that most of them are vendor trash too. The vendor trash also highlights deficiencies in the inventory system, as will be described shortly.
Spellforce avoids the usual RPG trope that is "the best stuff is found, not bought"; vendors can have very interesting items on sale. On the other hand, their wares are fixed regardless of the number of playthroughs (with the exception of spells, as mentioned earlier), and their offerings only change after the story has advanced a bit. (Fortunately, the change involves the addition of new items; their previous wares are still there, as are any items that the player has sold to the vendors.)
Whereas the interface for the player's inventory has some options to arrange the items, the interface for the vendor's inventory does not have any. There is an auto-arrange feature that will arrange items according to their price (and generally the most expensive items are what the player would covet the most) and whether they were the vendor's original items or are items that the player sold to the vendor, but there is nothing else.
The real-time strategy gameplay of Spellforce would seem familiar to veterans of RTS gameplay. It is the usual base-building and army-raising sort, though that does not mean that it is all perfect and easy to work with.
The high-fantasy universe of Spellforce has up to six races, three of which belong to the more benevolent category of denizens of the world while the other three are their diametric opposites. These are the races that will form the troops of the player's armies.
However, it should be mentioned here that players may find the narrative reason for the nature of the "recruitment" of troops rather odd. The story-based explanation for their arrival in the game world from ancient, race-specific Monuments instead of from the communities of the races gives the impression that they are magical clones. That the player has race-specific Runes that are similar to those that control the power level of Rune Warriors further strengthens this impression (more on these different Runes later); the player will be raising armies with this in mind, which is not exactly a comfortable thought.
Of course, these are just complaints about the thematic designs for these armies. That is not to say that they do not have issues that concern gameplay though. The first of these is that new troops appear from buildings other than the usual unit-producing buildings like the barracks and training halls. These buildings are not as easy to lay down as the latter, so making forward bases can be a problem.
It should also be pointed out here that for every scenario that gives the player the opportunity to build a base and an army (or rather, the task, as this scenario is likely to be difficult to accomplish without an army), the player is given a handful of worker units to start him/her off with; this is not unlike what many other real-time strategy games have done. However, if the player returns to the map that this scenario takes place in (more on moving between maps later), the scripts that spawn said workers will not trigger. In other words, if the player has entered a map that has monster camps/lairs or quests that have to be tackled with an army, he/she has to make sure that he/she is thorough in exploring said map the first time around.
Returning to the matter of races, there are the "light" side races that are Humans, Elves and Dwarves, and "dark" side races that are Orcs, Trolls and Dark Elves. Each race offers different units, but otherwise they appear to be well-balanced against each other, as long as the player recognizes their strengths and how to use it against the weakness of the rest. There will be more elaboration on the gameplay designs of their units later.
As to be expected from a game with real-time strategy gameplay (at the time at least), there are resources that the player must gather and expend in order to build bases and raise armies. There are an astonishing seven of these, though there are usually only four or five of them that the player needs to worry about, depending on the race that the player is using.
That is not to say that four or five is not an overwhelming handful though; locating and securing the nodes for these resources can be a chore, depending on the designs of the map. Fortunately, each resource type is visually different from the rest, so identifying them when they are found should not be a problem. However, the player has to be mindful of which workers are working on which resources; this is because the "light" side and "dark" side races share separate resource counters respectively.
It is also worth noting here that some races lack workers that can work on certain resources. For example, the Elves and Trolls do not have the means to excavate iron ore from the earth, and thus have to rely on the other races to obtain this resource. Considering how powerful some of them can be, such deficiencies may seem acceptable.
Food is a resource that can be obtained through the usual means of hunting, foraging, farming, fishing and ranching. What is not usual is that some of these means are specific to certain races. For example, the Elves live off the land, so they are the only ones that can forage, and Trolls are not fussy about their sources of meat, so they can harvest food from corpses of any creature (though this is ultimately impractical as corpses disappear quickly, meaning that the player has to risk the lives of workers on the battlefield even as the battle rages).
The Humans and Dark Elves are the only ones that can farm crops; these work a lot like those in the Age of Empires games, except that the player can watch the crops grow in real-time, which can be a visual treat for players who can spare the time. The same praise can also be made about ranching animals, which grow from little versions of themselves to bigger ones.
Wood is predictably derived from trees. Trees generally do not regrow when they have been chopped away, but the Elves appear to be able to build buildings that can grow new ones, theoretically giving the "light" races an advantage in resourcing wood. Coupled with the Humans' access to almost all forms of food derivation and the Wood-enhancing Sawmill, this can seem to give the "light" races an unfair advantage in gathering these two very crucial resources.
It should also be noted here that harvested resources can be returned to the races' Monuments to be stored without the need for resource drop-off buildings. However, this is just a fall-back method as Monuments tend to be far away from resources. The player also cannot take advantage of resource-enhancing buildings, which refine the resources so that they yield more when stored.
There are difficult-to-forgive problems with the designs for resourcing, unfortunately. The most troublesome of these is the fact that worker units that are carrying resources must not be disturbed, e.g. come under attack or ordered to do something else, lest their models reset and the resources simply disappear.
The player won't be doing much vanquishing of other bases in the campaign, however, so build strategies are not as important as mixing and matching units from different armies to oppose the monster camps in the current map being played. In multiplayer, the player will be mixing and matching units too, if only to counter whatever mixture that the opposition is using.
Of course, there are limitations to the mixing and matching, if the delineation of the races to "dark" and "light" ones do not suggest already. As long as they are under the direct control of the player, armies consisting of both "light" and "dark" units would pose no problem, except when they are using their area-effect powers. When they are left to their own devices however, they automatically attack each other. This can be a bit frustrating, but otherwise understandable given the natural and mutual animosity between the "light" and "dark" races.
As mentioned earlier, the player must have Runes of a particular race before he/she can activate the proper race-specific Monument. The levels of these Runes determine the strength and toughness of the units of that race, though the exact statistics for these units are not divulged to the player, which can be disappointing if one has been looking for more documentation. The statistics for a few special units and defences are not governed by these runes however, but rather the player character's own level; more on these later.
In multiplayer, the player does not have to worry about rune levels, as the statistics of units are fixed for the sake of gameplay balance.
The Humans are the first race that the player will encounter in the single-player campaign. This is fitting, as they have a balanced mix of units.
Balanced designs are not applied to the Dwarves though. They are primarily melee-oriented tanks, and would have been rather boring to veterans of RTS games if not for the fact that they appear to be the only units that can gain experience and become more powerful. Their healer units are quite terrible at healing, due to programming issues with the spells that they use which cause them to have long downtimes.
The Elves are terrible at melee, so they compensate by specializing in ranged combat and healing. That they need only wood for most of their buildings and that they can regrow forests means that a player can resort to raising a "light" army by starting with them first if he/she wants to conserve the other non-food resources.
The Orcs are a shamanistic race with an otherwise brutish streak (as is expected of orcs). They appear to be mainly melee-oriented and are one of few races with access to area-effect buff-dispensing units. However, they do have a particularly remarkable – and overpowered – unit in the form of the Totem. The Totem fires the Pain spell, which is a near instantaneous direct-damage spell that is also quick to fire. This means that mobs of them can be devastating, especially against Rune Warriors.
The Trolls have the most durable units with the highest damage-per-hit stats, though they tend to be too slow to have high enough damage-per-second ratings for pitted battles. However, every troll unit goes into a rage when it is at low health, increasing its damage output and thus compensating for their low damage-per-second output. Trolls typically also have the highest regeneration rates of all the races. To balance against their toughness, Trolls are terrible at working resources and tend to be expensive, thus requiring the player to use the other "dark" races to gather the necessary resources to maintain a Trollish army.
The Dark Elves can boast of having the units with highest damage-per-second, what with their multitudes of spell-casters and warriors with wicked weapons and the finesse to use them; their ability at necromancy is especially potent, giving them the opportunity to raise expendable but still formidable skeletons from the corpses of war dead.
With the units of the three races combined together, "dark" side armies can be more than a match for "light" side ones in battle, though this is balanced by the latter's much more efficient resourcing operations.
Players have no control over the special abilities for units other than his/her Rune Warriors, which is unfortunate. However, their AI appears to do a good job on using them at the most efficient moments (though not necessarily the best ones). For example, the Human Paladin will cast his Hallow spell when they are facing Undead units, while the Orcish Hornblower will renew his buffs whenever they run out.
Most of the buildings in the game function little more differently from those found in other RTS games: unit production buildings produce units and resource drop-offs act as such, etc. The Headquarters buildings of each race act like Town Center archetypes, and can be upgraded to unlock more units and upgrades for existing ones.
There are buildings with peculiar designs though. The Food Store is one of these. All units have the capability to regenerate health and mana much like Rune Warriors can, but to unlock this ability of theirs, the player needs to build race-specific food stores to have units of that race regenerate on their own. However, taking advantage of such a design to develop tactics that affect units' recuperation yields limited benefit, because while Food Stores are vulnerable to raids, they can be easily rebuilt. This makes an RTS veteran wonder about the reason for the inclusion of such a building.
Phenomic has noticed some entertaining designs from other real-time strategy games, and have implemented them. One of these is the mechanic of Titans. Titans are super-units which can take a lot of damage and dish out a lot of their own, not unlike the Titans in the expansion pack for Age of Mythology. They also have permanent zero-cost auras, thus making them very effective at supporting armies as well as spearheading the assault. Most importantly, the power of Titans is dependent on the main player character's level, thus making them useful not only for opposing enemy armies but also helping the player in endeavours that are more RPG-oriented.
If the player does not have access to an army, then he/she still has the option of capturing Rune Monuments, which remain under the permanent control of the player. Rune Monuments allow the player character and his/her Rune Warriors to make use of their immortality and simply return to the battlefield a short while after their most recent deaths. However, this does not mean that the player can resort to using his/her player character and the Rune Warriors alone – sometimes the opposition is just too strong. On the other hand, a careful and determined player can still attrite enemies to death, if the player no longer has access to army-raising.
In multiplayer, there is no Rune Monument to control, though the player's Rune Warrior can be resurrected quite easily without the need for a Monument. However, the player can have only one Rune Warrior, chosen from a roster of characters, each with an inclination towards a specific skill. This Rune Warrior also cannot gain experience. Such restrictions for the multiplayer segment removes the RPG elements, making the Rune Warrior no more different than a super-unit that the player gets right from the start.
Juggling a powerful hero (or heroes, if the player is playing the single-player campaign) and an army can be a tad difficult, so Phenomic has designed a peculiar context-sensitive user interface (called "Click-&-Fight", simply enough) that can be used to direct the efforts of the player character and his/her Rune Warriors in battle. When an enemy or friendly is selected, the icons for special powers that they have are displayed on-screen, and using said powers on said targets is as easy as clicking on these icons.
It is unfortunate that hotkeys cannot be assigned for the use of powers, though considering the permutations of powers that Rune Warriors can have, the absence of such an option may be understandable.
For a game with RTS gameplay, Spellforce allows the player to assign units to only up to 6 groups, which is a far cry from the usual 10 in other RTS games. On the other hand, the player will realize that he/she won't need this many groups, especially in the single-player campaign.
Speaking of the single-player campaign, the player will traverse across maps that are represented as islands, each one connected to the rest by a network of portals. There is a narrative reason for this, though those well-versed in story designs would realize almost immediately that it is an excuse to give these maps physical boundaries, which many real-time strategy and role-playing games struggle to do without appearing awkward. This would not have been a problem in Spellforce, except that a lot of the maps appear as rectangles that are too curiously neat to resemble believable islands.
Some maps in the single-player story mode are reserved for towns and cities, which are a convention in RPGs that provides player characters with a place to do some shopping and deal with some quests. These are sprawling complexes as civilized settlements should be, though typically most of its inhabitants are just standing around waiting for the player to come to them. Fortunately, Phenomic has remembered to mark town/city maps with icons depicting the location of important NPCs.
As for the rest of the maps, they tend to appear craggy, with stone and rock being a particularly recurring theme. By the end of the story campaign, the player may well be tired of the many but similar variations of rocky texture. Granted, there is a narrative reason for this, but it will not prevent players from being lulled into a sense of boredom after looking at so much rock.
Fortunately, the other decorations for maps are not as dull and repeated. Trees and other vegetation, crops included, are quite pretty to look, and all benefit from implementation of swaying physics so that they do not look mundanely static.
There are themes like lava, plague-blight and frost for some maps, but these are often portrayed with little more than textures, giving the impression that the maps have been simply draped over with a layer of colour. Of course, one can argue that there were limitations in graphics technology at the time and that Phenomic has to work on more than just the aesthetics of the maps, but there will always be head-shaking disbelief when a piece of texture is stretched over a piece of terrain in a manner that obliterates or blurs the details in said texture.
There are next to no facial animations to be had from any models for units in this game. This can be disappointing, as they have more details and polygons than the units in most other real-time strategy games at the time. This disappointment is especially apparent during in-game cutscenes, in which the camera is brought closer to the models. The inclusion of body language is little compensation for such a deficiency, and these eventually wear out their appeal when they start repeating.
Outside of cutscenes, the animations are more satisfactory, though they will not be eliciting any sense of awe. Humanoid models run in a manner that is believable, but many appear to be in postures that are more suited for jogging than charging into battle; walking animations do not look as lackadaisical, fortunately.
Buildings that had been destroyed do not immediately disappear from the map. Instead, a lot of smoke appears to billow from them and obscure them while they sink out of view. Although this is done with surprisingly little, if any, drop in frame rate, players who have realized that this is a rather cheesy way of removing buildings soon find them no longer amusing, especially if they noticed that they have to wait until the building disappears completely before any loot that they are concealing appears.
Where the blemishes in this game's graphical designs are still somewhat acceptable, the ones for its sound designs are not. The chief complaint about them is that a lot of voice-overs for monsters are recycled and reused, the most common one being the howls of ghostly creatures. A lot of spells also appear to share the same sound effects, to the chagrin of anyone who has selected a spell-casting build.
The soundtracks could have been satisfactory, if they were not so easily cut off. Oftentimes, when there is a heated battle with many noises, the soundtracks are the first to suffer glitches and simply stop playing until the game is reloaded, or until event triggers execute the playing of certain tracks.
Spellforce's English localization is its most obviously flawed aspect. While the voice-actors and –actresses are competent at speaking English, they have to work with less-than-competent scripts. There are many moments where the characters speak things that are different from the subtitles and where they appear to mutter some awkwardly placed words. The subtitles themselves are generally terrible. As the story designs appear to rely on the exposition of the history of the world that Spellforce is set in to embellish its appeal, the flaws in the writing and voice-overs work against this.
Multiplayer is perhaps where Phenomic's dream of pairing RPG elements with real-time strategy ones fails to materialize. As mentioned earlier, due to gameplay balance considerations, the Rune Warrior and army units that the player gets do not have any experience-gaining mechanics, which can be a disappointment to those who had been hoping that Spellforce can match the gameplay as seen in earlier RTS games with RPG elements. Moreover, there are few other game modes than the usual free-for-all and team-based annihilation matches.
Spellforce is the result of bold ideas with a lot of potential in creating a game that marries the sophistication of a real-time strategy game with that for an RPG. That Spellforce does not have game-breaking missteps is fortunate, but a slew of flaws that range from the minor to the particularly notable hold it back.