The Rally Point: The Heroic Legend Of Eagarlnia is a sort of light grand strategy, somehow
I like driving in Eagar
I still don't know whether to describe The Heroic Legend Of Eagarlnia as "complicated" or "simple". Before starting a game, it gives an impression of being a complex grand strategy that's something like a fantasy Total War with a D&D alignment system and a distinctly East Asian focus on characters and dialogue.
It's far simpler than that. There was a period of disappointment, even, when it seemed like there wasn't much to it at all. That's partly because it's easy to play it too passively, or get stuck in attritional stand offs, and partly because of the need for a bit too much repetition. But over time its subtler details become more apparent, and your choices start to feel more multifaceted.
And yet, it remains at heart the same throughout. On your first ten turns you're doing the same actions as in your 200th, and its battles in particular are largely hands off. So maybe it's complicated, but simple to actually play? Hmm.
Alright, let's describe it. You pick a faction from a fantasy map that very vaguely resembles China (in the same way that 90% of Anglo fantasy maps are basically Western Europe, and probably the Middle East where the Dark Evil Evil Dark Monster Doomdark is). Each faction has a lot of text that you won't read, half a dozen named characters, and a lot of confusing icons that you don't need to worry about yet.
Every faction plays essentially the same way, with the only huge difference being dependent on what setup options you choose. The biggest ones are whether alignment restricts what factions a character can work for, and whether AI factions can poach your characters. With some caveats, I recommend enabling both of these, simply because they make things more interesting in the long run, but they could also be frustrating depending on what happens in your game.
You really ought to just pick whoever you like the look of, since there's really no way to tell how anyone will play until you try them. Each also get a unique story to set things up. There’s a tonne of character text but it keeps out of the way if you don’t ask for it. Although these are a nice touch (my undead faction leader was out to get revenge on Death itself for overlooking her, which is metal as hell), they make little difference and you'll forget your faction's story long before your game's over. But that's alright, because by then you'll have formed your own grudges and impressions of your rivals. This is partly because of the natural military strategy game dynamic where we develop relationships with AI sides based on how a campaign goes. Those evil bastards to the Southwest keep trying to invade, how dare they? What kind of monstrous backstabbing scum would try to conquer me when I'm busy trying to righteously conquer someone else?
The other reason is where the differences between factions come in. Everyone will be doing the same things - bulking up defences, undermining enemy ones, driving up town prosperity, training soldiers, and a few others - but you can only do one action for every character you have, and those characters vary wildly in their abilities. Each has basic stats for fortitude, politics, wisdom, and charisma, which make them more effective at relevant tasks. These improve over time, and are boosted by any equipment they carry, and make a big, obvious difference to who should be doing what, especially fighting. But two characters with identical stats aren't necessarily interchangeable, since most also have special skills. One has a much higher success rate at diplomacy. Another is very good at training cavalry, and another grants direct bonuses to archers in combat.
Differentiating them further still is where things get really messy, because any character can lead an army, and when they do that, not only do you need to consider their raw military prowess (or in some cases, the fact that their low Fortitude is massively outweighed by a skill that lets them do triple their Wisdom value in damage) and direct bonuses they grant to specific troop types, but also what special powers they can draw on in combat. I'll... I'll come back to combat later.
What all this means is that your capabilities are defined by who's on your side. Not only the number of people, but what they're good at. Keeping people on costs money, as does sending them to do anything, and maintaining an army is particularly pricey (although happily, you don't have to dick around producing them or managing numbers, merely declaring that a character should lead an army of x type will have them take care of it), so you'll want to focus on acquiring characters you can use well. Because, you see, you can steal characters from other factions. Some factions are better at it than others, and the odds are generally low, and heavily influenced by alignment and any personal relationship, so you won't want everyone, but the benefits of talking a good one into joining you are obvious. You get their skillset, and you deprive someone else of the same. It's why I recommend enabling the option for AI to do it to you; without that, you inevitably leech manpower off everyone and never lose it. It's also why I recommended the alignment limitations earlier - they prevent every campaign from leaving you with the same faces.
Interestingly, when you capture and turn faction leaders, you also get access to their story missions, and their occasional conversations when facing familiar characters in battle. Wipe out a faction and all its surviving characters are yours, to imprison, execute, or release as you see fit. It's surprisingly dramatic having to decide then and there which specific people to behead. Entertaining, too, if you're playing as an evil faction and have developed a dislike for particular people in battle. Imprisoned people can be recruited or, ah, "interrogated" first and then turned. Released ones might join you in gratitude... or turn up fighting for someone else. Gits.
An oddity of this system is that even confined to one city, a faction can be just as dangerous as when they have 6, because as long as their characters are alive they can send out an army.
Armies. This is a weird one. You don't recruit armies, as such. But you can make any character a general in the barracks, assigning a particular type of fighter to each. They'll automatically replenish losses over time, and cost money to maintain, so you're best off using them as much as possible, if only so your rivals are licking their wounds instead of eyeing up your cities. You don't need to worry about logistics or movement at all - a bit like Imperialism, armies can just attack any neighbour instantly. The battles initially seem like hopeless chaos. In a sorta 2.5D screen, armies full of sprites rush at each other in a jumbled melee, and for a while it'll seem either completely random or fixed against you. There is, however, a 7-way rock-paper-scissors system going on. Troops vary from faction to faction, but the basic types are all shared, so while your spearmen might be undead and better than someone else's, who gets good archers instead, they're still your best bet against cavalry. So you'll match unit for unit, right? That's a good baseline.
But each squad is led by a character, and those characters have both passive bonuses to themselves and others, and an active power that only works in battle. And it's here that things get really messy. Powers require mana, but also need to charge up over time, and each charges at different rates. Only one can fire at a time, making for a weird dynamic where after the initial phase of running at the enemy, you'll be watching everyone's countdowns and trying to fire off your specials before the enemy do to temporarily deny them the opportunity. Sometimes you'll have a melee guy firing constant buffs to himself, or another doing a big hammer attack to smack everyone around him before he goes down. Some launch big area attacks or buff allies. But some characters have devastatingly powerful magic that takes most of the battle to charge, so in theory you just need to hold on and protect them until then... but if you're not paying attention to the enemy's powers you might find that they have one that will heal their whole army, or even kill you first. In my first game I had one character with an attack that didn't touch the enemy army, but could wipe out two or three enemy generals in one swoop.
Battles remain messy, and any semblance of formation or organisation evaporates almost immediately. But once you get a handle on that higher level game of evaluating and countering your enemies, there's a great tension to some of them, and some big upsets can happen when powers combine, or your neighbours happen to have a lot of characters who lead armies that counter yours, or there's that one bastard whose magic turns every battle round at the death.
It's why it becomes so satisfying to capture the lot of them and lop off their heads, or better still, to steal away a guy who can lead a unit of cavalry and blast a whole army with lightning. There are research trees for each faction to differentiate them further too, so some get bonuses to sabotaging enemy defences, some to army recovery speed, others again to recruiting characters or diplomacy. There's no real diplomacy in game, as all "alliances" are really just temporary non-aggression pacts, and trade agreements also expire. Money, in fact, is in need of balancing, as it seems like nobody ever runs a deficit and the numbers soon become meaningless, but weirdly enough this didn't matter all that much, since the strategy was all in the battles, in turning the right characters, and in choosing the right moment and enemy to strike so that someone else wouldn't follow up by attacking while your armies were weakened. There's one faction whose research tree is full of breakthroughs that reduce their stats, and then the following one uses that sacrifice to empower something else. I'm not convinced it's worth it, but I love the concept. And I love that it doesn’t waste my time with city admin or recruiting or management busywork in general.
For all this though, each turn is simple even when you have lots of characters. Sure, there's a sort of side quest system too, where you can send characters off for several turns to explore off map locations and usually come back with new items and resources (for upgrading troops, a slow but vital long-term project that, again, some characters and factions excel at). There are lots of little details but most turns are a case of sending the same characters to do what they're good at every turn, over and over. Money guy do money, training guy train, sneaky girl sabotage defences again and again because town defences are crazy tough and sabotage often fails and the enemy just builds it up again. Ugh. It could really use a "repeat orders" function, or just some alternative to the repetition. The opening in particular can be dull as you don't really have any momentum, but despite all this I found myself enjoying and plain liking Eagarlnia the longer I played it.
It's weirdly compelling, and its complications aren't demanding or laborious. You don't need to memorise statistics or crunch numbers even though loads are flying around - just that your horsies are really good against that faction, and that you need to watch out for that one guy. It has personality, helped along by the excellent portraits. It's not an aesthetic I usually like at all, but almost every character looks distinctive and very stylish. Its whole "confusing but you can kinda wing it" vibe has a vein of a particular kind of late 90s ropey-but-fun bootleg game that you'd scoff at but then play for eleven hours. It wasn't at all the D&D/Total War/Beijing RPG megagame I'd taken it for, but even its flaws somehow didn't seem to matter for the weeks I spent with it.