Stardock's fantasy 4X turn-based strategy series has traveled a somewhat troubled road. Its first title, Elemental: War of Magic, was ill-received in 2010 by critics and players alike. It was an incomplete, broken game, troubled with design and technical issues. But Stardock wasn't content to leave things as they were, and brought in new talent to reboot the franchise. Two years later Elemental: Fallen Enchantress was released, the first standalone expansion pack to the original game, and what was frustrating was now a genuinely fun, addicting experience.
Now the second standalone expansion pack is greeting players' hard drives. Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes introduces a suite of new gameplay and engine improvements and additions. After spending more than a dozen hours with the latest entry, Stardock has awakened that "just one more turn" itch in the definitive and best entry in the series yet.
Legendary Heroes is about, as most 4X strategy games are, building an empire. A cataclysmic event has laid the world to ruin and brought forth terrible evils from its depth. The remnants of civilization have begun to rebuild, each faction lead by powerful elemental magic users called channelers. With spells, blades, technological supremacy, diplomacy and conquest, I spread my empire across a devastated world.
But the best turn-based strategy games, at least for me personally, are ones that allow players to forge a connection with the kingdoms they build. My addiction is fueled by watching a fledgling village ringed by meager, wooden fences expand into dozens of bustling and well-fortified cities. It is the explosion and management of growth that makes 4X games one of my most favored genres, and Legendary Heroes succeeds in fostering that growth on numerous levels. A large part of how they accomplish that is through customization.
At the start of each game, there are a number of options for setting the stage - the size of the randomly generated maps, availability of resources, win conditions, opponent restrictions and so forth. Chief among them, of course, is choosing who to play as. Unlike other games where the civilization I control is my character, however, the sovereign is an actual unit on the field. That leader gains experience, advances down chosen skill trees in Legendary Heroes' new leveling system, and even equips loot from quests and shops. But I wasn't restricted to pre-made empires and their specific sovereigns. I could create my own.
Having an actual avatar to control and invest in through role-playing mechanics makes the game quite a bit more engaging, but being able to customize not only my character but my kingdom as well goes a long way in making the game less managerial and more personal. There are traits to select - both positive and negative - a huge assortment of appearance options, starting equipment and spell affinities, color schemes, and it's also possible to write a background summary. A built-in mod workshop expand those options even further.
Those customization tools aren't limited to the sovereign, however. Similar to Stardock's Galactic Civilizations series, soldiers could be edited and created as new technologies were researched and equipment was unlocked. If I wanted to create a matriarchal nation defended by red-headed, spear-wielding Amazonians, I could. The same variety of traits and appearance options available to the sovereign are available in the unit editor.
It's still possible to recruit hero units, or champions, to lead those troops into battle, but their system has been revamped and for the better. Rather than simply spawning them on the map to find at random, Champion recruitment is now governed by fame, a measure of an empire's growth. As I reached those milestones, I was rewarded with the choice of one of two unique champions. These are powerful characters that, similarly to the sovereign, have their own traits and skill trees. Some may not even be human.
Receiving rewards for accomplishments is part of what makes Legendary Heroes so addicting, and it goes beyond earning new champions. Rewards are fround across the map from completing quests, navigating through random events and seeking out treasure in mysterious and dangerous locations. And that's what makes their strategy games so involving. Their universes are more alive and with more to do within them than just simply managing an empire. It creates a sense of exploration, which all too often feels like the lacking 'X' in '4X'.
Combat can also make or break a strategy game, as that's often half the experience. The Total War franchise wouldn't be quite as enjoyable if its real-time battles weren't as thrilling as they are. Thankfully, Stardock expanded upon its tactical battle system for Legendary Heroes. I no longer find myself abusing the auto-result feature as I did with its predecessors. This is due to a greater emphasis on positioning and unit abilities than ever before. Every unit or weapon has new skills associated with their use, with a certain amount of synergy between them. For example, crossbowmen can fire a bolt through a line of enemies, which can be aided by another unit's ability to push or knock enemies in certain directions. Add in a huge variety of magical spells and diverse battle maps and the resulting tactical soup is quite filling.
Despite my glowing praise, there are still a few small cracks in the seams. It didn't take me long to run into a number of technical bugs. They weren't game-breaking, however - which is certainly a marked improvement over the previous releases - but seeing my units' models disappear and other graphical oddities marred the face of an otherwise beautiful game.
And it's not necessarily a slight against the game, but it's worth mentioning there are no multiplayer modes available. Stardock is strictly about creating the best single-player, 4X turn-based strategy game they can make. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. But as the makers of some of my favorite 4X games, I would have loved to forge an empire with or against my friends. If you're reading this, Stardock, that's on the top of my wanted list for a possible Galactic Civilizations III.
It's been a long road, getting from there to here, but Fallen Enchantress: Legendary has finally delivered on the promise Stardock wanted to make with Elemental: War of Magic. It's an engaging game with a great deal of customization, replayability through an altering world filled with secrets, and a tactical battle system that finally feels tactical. For fans of the genre, and for those with fond memories of Masters of Magic and Age of Wonders, Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes is a fun, easy way to lose countless hours. All it takes is just one more turn.