Friday, December 04, 2009

Solium Infernum Review

Solium Infernum, developed and published by Cryptic Comet.
The Good: Several alternatives to combat, restricted orders per turn reduce micromanagement and increase strategy, many troops and items to bid on, progressive diplomatic actions, rituals and event cards add uncertainty, tons of avatar customization options, play by e-mail, randomized maps
The Not So Good: Terribly passive AI, lacks tutorials, some interface shortcomings, no default avatar builds
What say you? A deep and unique strategy game that offers many paths towards a hellish victory: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
A couple of years ago, I reviewed Armageddon Empires, a card-based and turn-based strategy game. The title had some nice features, like deck customization and multiple strategic paths, but the slow pace and lack of tutorials turned me off to a game that more respected media outlets lauded for its depth. Heck, the thing got an 87 average score. I clearly missed the boat on that one (hey, it happens occasionally), so now it’s time to redeem myself with Solium Infernum, the latest strategy game from developer Cryptic Comet. Now, you are battling for control of Hell by amassing prestige and promoting general evil awesomeness. Let the most esteemed Archfiend win!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Solium Infernum features a similar visual style to Armageddon Empires: a 2-D map similar to a board game. The hexes do evoke a feeling of eternal damnation with a very gray feel, and the item cards for avatars, relics, and artifacts are quite detailed and compete with any of those card-based RPGs. There are no animations and hardly any special effects for battles or spells, so Hell is actually a pretty static place. You can thankfully run the game in a window since it is limited to an archaic 1024x768 screen resolution. The game interface is a mixed bag: while all of the numerous game actions are accessible from your “Ministerium,” it could also use some additional work to make the game more intuitive for new players. Some examples: crossing out unavailable order slots, making scrolling ability more apparent on the event log, and tool tips for attributes would all be quite welcome. The biggest interface inadequacy involves the lack of sorting tribute cards: resources are just piled on top of one another, and I actually spend most of my time in-game not devising strategy but organizing my cards, trying to find a specific resource. It’s annoying and needs to be fixed. The sound design is even more basic than the graphics: a single “click” effect and nice background music that I enjoyed, although I muted it and listened to my MP3s eventually anyway. Nobody will be turning towards Solium Infernum for graphical glory, but the bare board game feel doesn't negatively impact the game too much.

ET AL.
In Solium Infernum, you are a demon in Hell, vying for control of the Inferno, because there is honestly nothing else to do down there. Games can be customized by specifying the map size, map layout, frequency of places of power, and game length. Each map is randomly generated based on one of four formats; the game seems somewhat fair in deciding optimal starting positions, although some games you are luckier than others. Solium Infernum can be played against the AI or humans through play by e-mail, where players will send their turns to a host, who will process the turns and send them back. It’s a relatively smooth process and certainly a recommended one due to the lack of quality AI I shall address later. A major part of the game is designing your custom avatar. You are given a number of points that you can dedicate towards a rank (which controls the size of your starting army), public objective (a prestige bonus is earned if you obtain it), perks (small bonuses intended for different strategies), and five attribute areas. Confusingly, the attributes and the disciplines they affect are named differently, but in essence you have military, stealing, scouting, destruction, and resource hog. There is a wide range of possibilities here to satisfy a number of viable strategies; however, there are no default avatar loadouts to choose from to get you started.

Victory is obtained by accumulating the most prestige by the end of the game. Solium Infernum is turn-based, and the length is semi-random through the drawing of conclave tokens; this makes it more interesting because you can’t be sure when exactly the game will finish. There are several ways to accumulate prestige, and unlike most (if not all) strategy games, many of the methods aren’t related to straight-up combat. Sure, you get prestige for destroying legions, but you also gain prestige by controlling territory and places of power, performing rituals, through diplomacy, accumulating relics, and meeting objectives. In addition to the public objective chosen while customizing your avatar, you can draw secret objectives during the game, such as destroying enemy legions or banishing an enemy praetor, that give a positive prestige bonus if completed, but a negative one if not. Solium Infernum is very restrictive in the amount of things you can do every turn. Most players will start out with the ability to issue only two commands per turn, and this includes everything: moving troops, collecting resources, et cetera. This is a smart design decision that makes the end-game much less tedious and increases the strategy by making you choose which actions are most important.

So, here are the orders you can choose from. Important is the collection of tribute, delivered on cards for no apparent reason. The number of resource cards you are offered and can keep is dependent on your charisma trait, so it is a very important investment when you are creating your avatar. It’s an exotic system that makes for some good decision making on which cards to keep, and some poor, annoying organization that I mentioned earlier. You will eventually have to spend an order consolidating your cards in order to bid on more expensive things since you can only use ten cards at once. Bidding is done through the infernal bazaar (bizarre? ha ha!), where legions, praetors (leaders), artifacts (bonuses for legions), relics (overall bonuses), and collectible manuscripts (for large bonuses) can be obtained by the highest bidder. This is an interesting system because it rewards those with better resource collecting skills, but it isn’t a straight relationship since you are bidding directly against others for the same items. Most avatars will only have three (at most) legions under their control (especially because moving more legions requires extra orders you don’t have) that can be outfitted with praetors and artifacts to increase their stats. There are some interesting customization options here with the various items you can purchase and outfit your troops with (which, of course, requires an order slot). You are also required to use your limited orders for moving troops, capturing neutral territory and engaging in combat with the enemy. Combat is a straightforward affair since you can see all of the ranged, melee, and infernal (essentially magic) stats for each structure and legion; results are usually quite predictable. You are given more leeway with one-on-one praetor combat, where you can specify the order of seven moves for your subordinate. Combat cards can be constructed by militarily-inclined avatars to accentuate their legions beyond their initial fixed stats, and legions can also increase in competence by successfully engaging in combat.

Hell has a surprisingly structured diplomatic system. First, you must either insult an opponent or demand resources. If they take offense to your action, a vendetta is declared: a mini-war that has a specific objective, like controlling four hexes, obtaining a place of power, or having a one-on-one fight between praetors. Once three successful vendetta have been executed, a full-on blood feud is declared, where extermination is the end result. Further diplomatic orders include sending an emissary for peace, becoming a blood vassal for a share of the win, or excommunication, which removes all of the rights and privileges of being an underlord in Hell. Rituals are an important aspect of Solium Infernum: they are spells that come in three general flavors (deception, prophecy, and destruction) with varied resource costs, depending on the threat level you have set for that opponent. These are a tricky way of influencing enemy powers without resorting to all-out military supremacy, and they make alternative paths to victory possible. Resources can also be spend leveling-up your avatar to access better spells and abilities.

Each turn, one person is selected to be the Regent, who earns an event card. These can drastically alter the course of a game if played at the right time, and they have varied and wide-ranging effects: turning hexes into impassable terrain, losing tribute cards, unleashing a powerful unit to destroy all, and over sixty other possible events. The mechanics here are much more strategic than simply having random events peppered throughout the game, since somebody is always the cause of an event. Gameplay-wise, Solium Infernum comes together quite nicely because of its unique attributes. The limited number of orders at your disposal puts a premium on choosing appropriate actions for each turn. The game’s resources can be used for a wide range of activities, and not all games will turn into a match of military superiority since you can bribe, manipulate, or destroy enemy units at a distance with magical magic. The early game is repetitive, as your initial orders will be (1) move and (2) collect resources, but things get rolling once you are involved in vendettas and can take full advantage of rituals, events, artifacts, relics, praetors, and manuscripts. Solium Infernum is best as a multiplayer game since the AI is not aggressive enough: in all of the games I have played so far, I have never been the target of any diplomatic action, even as the prestige leader. The AI does occasionally use rituals (when you have coerced a vendetta first), but since the AI seems hell-bent (pun intended) on avoiding war, the game can become a lot of needless repetition.

IN CLOSING
Solium Infernum succeeds by offering unique and varied strategic gameplay. There is simply not another game quite like it, and the many ways of obtaining victory in the underworld make for a slightly different experience every time. This starts with the randomized maps that increase replay value and satisfying play-by-e-mail multiplayer to annoy your friends with. This is an important feature, as the AI is much too passive to be any sort of competition once you have the basics down: in most games, I was never insulted, let alone attacked, even once by a computer opponent. There are a multitude of options in creating your avatar to tailor your initial strategy, although I would like to have at least one default configuration to get you started. You can try out many strategies through building your custom character, from a military genius with lots of troops to a cunning intellectual that relies on magic and bribes. Solium Infernum does have a learning curve (although it's more straightforward than its predecessor), which is not helped by the lack of an in-game tutorial and an occasionally cumbersome interface. During the turn-based gameplay, you are limited in your actions: a very smart design decision that greatly increases the importance of choosing the right orders while reducing end-game tedium. There’s always too many things to do and not enough orders to do them with; tough decisions are always the hallmark of a good strategy game. There are plenty of orders to choose from: moving troops, bidding on troops and artifacts, conducting rituals, building manuscripts, insulting your competitors, declaring vendettas, and collecting resources. Victory, by earning the most prestige, can be gained through many methods: secret objectives, rituals, diplomacy, relics, controlling places of power and territory, and, of course, combat. Things are most interesting when war is declared (which admittedly takes a while due to the structured diplomatic path), when you can use rituals, event cards, and troop items to their full effect. But you don't even really need to enter a blood feud, since there are plenty of options to simply bribe or manipulate your way to the top without firing a shot. Simply put, Solium Infernum gives you plenty of alternatives, and that's what makes it a can't miss title for strategy gamers.