Sunday, February 19, 2012

Conquest of Elysium 3 Review

Conquest of Elysium 3, developed and published by Illwinter Game Design.
The Good: Greatly varied hero classes and unit attributes, relatively straightforward economics, randomized maps, lots of spells, quick games
The Not So Good: No tutorial, high difficulty and a measured pace leads to many quick early deaths, cautious approach and limited scope may be boring to some, dated interface
What say you? An approachable turn-based fantasy strategy game offset by the obscene hostility of the environment: 5/8

One of the best turn-based fantasy strategy games ever made was Dominions 3. Featuring strategic variety, sixty-or-so nations, 600 spells, randomized maps, plenty of units and items, and an amazing spiral-bound manual, it was a landmark title that's still very expensive to purchase (but totally worth it). Of course, a game of that level of complexity isn't easy on newcomers. Enter Conquest of Elysium 3, another turn-based fantasy strategy game by the same developer that still brings a large variety of spells and monsters and the random maps, but simplifies and quickens the gameplay. Is the game more accessible this time around? Does it maintain strategic depth? And why are we conquesting the Greek afterlife, anyway?

Conquest of Elysium 3 borrows the graphical style of its predecessor, which is to say “simple”. Now, the unit sprites are detailed, but most of them are way too small to tell without squinting. The maps look nice, with varied background textures for each terrain type. The battles are crude: a few spell effects are used, but mostly it is colored numbers against a plain black background. More pressing is the archaic interface, adapted largely from Dominions 3: while the tool-tips are informative (although the meaning of the icons are not explained in-game), the game doesn’t take advantage of high resolution displays and buries a lot of commands within menus instead of placing all available commands on the main screen. For example, why not just list all of the special powers a commander can use instead of making me click on “special powers” first? And it should not take three clicks through different menus to save the game. And troop transfer is initially confusing (a green “X” indicates a unit is included in a stack, not excluded). And there are a lot of hidden keyboard shortcuts that are not referenced outside of the game manual. And there isn't a quick way of figuring how if enemy units are more powerful than your forces (like a rough “strength” rating). The interface screams of an effort that was meant to simply be functional instead of efficient. The sound design follows along the rudimentary presentation of Conquest of Elysium 3: some of the basic sound effects (especially some spells) are downright annoying, although I found the music to be pleasing to the ear. While graphics aren’t the end-all-be-all of strategy gaming, you should at least have an interface that makes accessing different parts of the game quick and easy, and Conquest of Elysium 3 falls short in this area.

Conquest of Elysium 3 is a turn-based game where you attempt to defeat other heroes in a fantasy setting, while attempting to survive in a hostile environment. You lose when either all of your commanders die or your starting citadel is captured, so keeping some forces back in defense is necessary (though not usually possible, as you will see). There is a difficulty setting that gives the AI an additional economy bonus (that it doesn’t need), but the strength of the roaming creeps and defending monsters remains the same no matter what setting you choose. Conquest of Elysium 3 features multiplayer, but you must know the host’s IP address in advance, and the game does not support play by e-mail (even though Dominions 3 did), although hot seat play is offered. Conquest of Elysium 3 also lacks a tutorial, which is simply insane; it took me five games to figure out what was going on, even after reading the manual twice.

The general strategy in Conquest of Elysium 3 is to capture things, allowing you to recruit more troops and eventually defeat the enemy heroes and capture their citadel. A primary feature of the game is the use of random maps, which makes exploring the landscape a lot more interesting, since you never know what’s going to be in the fog of war. There is also a map editor if you’d like a more scripted experience, but I found that the random map generator produced plausible, interesting maps every game. You can customize the map size and the level of society development, which basically controls the number of cities, villages, and enemies you’ll encounter out in the wild. Maps are densely packed with many things to find and hopefully capture: farms, villages, towns, castles, mines, jungles, swamps, forests, mountains, and more. These provide resources (gold, iron, herbs, fungi) or have special attributes (extended vision, temples for spell research) of varying amounts, and are always guarded by hostile animals. If you are short in a specific resource, you can trade some gold for that item each turn, a helpful tool if you begin the game in a barren part of the map.

Each side gets a hero (and usually an apprentice, too) that can lead troops and perform special actions. Since Conquest of Elysium 3 is a turn-based game, each hero has a number of action points that can be spent doing one thing per turn, usually moving and attacking, but sometimes doing a special action. Impressively, there are seventeen distinct classes of heroes in the game, each with some unique property that makes their strategy a bit different. For example, the demonologist can summon demons using human sacrifices collected on the map, the barbarian gets more powerful units, and the warlock can collect gems from mines and then use them to summon special (flying, amphibian) units. So, there is a lot of interesting, well thought-out variety here. Magic is also quite varied, offering spells divided into forty-five different disciplines, each with their own hierarchy of spells. However, your hero can only memorize a limited number of spells at one time, and research is done automatically as your hero gains battle experience. To accompany your hero on his/her epic journey, a variety of units can be recruited. They are divided into melee, ranged, and magical units, and further differentiated based on stats (hit points, armor, strength, magic resistance, morale), weapons (blunt, piercing, fire, acid, poison), and abilities (fast, flying, immortal). Units, like your hero, gain experience over time that automatically increases their hit points and defense, and can also get permanent afflictions (disease, blindness) during combat. Unit recruitment is straightforward: most units cost 50 gold, while more advanced types require another resource (usually iron). You can also recruit additional commanders, required to move units around the map, that randomly show up each turn and must be recruited immediately: save your cash, kids!

When two opposing forces meet on the field of battle, Conquest of Elysium 3 plays out the ensuing combat automatically without any input from the user. Unlike in Dominions 3, you can’t customize unit placement or tactical strategies (like which spells to use); while I am sure this was done to simplify the game, it does remove strategic depth from the battles. However, the big problem I have with Conquest of Elysium 3 is balance. You see, there are lots of dangerous monsters surrounding your starting position; those defending resources don’t move, but the rest do. The problem is that you don’t have enough troops starting out, and your starting income is so low that you need to capture additional structures to afford more troops. That’s fine, but you need more resources to buy the additional troops you need to capture more resources. See the dilemma? On some games, you might luck out and spawn next to lightly defended cities that provide enough gold to get your army up to a size where you can take on most defending creeps. Or, you might spawn near a giant troll you can’t defeat who walks over to your citadel and defeats it in three turns. In addition, you must defend each place you capture (wandering deer can come in and take your undefended cities, although I wonder what the deer will do with all that gold income), which gives you even less troops in your main army. The bottom line is that you have to be really cautious in the beginning of the game, and the overwhelming difficulty of the surrounding environment is simply too much. It was relatively easy to expand in Dominions 3, but you really have to plan who to attack and where to defend in Conquest of Elysium 3. A challenging game is OK, but being unfair is not. Another issue is that there is just not that much to do: order troops to move, recruit troops, and....that's it. Since the battles and spell research are both completely automated, the depth of Conquest of Elysium 3 is limited. The AI heroes play the game well, recruiting several commanders (don’t know how they can afford it on the default difficult setting that does not give a resource bonus to the computer) and capturing additional resources with ease. In short (too late!), the slow, inequitable starts of Conquest of Elysium 3 spoil the streamlined, simplified heroes, units, and magic.

Conquest of Elysium 3 has some good design elements that try to break free, but they are crushed under the unrelenting pressure of difficulty. Games can be very quick, since you might be surrounded by heavily defended villages and dangerous roaming monsters you can’t possibly defeat with your starting forces. And since buying new forces is expensive (especially in the beginning), you need those villages to bring in faster income. So, you might simply be stuck, or have to wait too many turns to afford new units. Exploration and expansion should be fun, not an exercise in constant worry. That’s too bad, since there are several aspects of the game that I do enjoy. First off, there is remarkable variety in the seventeen hero classes, introducing unique abilities and minor gameplay changes. There are also a bunch of spells organized into forty-five disciplines, though they are researched automatically and your choices on which spells to use are limited. Units can wield a wide variety of weapons and can gain attributes over time. Combat is completely automated and you can’t customize any tactical strategies, but you can still tweak the results based on the units involved and the spells your hero can cast. Still, there simply isn't a lot to do during the course of a game, and what you are allowed to do can be limited by the difficulty. The enemy heroes controlled by the AI are aggressive enough to provide good competition throughout Elysium. I like the inclusion of random maps, which makes the exploration aspect of the game more unpredictable and interesting, but the bare multiplayer options and lack of a tutorial are disappointing. And while I can live with crude graphics and sound, the limited interface does make navigating the game more work than it should be. The lack of balance and fairness when starting out in Conquest of Elysium 3 partially ruins the remainder of the game, throwing away the potential the heroes, magic, map, and unit variety brings to the strategy genre.