Just a few days ago, the expected release of Songs Of Conquest turned into the expected release of Songs Of Conquest into early access. There are times when such a pivot might dramatically change the angle you'd need to review a game from.
This isn't really one of those times, because I think I'd be recommending Songs Of Conquest overall as it is anyway. Giving it an estimated year for Lavapotion to "figure out, together with the community, what features we should prioritize" could well push me into a wholehearted endorsement, though.
The natural thing is to compare Songs Of Conquest to Heroes Of Might And Magic. Unfortunately, I have only the dimmest memories of one of those games, which never grabbed me. I can't make any helpful comparison, then, but I can note that Songs Of Conquest, by contrast, did grab me pretty much right away. It's a resource-gathering strategy game woven into a looty tactical RPG, or vice versa depending on your perspective. Each part is turn based. The first sees you exploring large and pretty fantasy world maps with your "wielder" (a magical general/hero character), visiting dozens and dozens of buildings, ruins, and miscellaneous sites of interest to hoover up wood and cloth to build or research better troops, and gold to pay for them. Dotted about each map are also fixed forces of neutral enemies, who block off new passages and often pockets of valuables.
Naturally, you'll be wanting to have a go at them, which kicks off a skirmish. These are remarkably intuitive to begin with. Each unit moves according to its initiative (as opposed to each player moving all their units at once), and can generally move then attack if something's in range, with a helpful tooltip giving an estimate of what damage you'll do, plus how many figures within a hostile unit you'll kill. Units have a zone of control, meaning any time you try to move while adjacent to an enemy, they'll take a free shot, and surviving units will counter attack, making melee a serious commitment. Ranged units, meanwhile, do extra damage within their "deadly range", so getting close is generally advisable, but maps are small enough that it's also risky. They also feature hexes of different heights, giving offensive and defensive bonuses and enough variety that I never felt any sense of routine. There was always enough to think about to keep me interested. I'd say I never felt completely lost either, but I'll tell you about the exception to that later.
The sound and animation deserve highlighting in particular. While the maps are lavishly drawn and teeming with detail, it's the fights that really highlight the talent on show. Every attack sounds solid, every unit moves and hits hard. Taking out an enemy always feels satisfying, and they all die with a dramatic flourish, especially when it's the last one on the field, for which the game zooms in for a little slow motion.
While the maps are lavishly drawn and teeming with detail, it's the fights that really highlight the talent on show.
The battles are short and fast, so you're never away from the map too long, and each army tends to feel a little improvised thanks to the way they're tied to your economy. To reinforce your armies you must visit one of your settlements, which generate soldiers every turn based on what you've built. Vicious faey spirits and burly beastmen generate from groves, while empire players can build peasant huts to gather crossbow-toting militia, or taverns to attract defence-boosting minstrels. Some settlements can be upgraded for gold, wood, and stone, which opens more and bigger building sites. Large settlements thus form a natural hub for recruiting advanced troops and unlocking research that bumps up unit stats, but the limited building slots make expansion crucial, so your wielders will be out on the road most of the time looking for more sites as well as more goodies. This in turn means that your armies will be stuck several turns away from the settlement, and thus reinforcements, so you'll find yourself recruiting whatever's available from neutral mercenary recruitment buildings, or outlying village with limited options. Either that or you'll schlep home often.
Alternatively, you can fill a small building slot in a village somewhere with a tower that centralises all your available units, at the cost of building a gold-generating farm there, or perhaps the stoneworks that would produce stone and let you upgrade the nearby mausoleum. The economic strategy side of the game feels more nuanced and interesting than the classic RTS build order memorisation, but it never feels overwhelming, and these considerations only start to occur once you've got the hang of the basics, which both campaigns teach pretty well.
It does, however, leave you to your own devices, with minimal information on what the enemy are doing. This isn't outright bad, but it leaves you vulnerable to that strategy game thing where you're mathematically doomed but won't know it for another two hours. Your enemies, see, are doing all the same things you are, right down to hoovering up the piles of loose gold and stone that you're too slow to reach, and beating neutral armies into XP that will level up their wielders. Leveling is a matter of choosing one of three skills rather than mucking about with too many numbers, but those decisions are still huge, and choosing ones that don't counter your enemy's strengths can cost you.
There's a lot going on, despite how straightforward any individual turn is. You need to be fighting and exploring to level up your wielders, and deny your enemy free resources. You also need to be defending your settlements, and enemy ones. I had one game where a wielder wound up several levels behind everyone, but may have been the MVP of the game because her map movement bonus let her partially raze enemy buildings then leave, forcing their wielders to run back home instead of capturing my villages.
This is where Songs Of Conquest can be wearying. You'll reach a point in long gamers where it's clear you're going to win, but the enemy will still run around capturing a weak village for every two you are (which oddly reminded me of Warlords Battlecry 3). The lack of a notification alerting you to enemy presence is a problem, but exactly the kind of detail that you'd expect to get addressed in early access. Less easily solved is the way that chasing a weak opponent round the map becomes an annoyance for everyone involved. While a defeated army can be restored, this is expensive, and stretches your reinforcements further. Cards on the table, though: I hate losing dudes. Especially when a game's balancing dictates that losing a big battle means grinding away for another few hours just to get back to where I was before the battle. Feeling the sting of loss very intensely may, then, be a me problem, and it's probably one that more experience would teach me to work around anyway. Though the campaigns are good, the skirmish mode (single or multiplayer) and map editor leaves this feeling like a game people are going to really dig into competitively.
This is particularly true for the magic system, which takes a little explaining. It's by far the most esoteric part of the game, and while I can see devoted players becoming terrifying at in multiplayer, it's also the exception I mentioned earlier as it absolutely overwhelmed me at one point. Each unit in a fight generates magic points each turn. Frogmen hunters produce Creation and Destruction points, knights produce Order points, faey lords produce Chaos points, and so on. You can cast as many spells as your wielder knows and has the points for. Several spells need points of multiple types, and wielders can learn more powerful forms of the same spell when the level or find certain artifacts.
This gets complicated when you consider that any time I've talked about a "unit" here, that unit actually represents anywhere between one and a hundred individual creatures, a little bit like in Master Of Magic. But each unit of a type generates the same points regardless of how many creatures are in it. It's obviously better to fill an army slot with 50 out of 50 militiamen, right? They'll hit harder and live longer. But if you split them across two slots, they'll generate more magic for you. Suddenly that wielder with fewer troops spread across 9 army slots has a fertile magic garden.
All this was fine until I faced off against the necromancers. My friends, I got utterly destroyed. Somehow, all three of my armies who had stomped everything in their path were getting completely wiped out in two turns. After nearly a day spent evading, rejigging armies, and re-equipping all my wielders until the game's own calculations rated the fight as "easy", my forces were still facing an army that could somehow cast multiple area attack spells on every turn, immediately, routinely doing 400-600 damage, followed up by necromancer units that had their own bloody area attacks doing hundreds more. For reference, my fully decked out, very expensive magical forest queens had a special attack too. It did 30 damage. Oh, and anyone who survived this assault was getting finished off by rats. Including the knights, who invariably either die instantly or do one round of mediocre damage before getting instantly wiped out. Ten grand those toffs cost me. I could have had hundreds of milita for that. And while this enemy was effortlessly casting what I assume was called LMAO GG, my best offensive spell took two turns to do less damage than shouting at an enemy, and my most effective spell was one that swapped two units around.
But. But but but. I figured out a way around this, eventually. I couldn't fight this ludicrous gang of old dudes in scabby robes, but I could hit and run their towns until one of my wielders was able to level up enough to give all his troops magic resistance. And, well, I know now, right? Lesson learned. I'd have appreciated someone telling me four hours earlier that this enemy could just Ripley anyone on sight, mind, since I could just as easily have focused on anti-magic skills only to cross an enemy wielder focused entirely on his abs. So I don't know. It definitely needs more clarity on what enemy abilities and spells actually do, and perhaps some balancing tweaks are in order - but for all the frustration that one guy caused, it was an anomaly in an otherwise excellent experience. And hey, even if it isn't just me being terrible, a bit of rebalancing is all it would take to fix the only major problem I had. I didn't fall in love with Songs of Conquest, but I think over the coming year a lot of people will.