Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Elemental: War of Magic

It has a stupid name. It's not a stupid game.

Elemental is turn-based strategy. Comparisons with Civilization or Heroes of Might and Magic are, however, limited to the overarching similarity to chess. Elemental, instead of copying other computer TBS games, is a throwback to tabletop gaming. Its outermost zoom levels are even displayed in a 'cloth map' decor complete with units displayed as plastic miniatures on their own little platforms.
That's quaint in itself but it wouldn't mean much as a purely cosmetic divergence.

Elemental also falls back on tabletop gameplay in avoiding the usual computerized smokescreen of ridiculously large numeric values and by purposely refusing to trivialize randomization by increasing action counts until only the law of averages matters. An extra point of damage or health really means something, and most units will kill each other in three or four moves. First strike, which depends on positioning, is crucial. Sheer dumb luck is not just a predictable oscillation in a series of 55-65damage attacks, but a matter of a dangerous monster deciding to pass you by instead of jumping you, or a deadly attack missing altogether. It means a useful adventurer may or may not pass through your territory so you can recruit him early on, or that a single coin flip can mean the survival of a unit because of a missed blow.

Sadly, it must be said that this makes Elemental relatively weak as a pure strategy game. The flaw is compounded by the disappointingly weak AI which, aside from a good degree of randomization at the single-action level, offers no greater variety during gameplay. Happily, strategy is only one element of the post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure RPG strategy megalomania bundle. Despite featuring only a few scripted dialogues such as those found in Civilization, Elemental offers a great deal of choice, both practical and cosmetic. This covers the faction details, using a benefit vs. detriment trait system much like that of older games like Master of Orion, but also extends to the player's own avatar in-game, the central 'hero' unit, the sovereign. City layouts, the names of one's eventual progeny (Elemental features a rudimentary lineage system and arranged marriages between factions) and unit designs all provide further customization, along with the usual TBS choices like technology research.
More ambitious players can even design their own buildings and special effects.

Let's talk atmosphere. The setting is nothing amazing but fairly original for one reason: it is a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. Though this doesn't mean much in terms of gameplay, it manages to give the game its own unique flavor. The decor follows suit, steering clear of the usual elves and vampires and making extensive use of human variants and generic boogeymen like trolls and demons. The terrain is a bleak, badlands-style landscape with only occasional greenery, and terraforming is available through one of the spellcasting trees. The map is not entirely a fixed background against which the player confronts NPCs, but simply another plaything. Much of the vagueness and do-it-yourself attitude works to give free reign to the player's own imagination.

There is a campaign mode, but to be honest, i've spent my many playing hours without ever feeling tempted to give it a go. The game shines as a personalized 'me against the world' strategic adventure and i don't see more restrictive scenarios as building on its strengths. The expansion which recently came out seems unfortunately focused on expanding campaign gameplay.

Overall, Elemental has much more of an adventure feel than the usual desperate attempt to prove oneself mentally superior to the AI which largely defines the TBS genre. It's an interesting design choice, never likely to yield a fanatical following of leetkiddies facing off in tournaments, but providing a different flavor of escapism than RPGs.
Neither was it a high-budget game. It has its bugs and missing features. Entire areas of the game like sieges and naval warfare seem to have been abruptly cut off during late development. The whole thing seems to be more of a result of a few designers' combined nostalgia for the glory days of D&D, M:tG and Settlers of Catan. Though i doubt it would make a good introductory gift for those unfamiliar with strategy and role-playing, it's got plenty of gamer-geek appeal.

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