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Wot I Think: Elemental – Fallen Enchantress

Ceasefire of Magic?

Fallen Enchantress is a role-playing strategy game, a sometimes perplexing concoction, but much easier on the spirit than its predecessor. I’ve created wizards, warriors, rangers and the ugly one from the world’s greatest goth boyband, and eventually I even managed to build a few cities as well. Here’s wot I think.

The time I spent with the Fallen Enchantress beta confused me. It was a game doing so many of the right things that I became convinced that the central problem might be that it was trying to do too many of them. “Less than the sum of its parts”, I wrote, figuring that it was unlikely that some of the weaker parts would vanish once the game stopped being a decimal. Now at 1.0, I’ve spent a few days empire-building and I’m ready to admit that there’s not ‘too much’ of Fallen Enchantress at all.

It’s counter-intuitive at times and some aspects aren’t well-realised, but what prevented me from really getting to grips with the beta was the fact that I approached it as if it were a pure 4X strategy game. It isn’t. Not really. It’s more personal than that, with a character at centre stage rather than a capital.

It’s possible to pick a pre-designed culture and leader, but I’ve never done that, and why would I? The customisation options, both aesthetic and actually important, are superb. You could create an evil slaver empire, ruled by a wimpy necromancer with pointy ears, or a nation of noble warriors with a musclebound warrior princess leading them into battle, wielding a giant hammer. Somewhere, deep inside all those options, there’s a binary choice between might and magic, but armies and cities can be the mighty bedrock of domination, and magic can come from the land as well as from innate abilities.

This is what the game suggests, at least, by providing so many options – so many ways to begin. Most of those methods don’t work very well though. It’s great that when weapons and armour are researched, units can be designed with a mish-mash of available technology. I created cudgel-wielding mounted units with massive, swirling cloaks that would almost definitely trip up their steeds as they charged into battle. I gave them every positive trait I could, so even though they had crappy weapons, The Knight Clubs were my most fearsome early game squads.

They weren’t even close to being a match for my leader though, who is always active on the game’s randomised maps rather than hiding away in a tower and flinging spells. That avatar, who can recruit other heroes during his/her travels, is the game’s most powerful unit. It’s entirely possible to play an entire campaign using nothing but heroes and the units they hire and summon, paying only the slightest sliver of attention to research and city development.

There’s at least one-third of a remarkable RPG underpinning this strategy game, with gear to collect, lairs to raid and quests to complete. Unfortunately, it’s still a fraction of an RPG attached to a fraction of a strategy game. Although both parts are interesting, they’re not solid enough taken by themselves and too few of the progression mechanics intertwine. Heroes can cast spells to boost a city’s production or growth, but the two parts of the game seldom feel like their relationship is necessary. Cities expand their influence or use pioneers to harvest distant resources while the leader darts about the world having exciting adventures.

Building new cities doesn't even seem all that important at first, because the leader's life is much more interesting than the civic life. When expansion does come around though, it's one of the game's smarter refinements to the usual way of doings things. New settlements can only be built in predetermined locations, which seems daft at first but is a clever touch, making exploration and guarding of those areas a priority from the moment a unit discovers them.

The more I play, the more I realise that I approached the Fallen Enchantress beta with too many preconceptions. I expected something that fit into the same box as Master of Magic or Fall From Heaven, but Elemental is more of a piecemeal thing. There’s a bit of it in the Warlords box, a couple of cogs and gears under the Heroes of Might and Magic banner, and some parts that don’t seem to have come from a box so much as to have been found at the bottom of a drawer. Those are the glue-sticky pieces of a strategy-RPG Airfix kit.

Beginning with the creation of a leader and running through all of the customisation options and decisions made afterwards, Fallen Enchantress resembles a collection of tools. Some of those tools are excellent – in particular those guiding the evolution of settlements and characters down branching player-determined paths – but putting them all together still leaves you with the contents of a neat toolbox rather than the finished article. Creating a new game is so promising, and the various ways to win promise a variety of play styles, but between the beginning and the end everything becomes muddled.

Almost every click of the mouse leads to a new screen or action that demonstrates how odd the world of Fallen Enchantress is. Somehow, it’s simultaneously steeped to the eyeballs in arcane lore and almost entirely hollow. There are all sorts of backstories and cultures to explore, but players are also encouraged to create their own lore, adding biographies for heroes and histories for their factions. While there are oddities alongside the expected (DRAGONS), the ability to add to the fiction promotes the construction kit sensibility of it all.

Tinkering with most of the systems is enjoyable but they rarely cohere. During my third campaign, I decided to concentrate on developing my hero and questing around the world. There was so much to do! I escorted noblewomen through forests, discovered a creepy, giant gate in the side of a mountain and ran half-way across the world being chased by a gigantic flame-faced demon. The escort quest now seems like a microcosm of my feelings about the game. It was given to my leader at a marked location on the world map, which vanished once it had fulfilled its purpose, and then the target location appeared, a posh estate in a desert a few movement points away. Once I’d delivered the lost lady, having declined a bandit chief's offer to swap her for money instead, the estate vanished. The more you do, the less there is.

Eventually, once I’d cleared my starting continent of points of interest, I decided to expand my empire. In all the time I’d been out wandering, the limited number of potential settlement locations hadn’t been snatched up by opponents and my town had only come under attack once, when its borders expanded to a spider nest and the residents skittered in for the kill. Combat takes place on a tactical map and it’s there that the DNA of Master of Magic and Age of Wonders is most evident. It’s not spectacular but it works well and is far more suited to the wide plains and deep forests of Elemental than a system like that in Warlock/Civ V would have been.

There’s variety in each world the game generates but not a great deal of character. For all the fantastical spells and monsters whizzing about, it's a bland, grey place. Maybe ugly is the word I’m looking for but it doesn’t seem quite right. Empty, maybe, like the lore. The lights are all on but the room is barren. Forests are colourless lumps and the wild lands, home to the deadliest creatures and large neutral armies, look too much like placeholder graphics to inspire any dread or mystery.

Despite some effective scene-setting at the opening of a new game and paragraphs of charmingly needless flavour text scattered throughout, Fallen Enchantress never inspired me. I didn’t feel a sense of struggle or purpose, and that’s mostly due to the disconnect between so many of the game’s features. It might seem odd to complain about a game that’s a construction of disparate systems shortly after writing about loving the very same, but Fallen Enchantress makes me feel like I’m doing most of the work and doesn’t inspire confidence that what’s happening behind the interface is particularly intricate, complex or interesting.

The other fantasy strategy game I've been playing this year, Warlock, is much more lean, but also compact and tight. Elemental is baggy and unfocused in comparison, although some people will undoubtedly laud its ambition. 1.0 probably won’t be the end of the line but rather than needing to take the few extra steps toward greatness, Elemental feels like it’s a few steps sideways from where I’d like it to be. Those same devotees who praise its reach may well be pleased with where it is now and it’s certainly not a terrible place, but the apparent complexity soon fades, like the locations on the map, to reveal a world full of options, too many of which mean so little.

Elemental: Fallen Enchantress is available now. If you bought War of Magic you might be eligible for a discount or even a free version, but if that's the case you've probably already played the beta. Otherwise, it's $39.99.

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