Friday, July 26, 2013

Elemental: Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes

And the normalization proceeds apace, smoothing out both wrinkles and personality with every lengthening of the name. Many of the changes in the latest incarnation of Elemental reduce it even further. In an effort to gain legitimacy as a strategy game, it is now almost completely stripped of most of its randomness and surprises, of its distinctive features.

Part of it is good. The quest system received some much-needed attention. Town upgrades are a bit more rational. Battles have acquired a flanking mechanic which makes unit positioning much more fun to play around with.
Some alterations I'm not sure I like but aren't too painful. As the leader of the "Feral" empire, I always preferred for stylistic reasons to build armies of monsters and wild animals but wild animals are now much more resistant to taming and monster camps limited in spawn amount and rate. Magic spells are much more balanced now, but the magic system now downplays the terraforming angle.

However, the biggest changes mostly tend to harm the 'freshness' of gameplay, the pleasant (and yes, sometimes pleasantly frustrating) surprises.

Research for instance is no longer split between technological (swords, city improvement) techs and magic spells. The arcane research function was completely removed from the game. You can no longer decide to go down one path or the other. Instead of researching spells, you now get them for free through leveling up champions. 

Speaking of which. Another one of Elemental's big features is the recruitment of champions. These are the "heroes" of might and magic, adventurers one used to find wandering around the map and which could be recruited for a price. No more. They are now automatically awarded to the player's faction as it grows or as rewards for some quests. You are no longer limited by how many champions you can find around the map, you can no longer breed your own (the royal marriage and lineage system was completely removed instead of being developed) and you no longer have the choice of being a charismatic leader gathering hordes of valorous individuals to your cause.
Another mixed blessing though, stemming from the inability to recruit champions at will, is that they're no longer mortal. Instead, being defeated in battle saddles them with various injuries ranging from harmless to crippling.
Even champions' skill upgrades have been limited. No longer a D&D-ish stat boosting system or even Fallen Enchantress' selection of skill upgrades from a randomized table at each level-up, it is now restricted to an almost linear progression through skill trees.

All this is again, just like the limitations on magic research, a choice to limit the severity of individual events. As all the other changes in that vein it makes the game more bland, less interesting. You should be able to screw up, royally. You should be able to have disastrously bad luck now and then. This is not nor ever will be chess. Environmental stochasticity is part of the experience.

And on the subject of environment. The original elemental's landscapes shone as... well, they didn't shine, that was the point. The world of Elemental was a bleak, broken, silt-choked wasteland punctuated only by the odd patch of usable vegetation around which cities were built. With the expansions, it was changed to a resource-per-tile system nearly identical to the Civilization games and Legendary Heroes goes even farther, altering the visual style to include much more greenery and shiny crystal formations, etc. There was absolutely no reason for any of this. Even the variety of monsters has been expanded not based on Elemental's unique mix of bandits, skulking boogeymen and, well, elementals of every variety, but with a decided effort to move closer to general fantasy game tropes: more skeletons and ghosts and dragons, fewer attempts at novelty.

Why? As I keep saying, if I want to play Civilization, I can play Civilization. If I want to play a TBS in a standard faery tale world, I will play Heroes of Might and Magic. You gain nothing by getting lost in the similarity to a more popular product.
What Elemental seems to be edging toward is a compromise between the two, Civilization map mechanics mixed with HoMM aesthetics, combat and hero mechanics. I can't deny it's a valid bid for popularity, but I'm still disappointed in the loss of the project's individuality.

You could've made something great, Stardock, and instead you settled for something workable. Learn to stand your ground. You know enough to seek creativity but you also have to learn to stand by it. As though your half-assed treatment of Demigod weren't bad enough, now you've fumbled your own damn product.

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