Summary: Elemental: Fallen Enchantress is a standalone expansion pack and follow-up to developer Stardock's previous game in the series, subtitled War of Magic. That 4X strategy game was highly-anticipated and slated to compete with games such as Sid Meier's Civilization V for your turn-based strategy play-time, but was released in an incredibly broken and unfinished state that it never fully recovered from. Lead designer Brad Wardell apologized profusely to fans and set out with his team to go back to the drawing board and try again.
Almost two years later, the result of that proverbial mulligan is currently undergoing closed beta testing. In today's article, Will reports his thoughts on how Fallen Enchantress is shaping up, and will tell you whether or not you should be keeping an eye on it as it nears release later this year.
Think of Civilization, growing your empire across the world, hoarding all of the resources that you come across, and fending off rival civilizations. But instead of using ordinary soldiers to defend your empire, you rely on the services of powerful wizards with incredible spells. Their powers can change the map in an instant. However, your enemies also possess wizards, capable of summoning a fantastical army of myth and legend against you. So instead, you rely on the might and bravery of individual heroes who, with experience, become unstoppable killing machines. I am, of course, talking about Simtex’s 1994 classic Master of Magic, one of the cornerstones of the 4X strategy genre.
Elemental: War of Magic -- released in 2010 -- was intended to be its spiritual successor, in fact it was supposed to be an actual sequel until talks with MoM license owner Atari fell through. Nevertheless, Elemental faithfully carried the same concept forward, basking in the hype and anticipation for another stellar Stardock release. I myself pre-ordered the game, thinking that if it were anything like their Galactic Civilizations series they would have another home run on their hands. But poor judgment led to the release of a completely unfinished game that should not have seen the light of day. How it managed to pass beta testing and rudimentary quality assurance remains a mystery.
The game was so unfinished that several reviewers actually delayed their evaluation of the game until a few proper patches were released, out of respect. But even that wasn't enough to save Elemental from catastrophe… two years later, that is. With everything updated the game will continue to crash, bog down to a crawl when the action gets going, and corrupt save information. Add in the fact that the AI is incredibly basic and frustrating, the UI is a mish-mash of random bits of information, and there is absolutely no guidance as to the myriad of different gameplay mechanics made Elemental the last time I ever pre-ordered a PC game.
Enter Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, Stardock’s apology for betraying their fans’ trust. This standalone expansion/remake will be free to anyone who purchased the original game in 2010 and available at a reduced price for those who bought it more recently. In addition, you will receive access to the beta to play immediately. Fallen Enchantress promises to fix everything that was wrong with the original, ranging from bugs and AI to the interface and core gameplay components. But is Stardock actually fixing a potentially great game, or merely polishing a turd?
When you fire up Elemental: FE for the first time, you will notice a few things are different about the main menu. First, there is no more multiplayer. This is because it wasn’t included in the original, despite being advertised, until a later patch introduced it, albeit only for small, specific maps capable of holding only a few players – a far cry from the 16-player maps and LAN functionality that was initially promised. This revision is fine as these types of strategy games don’t work well in an online environment. The second thing you will notice is the darker palette and sharper style. This resonates throughout the game’s vastly improved interface, lending an air of sophistication and modernity over the original’s drab and confusing layout.
Like the original, when you start a sandbox game you pick one of ten different factions. Each half of these factions belongs to two sides: the Kingdoms and the Empires. The Kingdoms are the human controlled lands of the west, epitomizing freedom, peace, and prosperity. The Empires are the demon-infested realms of the east, embodying domination, power, and destruction. Each allegiance has its own unique buildings, resources, strengths, and weaknesses. It’s not as incredibly diverse as it sounds, as both sides share the majority of tech and units. However, unlike the original, each faction also contains specific traits that are unique to that one faction. Before, every faction in their respective allegiance was essentially the same.
You can also create your own faction, adding in different strengths and bonuses or even weaknesses in order to free up more points to add to your build. You can select the race of your faction, which adds another trait, and choose its allegiance to either the Kingdoms or the Empires. After that you need to create your leader, the Sovereign. Like with the creation of the faction, you pick your profession, various strengths and (optionally) weaknesses, any starting equipment, any magical power school(s), and his or her appearance.
Upon starting the game you will immediately find yourself in a much more detailed world. Unlike War of Magic, FE presents us with multiple environments ranging from the average desert and forest to exotic lands full of crystals, swamps, snowy tundra, jungles, and more. The previous game’s randomly generated maps were almost exclusively a drab desert devoid of color. Expanding your cities will change the landscape under your area of control, introducing green pastures if you’re a Kingdom or a barren wasteland if you’re an Empire.
The most drastic change in Fallen Enchantress, however, is with the user interface. In the original game the UI tried to resemble something of a journal, complete with the color scheme and layout of an old book. This served to confuse players by hiding entire portions of the game or having one mechanic confused with another. It took me awhile to actually figure out which side of the progress bar was for researching new technology and which one was for researching new spells. Thankfully FE makes it abundantly clear what’s what, giving important info enough space to be noticeable at a glance rather than mashing every little number into one box.
I cannot overstate just how significant the interface improvements impact the feel and flow of the game. On top of greater functionality, it’s also infinitely better looking. The thin onyx black bars do not take up much real estate nor do they distract from the game. It’s subtle and sexy, and sends the message that Stardock really took to heart every criticism and did their best to address it.
One of the major components of the Elemental franchise is the use of RPG mechanics for hero characters and the monsters that roam the world. Whilst your empire is busy building up you can explore to take part in quests, loot dungeons, and fight off the hordes of baddies that threaten your every move. You start out with your Sovereign, the leader of your faction, and recruit NPCs to your cause with money. Unlike in WoM, all NPCs stay in one place rather than roaming around aimlessly. For too long these important NPCs, called Champions, would get themselves killed or bought off by an opposing faction before you could get to them because they left your line of sight. No more!
Scattered about the world are a bunch of tiles called “goodie huts,” or locations with random items that you can pick up upon walking on them. Some of these introduce quests, which can range from fetch and assassination quests to escort missions or epic adventures that sprawl the entire map. One of them is also a possible victory condition for winning the game. Rewards vary from weapons and armor that increase your attack or defense to special items that grant magical abilities. The interface change FE introduces really shines here, as equipping and trading items between companions has never been simpler.
I previously mentioned researching new spells. Well, in Fallen Enchantress that entire mechanic has been deleted. In War of Magic, you would research each individual spell your Sovereign has access to in order to use it. Unfortunately, that meant you had to be very strategic in how you devoted time to getting new powers. Instead, FE uses a new leveling system for individual characters and cities. Instead of manually upgrading a bunch of statistics or researching new spells, you simply pick a perk. Upon leveling you choose one of five perks, each one granting a specific bonus to either your stats or granting a new set of abilities. For example, if one of your characters is a Fire Mage and they level-up, you may have the opportunity to select a perk that advances their fire magic. This immediately introduces the next tier of new fire-related spells rather than having to individually research them all.
These perks are descriptive and give you a good idea of what to expect. They are also arrayed in a sort of progressive tree. For example, one of your hero characters might come to a point where they pick a profession, such as “Path of the Warrior” or the Mage or the Governor. Picking one of them will grant you an immediate bonus associated with that perk but also unlock future perks associated with the previous one. Picking Path of the Governor, which grants you +1 Faction Prestige, may seem useless for a hero character that spends their time traveling around killing things, but future perks will include significant bonuses such as improving your research rate or monetary income. This is an incredibly fun mechanic and one of the best additions to Elemental.
The story of the game is also vastly improved. The original Elemental felt like the story was merely there to serve as a backdrop for the action going on in the game. In Fallen Enchantress, every faction, character, creature, goodie hut, quest, event, and research option is described with a bit of backstory. Think of it as the italicized fluff at the bottom of a trading card. Individually it’s a load of nonsense but reading all of it as it comes along really enhances the world you’re playing in and gives you the sense that this is a unique universe and not a generic fantasy template.
Quests now come complete with moral dilemmas and multiple ways of ending with different rewards, like the ability to save a princess or sell her into slavery. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a consequence to either choice other than its associated reward. This is an area Stardock could work on a little bit. Along with the improved story, the game comes with a pretty good tutorial and a huge in-game manual complete with narrated gameplay videos that describe every aspect of Elemental. The lack of documentation in the original game was a serious problem and I’m glad Stardock went the extra mile to ensure that that’s no longer the case.
Along with your Sovereign being the focal point of your heroic RPG characters, he or she builds your first city at the start of the game. The original game merely had you plop a city down wherever you felt like, but Fallen Enchantress takes from Civilization the mechanic of having each tile contain a different value. The two values you concern yourself with in city-building are Materials and Food. Materials decrease the amount of time it takes to produce something whilst Food increases the population of your city and therefore its level and taxable income. So location is very important. Some tiles may have higher values than others but they may also be near enemies, with little space, or not a whole lot of special resources around. Likewise, it may be surrounded in resources and in a great location but without any value to the tiles. FE no longer encourages city spamming as the original game did.
As mentioned before, some tiles contain special resources, like an elemental shard of magic, fertile land, an iron node, an ancient temple, etc. When these are captured they impart significant bonuses to your empire and are necessary for certain units, such as a tile with horses or wargs in order to build mounts. Because you’re no longer able to plop a city down wherever you please, settlers can construct outposts. Outposts are static structures that merely increase your area of control to help capture resources or contain your rivals’ borders. This is a humongous improvement over spamming cities everywhere and then having to manage said cities.
Instead of being a defenseless jumble of buildings, cities now automatically contain some defenders to ward off the occasional stray bandit that you may have missed. It was incredibly frustrating to be occupied on one side of the world only to have a giant spider destroy your entire civilization back home because you forgot to place some defenders. These city militiamen also upgrade as the city grows so unless you’re in an all-out war against another player, each city should be self-sustaining. Monsters also come from pre-designated spawn points that can be destroyed, so you’ll never be hit by a totally random encounter.
The game is still in beta and a lot of things are subject to change. One of them is the act of “snaking” your city. Unlike Civilization, every improvement that you build in a city takes up a surrounding tile versus merely enhancing the one tile that the city is in. There are no limitations to the number of improvements that you can build so you end up with sprawling metropolises. Elemental allows your units to instantly warp from one end of your zone of control to the other in one turn, so building these sprawling cities in a snake-like fashion can act like a superconductor for unit movements.
The developers are experimenting with adding limitations to the number of buildings you can put in each city or the number of tiles that you can build on. On one side, city-building becomes a lot more strategic than merely adding every conceivable building. On the other, it makes it so that you have to build several cities versus sticking with one megalopolis. If they go through with that, I hope it becomes an optional mode of play rather than a permanent change, though. In addition, each city used to have two different build queues: one for buildings and the other for units. Fallen Enchantress now combines the two into a single queue, meaning you can’t churn out an army whilst you’re also building up your city. I’m not entirely a fan of this, going with the same several cities versus one city argument, but again, I would hope the developers make it optional. I certainly see how it adds a greater strategic element to the game, however more choices are always better.
Like with leveling up your hero characters, leveling up a city provides you a choice of perks. These perks are actually just a choice between five constructable buildings, each imparting a different bonus. Before when a city leveled, you selected one of three general bonuses to either production, income, or research. Cities level up according to population, which is influenced by both food and prestige. Prestige is generated by simply playing the game: conquering territory, creating new cities, hiring Champions, being liked by your subjects, etc. Each level of city comes with a new tier of improvements and increased income, production, and research up to a maximum of level 5.
As of writing this, the AI has not received too many improvements from the original Elemental. It will be added in later builds and, of course, the full release. Nevertheless, the AI is already significantly improved and does its best to utilize whatever is at their disposal. Your difficulty setting will adjust their behavior and sadly, like almost every game, you can’t mix-and-match specific features so you’re left with enduring something too easy or too hard. We’ll see if this is addressed in the future.
Like in most 4X games, the AI’s attitude towards you is influenced by a multitude of factors ranging from military strength and diplomacy to general likeability, such as helping them out when they ask it from you and being a good neighbor. The AI is pretty intelligent about common stratagems before going to war, such as placing units just outside of their border, building cities next to theirs, and crossing said borders. They will very quickly be wary of your actions and do something about it. They’re also intelligent about hoarding resources and trying to beat you to certain areas that are loaded with valuable goodies.
Another element done away with in Fallen Enchantress is the oft-misunderstood dynasty system. You can no longer marry Champions and your Sovereign, arrange marriages between states, or build up a family. It’s sad to see it go, but I never did get it working right in the original game. Perhaps it’ll be re-added at a later date. Also removed from the game are two tech trees – or rather, they’ve been merged into the other trees. Originally you researched between Civilization, Warfare, Adventure, Diplomacy, and Magic, but now it’s consolidated into Civilization, Warfare, and Magic. Some research options have been removed and others added, but of course it’s all subject to change.
When your units engage in combat you have the option to auto-resolve or go straight into tactical play. Auto-resolve works better than it did in the original Elemental; there’s a good mix of probability so you’re never always dying or always winning. However, tactical play is actually worthwhile now. Stardock must have hired someone who worked on turn-based tactics games, as the interface looks like it was lifted wholesale from popular titles in that genre. This is a good thing, as you can now tell which unit is going to attack and when, stats and powers are properly arrayed, and the pop-up tooltips do a good job of educating you as to what’s going on and what you can do about it.
All units have premade perks and special abilities, making for fun and varied combat instances. That little bear cub you’re picking on? It can maul your units, meaning it will keep attacking until that unit dodges. This means Smokey’s baby can quickly murder you if you’re not careful... Spell-casting has also been vastly improved. Spells now carry an element of surprise to them and powerful spells require multiple turns to cast, during which time they can be catastrophically disrupted with counter-spells. Like before, mana is a universal resource shared by all mage units, so you have to be very cautious with what spells you cast and when. Champions are somewhat invulnerable now and death no longer means spawning at the nearest city. Instead, when a hero character dies it gets a negative perk, such as double damage from cold attacks or 25% less hit points. It’s all random and provides an interesting twist on your tactics every time. It also means you can keep fighting with and leveling your champions instead of being overly protective for fear of them being defeated in battle.
Elemental: Fallen Enchantress is extremely promising. Already the beta build is more stable, more fun, and more full of content than the original game. It’s still in an actual beta phase (meaning they’re receiving and reacting to feedback on a regular basis) and the official release of the game is not expected until sometime this fall, so a lot can and will change.
I won’t go so far as to encourage you pre-order the game right away in case I turn out to be horribly wrong, again, but I will say that if you are one of the ~100,000 that bought Elemental: War of Magic and were sorely disappointed, then there is plenty of reason to look forward to this new release. Fallen Enchantress really is the game we were initially promised, which is better late than never. Even the smart consumers who waited for reviews and skipped purchasing the first game should definitely give Elemental another look later this year if they're in the market for something in the 4X strategy genre.
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