January 12, 2009 – Except for diehard turn-based RPG strategy fans, last year’s Fantasy Wars on the PC fell under the category of games that only tend to get purchased and played under a perfect storm of conditions – more specifically, during the lengthy gaming droughts in between hot new releases, when you’ve got nothing outstanding to play and you’re completely sick of all the other titles in your collection. Surprisingly, it seems enough of the issues have been ironed out in the game’s upcoming follow-up to possibly warrant a genuine (and possibly even enthusiastic) purchase.
Since Fantasy Wars 2 sounded even more generic and uninspired than the first game, Russian developer Ino-Co (or perhaps the game’s publisher) elected to go with the equally fantasy-friendly but more curiosity-piquing title of Elven Legacy for the sequel. Right off the bat, the well-endowed, bow-wielding, pouty elf chick on the box cover is a vast improvement over the dull orc-adorned box art for Fantasy Wars. At the very least, she’s likely to earn the game a few impulse purchases straight off the store shelf. Digging into a near-final preview build of the game reveals Elven Legacy is very much like its predecessor at its core. However, the game has undergone some solid improvements that make it a more worthwhile endeavor this time around.
Elven Legacy features an epic story that winds its way through separate human and elven campaigns. In our hands-on time with the latter campaign, a rogue human mage steals ancient elven magic and sparks a wild pursuit across the land. Two elven warriors – a commander named Sagittel and the enchantress Gylven – are tasked with mustering a small force and chasing after the runaway mage. They must stop him at all costs from sharing the secret arcade knowledge with the rest of humankind. Their quest branches at numerous points, and the decisions players make will shape how the story progresses. Without giving anything away, the adventure will keep you guessing about the hidden motives among the various characters. While the two campaigns let you play as the elves or the humans, the orcs are also playable in bonus maps.
In each campaign map, you’ll select and deploy your forces, work your way across the terrain, and battle enemy units while seeking to complete specific mission objectives. There are a wide range of units for the different races in the game, including both mounted and on-foot melee units, archers and magic-users that can deal damage from afar, flying ships and winged creatures that can bombard opponents from the skies, and others. You’ll start out with a basic force and unlock new units as you progress through the game. Additionally, all of your forces gain individual experience in combat. They can be upgraded to more powerful units by spending money, and they’ll also gain access to perks and special abilities as they level-up.
Movement along the lush and varied landscape follows an invisible hexagonal grid, and different types of terrain provided advantages and disadvantages in combat. For the most part, each of your units can move and engage in an action (healing, attacking, magic, etc) only once per turn. The turn ends when everyone has acted, and the next one resumes once enemies have had their go at it. Every map has preset benchmarks for the number of turns it expects you to complete the missions in – rewarding you with gold, silver, and bronze medals based-on how quickly and efficiently you perform.
Your rating also has a substantial impact on the amount of money you’re given towards purchasing new troops and upgrading units in-between maps. Kick butt and you’ll be rewarded with a robust, well-oiled force; suck out and you’ll wind up struggling to scrape by in later missions. This mechanic tends to push players forward prematurely and inhibits the natural desire to explore the entire map. Though the maps are smaller and a little more constrained, there’s less incentive to stop and smell the roses. Players who are able to spare a few troops to send off exploring the peripheral areas and accomplish secondary objectives will be rewarded with helpful items, units, and other goodies.
Elven Legacy uses many of the same visual elements and assets as the original game. Though it doesn’t win any awards in the visual department, the game has a lot of bright colors and nice details. It also features extensive camera controls that let you view the action from numerous strategic vantages. It’s still occasionally tough to make sense of who’s who on each side when things get packed, but having the flexibility to view entire armies in a grid represented by a single soldier icon or zooming in closely to view the throng of troops is a neat touch.
In many ways, Elven Legacy is much the same as Fantasy Wars. While the story is different, the maps are uniquely laid out, and there are some new units, everything else will feel very familiar to those who played the first game. The major difference comes in the form of minor improvements to enemy A.I. and other gameplay mechanics. Fortunately, it’s these minor details that really make Elven Legacy a superior turn-based fantasy title. Strategy fans would do well to keep this one on their radar.