(PC Review) Fallen Enchantress – Legendary Heroes

Developer: Stardock Entertainment
Publisher: Stardock
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy / 4X
Players: 1
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 8 = Excellent

Minimum Requirements:
2.4 GHz Processor, 1 GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce 6800 / Radeon x1600 256MB DirectX 9.0c comp. video card, Win 7/8/Vista (SP2)/XP (SP3)

Fallen Enchantress – Legendary Heroes has something of an involved history, being an improved re-release of 2012’s Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, which was already a remake of 2010’s Elemental: War of Magic, but the good news is that all of its troubles haven’t been for naught. Despite a pained development process, the end result is a highly addictive 4X strategy title that attains many of the lofty goals introduced in the first Elemental. By keeping and tweaking what worked and dropping what didn’t, Stardock has created a title that, while in need of some fine-tuning, is well worth checking out.

If Legendary Heroes is one thing, it’s a little of everything.  Of all of its many influences, the two most prominent are Civilization and Heroes of Might & Magic. This will be evident at the outset during the game’s sole scenario, The War for Anthys, which features a forgettable storyline that’s serviceable enough as a vehicle to get a bunch of factions going for each other’s throats. It will become even more so as players explore the New Game (re: sandbox) option.

As a Sovereign, players will lead their fledgling kingdom or empire through a tumultuous period of strife and resurgence. A cataclysm has wrecked the realms and its people, and into this power vacuum steps a handful of leaders who can still muster the energy of the world’s crystal shards to command their people. By settling cities, constructing outposts, harvesting the land’s resources, and researching the lost technology and arts, the Sovereigns will have the means at their disposal to unite the lands under their banner. There are five Kingdoms of Men and five Empires of the Fallen, and all want to reign supreme.

Regardless of which faction is chosen, they all start with very little. The Sovereign leads a small group of followers who must find the optimal tile with the best resource yields of grain, material, and essence on which to settle the faction’s capital.  Each resource dictates how the city will evolve, with higher grain allowing for a larger populace, a higher material allowing for greater production, and higher essence allowing for additional enhancements to be cast on the city. After the capital has been settled, the research trees for Civilization, Warfare, and Magic are unlocked for study, and the city can begin recruiting units or building structures. Construction is limited to a handful of buildings, befitting the capacities of a newfound city, while recruitment typically includes a military-type unit, as well as Explorers and Pioneers. I found Explorers to be surprisingly ineffective: they have no means of escape or defense and yet enemies regularly targeted them, and they also proved to be a significant economic and construction drain at the outset. Pioneers, on the other hand, are incredibly useful and are the true workhorses of the civilian corps because they are responsible for settling cities and establishing outposts.

Founding cities can be a tricky endeavor due to the dangers of the wilds. A city might inadvertently attract the attention of some of the land’s many monsters by expanding the faction’s zone of control too far and causing it to overlap with those of the beasts, who don’t take kindly to incursions into their territory. Unless garrisoned, a new city is easy prey for a band of irritated ogres, ice elementals, or other unsavory monsters. Fortunately, cities can increase their defenses by erecting certain buildings, such as forts and barracks, and leveling up. Cities also level over time, and three initial upgrade types quickly become available, the benefits of which vary from increasing research, increasing the hit points of recruited units, and increasing productivity. Deciding on the proper city type will depend on the tile it was founded on, its place within the faction’s borders, and the player’s long-term goals.

Further upgrades can stamp down on an unseen enemy: unrest. Unrest is caused by the founding of cities, as larger populations become increasingly harder to control, and when the people are angry, research and production suffer. Sovereigns can offset unrest by researching and building entertainment for the citizens to enjoy, casting penalty-reducing spells, selecting certain upgrade traits, and of course, keeping taxes low. Taxes also have an inverse reaction to productivity, with low taxes resulting in a more congenial populace who are eager to work. The coin earned through taxation is required to fund and upgrade the army, so as much as the people might dislike paying into the Sovereign’s coffers, they have little choice if they don’t want their city razed by some vicious invaders.

Cities are only part of the player’s empire, and while they are vital to survival, they are frequently dwarfed by outposts. These handy structures are erected wherever there is enough space: they provide a quick and easy way to extend the faction’s zone of control, allow nearby resources to be harvested, and establish linking roads for faster travel. After additional research, the outposts become even more useful as unlocked upgrades offer a wide variety benefits, some of which include a defense bonus to nearby units and caltrops to reduce the speed of invading enemies. Outposts are linked to the nearest city, and any upgrades are added to the city’s building queue, which means careful planning is essential in order to roll out the upgrades in a timely manner.

As the capital gets on its legs and the faction’s influence spreads through its cities and outposts, the Sovereign is left to tackle nearby quests and monster mobs. Quests range from collecting a set number of wolf pelts for a hermit to saving a caravan from bandits, with each successful quest resulting in an item, Fame, and at times, an extra party member. The party members are not like the ones trained in cities but are instead special units that can be equipped with items from the faction’s shop, such as weapons, armor, accessories, and even horses. Similarly, earning Fame will attract special units known as Champions, who can also be equipped with items. Both character types, as well as the Sovereign, earn new traits as they gain levels. As leaders of the general soldiery, they have access to General traits; these offer a handful of improvements both for the squad, including increased squad health regeneration and initiative, and themselves, such as the ability to wear better armor. There are other types of traits, however, which are dependent on the upgrade path chosen: Assassin, Commander, Defender, Mage, and Warrior. What’s nice about the system is that each path is viable, and while not all traits are unique, the number of traits and upgrade paths allow for a significant degree of variety. I don’t recall ever having two units exactly alike, and I was constantly discovering new and exciting trait combinations throughout my time with the game.

Even though some factions are more geared towards smaller, Champion-heavy squads, most of the heavy lifting will be done by the trained soldiers. As new technologies are researched and structures erected, new soldier types, arms, and armor become available. Many unit types are shared between factions, with the traditional (spearmen, axemen, archers) mixing with the non-traditional (spiders, trogs). Eventually, squads of nine can be formed. However, unlike many other hero-centric strategy games, Legendary Heroes does not require that a squad be led by any unit in particular. There are some restrictions on leaderless squads in that they cannot cast spells, accept any quests, or dig through any of the equipment caches strewn about the world map; however, this is expected, since these abilities are precisely what makes the special units so special. The grunts aren’t just fodder, either, but have their own special abilities due to each weapon unlocking a special ability for the units that have them equipped. For example, spears can impale both the target unit and another unit standing directly behind them, while an axeman can cleave through up to three adjacent enemies. Knowing each unit’s specialty is important because there is no way to undo or reverse a move, and going in for a triple cleave kill only to realize that only the single-target bash attack is available certainly won’t be appreciated by the soon-to-be-dead soldier.

Squads move across the world map in small groups that are roughly visually equivalent to their composition. Capturing an outpost is as simple as marching onto it, while moving onto any resource being harvested by the enemy will result in the destruction of their production facilities. Moving into enemy territory is especially dangerous in Legendary Heroes, though, because of the slow move rate when not traveling on local roads and the enemy’s use of spells to harry intruders. There is a wide variety of magic, but the AI tends to heavily favor those abilities which do squad-wide damage and freeze them in place. Players can access similar spells in their spellbook, which come in two types: strategic and tactical. Strategic spells are those available for use on the world map, while tactical are those that can be unleashed on the battlefield. After some pre-engagement magical skirmishing, two armies will clash whenever their squads collide on the world map. The battle system is similar to the newer iterations of Heroes of Might & Magic, with a grid-based battlefield hosting both armies in a turn-based system. Each unit can only move once and act once during their turn, though there are some spells and abilities that can switch things up a bit. Once a unit engages in an action, it cannot move, and it will also stop moving once it comes into range of an enemy’s melee attack. These rules, along with the aforementioned weapon-specific abilities, make positioning all the more important. Units only get a defense bonus when they ‘pass’ their turn, either by not moving or by moving and not engaging in an action. Letting a unit get too far out exposes them to increased danger because of a swarm modifier, which is an attack bonus that occurs whenever multiple soldiers surround and attack an enemy unit. Although, if they are lucky, some stragglers might make it out alive due to the enemy’s tendency to go after low-hanging fruit, even if it’s to their detriment.

A recurring problem I encountered was that my units would not move to the tile I selected, opting to instead stop on one behind or alongside the target tile. There was also one narrow battlefield map type in particular whose border tiles my long-range units could not target; I had to either send in melee troops or hit the auto button in the hopes that the computer would send a volley, though sometimes the computer did nothing and I had to pass the turn anyway. The actual battlefield grid can be turned on and the camera freely moved around, so I know exactly where I was clicking each time, and it was incredibly frustrating to see my unit run to or attack enemies on the wrong tile. A simple mistake can inadvertently kill a high-level troop because there is no way to undo the move. Given the cost of maintaining an army, with researched arms and armor costing a tidy sum to outfit on existing soldiers, the loss of an elite troop not only represents a significant waste of money and time, but will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on the squad’s performance.

Actually, coming to grips with spells and the combat system can be fairly frustrating. Because the game seems familiar, with a world map and research system similar to Civilization and the turn-based, hero-centered battles of Heroes of Might & Magic, it’s easy to fool oneself into thinking they can jump right in without browsing the manual or going through the tutorial. I quickly found that to be untrue. It’s easy enough to establish a few cities and send out troops looking for trouble, but it will quickly become apparent that things aren’t quite as they should be, as the other factions’ scores skyrocket past the player’s. The immediate sense of recognition when first booting up is in fact quite deceptive. Much of the design’s nuances are lost behind this veneer of familiarity, and that is also in part because the game makes little effort to reveal its intricacies. The manual helps immensely in coming to grips with the factions and the many gameplay options, and reading through it thoroughly is an absolute necessity because the included tutorial is severely lacking. Instead of offering a series of tutorials or having the sole scenario function as an extended and engaging learning tool, the game relies on the Hiergamenon, an in-game encyclopedia, to fill in many of the details, but neither the manual nor the Hiergamenon adequately explain the game’s interwoven mechanics. The game’s economic system is only briefly mentioned, and even after playing for hours, I’m still not sure how to counter some of the spells simply because of either not knowing where to look or because that information wasn’t available. Getting a firm grasp of what to build when and how to counter your foes takes hours of practice, and this time could have been much better spent perfecting the systems rather than learning the basics.

The end game and diplomacy model are also lackluster. As with so many other grand strategy games, the opening gambits, when picking what to research and train, and the mid-game, with all of its warfare and adjusting for some really awesome world events (e.g., all-out war between non-allied factions, a plague in the capital, an eclipse that makes monsters more powerful, etc.), are great, but once everything is researched and the armies have been upgraded, it can be a slog. Contributing to this is the autoresolve function, which is only useful when there is an overwhelming advantage, and even then, long-range units might be lost; this makes it necessary to fight nearly every single one of the many battles towards the end. Diplomatic relations can also be spotty. A stronger enemy might offer tribute, or another want to trade for the exact same item. Coin and military might are the only real way to carry favor, but that is still no guarantee. Despite the AI’s early aggressiveness in its declarations of war and its constant requests for tribute in exchange for allowing the player’s continued existence, it tends to not go in for the kill when it hold all the cards. On the up side, the computer actually fights mutual enemies when in an alliance with the player, which is a nice change of pace from so many other titles.

The game does, however, offer a lot in return for the player’s efforts. One of its most outstanding features is its customizability. Each of the game’s 10 factions (Kingdom of Altar, Kingdom of Tarth, Kingdom of Gilden, Kingdom of Pariden, Kingdom of Capitar, Empire of Kraxis, Empire of Magnar, Empire of Yithril, Empire of Resoln, and Empire of Resoln) provides a Sovereign and a people whose magical proficiencies, traits, unlocks, and perks are already established; and Designer’s Notes in the manual give additional information so that players pick the faction best for them. The basic soldiery’s entire ability template can also be customized. The pre-set Sovereigns certainly get the job done, but the real joy comes in creating one by modifying several categories: name, faction, gender, attributes (magical proficiencies and profession), talents (talents and weaknesses), appearance (clothes, equipment, head, and body), and backstory. This hero can also be loaded for subsequent play sessions, which offers a nice touch of continuity.

Players who wish to delve even deeper can take advantage of the Faction Creator within the Workshop. The Workshop offers a set of customization tools that allow for a number of tweaks, such as tile and particle alteration, but its most interesting option is the ability to found a new faction. In addition to its name and the race of its inhabitants, there are options to choose ideology (Empire for dark magic users or Kingdom for light magic users), crest, strengths, weaknesses, appearance (clothing, armor, roof, skin, and hair colors), and backstory. Unlike the “faction” option when creating a Sovereign, however, this faction is permanently available among the roster. A pop-up notice appears upon entering the Workshop that notes that the tools provided are as-is, as a series of extras for players to tinker with the world and experiment with assets, but I fortunately had no problems with choosing or using the faction I created.

The map generator is also packed with options. A large number of options can be set to create the optimal experience: map size, map type, world size, wildland frequency, production pace, quest frequency, world difficulty, monster frequency, pacing, magic strength, resource frequency, and random event frequency. Further options include setting the number of opponents, the AI, opponent surrender threshold, kingdom vs. empire balance, and victory conditions (conquest, diplomatic, master quest, and spell of making). Opponents can be customized for specific factions, the teams they are on, and difficulty level. A few more scenarios would have been nice to further flesh out the lore and add extra context to the factions’ animosities, but the sheer volume of options makes the lack of an extended campaign much more palatable, if not a non-issue altogether.

As good as Legendary Heroes is, the game will greatly benefit from being patched. Aside from the control problems mentioned earlier when fighting battles, I also crashed to the desktop after extended play sessions several times. There were also moments on the world map when my units would disappear but still be selectable. The interface is wanting in many respects, with some menus not displaying the action’s associated hotkey and some tasks are just too time consuming, like upgrading, forcing players to go unit by unit to upgrade each troop in each squad. The game’s autosave feature meant that I didn’t lose much if any progress, and the interface and control issues were more of an annoyance, but taken together, it’s indicative of a lack of polish. The game looks great and sounds good, but these remaining problems should definitely be ironed out.

Fallen Enchantress – Legendary Heroes is a good game that is a patch away from being a great one. Technical and interface issues can bog things down too much, including problems with tile selection and graphical anomalies, but fans of the genre will also find a lot to like with myriad customization options, great world events, an engaging combat system, and a fantastic mix of strategy and role-playing. Despite its lingering issues, I’m fully prepared to sink even more hours into my own glorious faction.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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