SpellForce III Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Nordic Games
Developer:Grimlore Games
Release Date:2017-12-07
  • Role-Playing,Strategy
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
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Gameplay: RPG

The world in SpellForce III is divided up into distinct maps.  A couple of the maps are for cities, where you can wander around, talk to people, and go shopping, but the rest are for missions.  The SpellForce III campaign is fairly linear, so if a map is open to you then you should be able to complete it.

When you enter a map, you start out in RPG mode.  In this mode, you only have your party of characters available to you -- that is, your main character plus at most three companions.  RPG mode lets you explore at least some of the map and also talk to people to set up the mission.  Then when you receive your town center, RTS mode takes over, where you're allowed to construct your base, gather resources, and build up an army -- while your opponent does the same thing.  I'll discuss each mode in turn.

Of the two modes, RPG mode is by far the best, not that this is saying a whole lot.  The story for the campaign involves a plague called the Bloodburn.  It kills the living and raises the dead, and you're sent out to discover what's causing it.  During your investigation, a war breaks out, and you end up leading the opposition.  So you're given a lot to do: figure out what's going on, rally troops to your cause, and beat back an invading army.  This works well given the RTS portion of the game.

The writing and the voice acting are surprisingly well done, especially when compared to the original SpellForce.  The story has some twists and turns, but they're set up well, and they make sense even when you look back at them at the end of the game.  What helps is that all of the characters are given motivations for their actions -- even the bad guys, who aren't just doing evil things because they're evil.  So everything flows well.

You also get to converse with your companions in between missions, but they sometimes feel like talking wikipedia pages rather than people, as they spend more time informing you about what they represent in the game rather than conveying a compelling story.  So the dwarf tells you about dwarves, the demonologist tells you about his school of magic, the persecuted mage describes the hardships that mages go through, and so on.  These conversations aren't always interesting to listen to, but you have to go through them to complete the companion quests and unlock the companion affinity skills.

SpellForce's RPG mode fits in as an action RPG.  I'm pretty sure only one skill in the game (bartering) affects dialogue in any way, and everything else is about combat.  So you get a lot of simple objectives -- talk to somebody, find something, kill something -- and there isn't much actual role-playing involved.  And even when you do get to make a decision, it never affects the main arc of the story.  For example, early on you have to decide whether you should massacre an infected village to potentially save the rest of the kingdom.  But no matter what you choose, the village gets massacred, so your decision only changes a couple of lines of dialogue later on.

As you're exploring and killing things, you of course find some equipment.  Characters can wear body armor, a helmet, two rings, a necklace, a trinket / potion, and up to two items in their hands -- either a two-handed weapon, dual-wielded weapons, or a weapon and a shield.  Tougher enemies tend to drop better loot, and there are also lots of hidden items around, where you have to collect pieces or read notes to find / craft them.  In general, the equipment is effective, and the treasure hunts are great (although maybe a bit obscure at times).  But by the end, my main character had 80% resistance to everything, and he could do massive damage with his two-handed sledgehammer, which was overkill.  There isn't any set equipment.

In part because of the equipment, your main character and your companions get to be way too powerful in the game, for RPG mode and RTS mode both.  I played using the "hard" difficulty setting, and early on I had some tough fights (including one against a dragon where I got destroyed).  But by the midway point, nothing had a chance against me, and even the boss fights were easy, including an elder dragon who couldn't even out-damage my healers.  Balance is always a tough thing, especially in a hybrid game like SpellForce III, but Grimlore Games has a ways to go to get it right.

Gameplay: RTS

The RTS mode in SpellForce III is by far the worst part of the game.  I didn't like anything about it in theory or in implementation.  It's a micromanaging nightmare where the interface doesn't give you a lot of help.

Each mission map is divided into a dozen or so sectors.  You get a town hall in one sector, and that sector represents your main base.  If you lose your town hall, then you lose the game.  The other sectors are separate but connected.  You can claim a sector by having one of your hero characters build an outpost there.  Only the owner of a sector can build anything in the sector or gather the sector's resources.

Each outpost grants you some workers for the sector.  You can upgrade the outpost to gain more workers, with a maximum of about 15 workers total.  These workers can gather resources (by being assigned to a resource building like a quarry or a logging cabin), they can transport goods (by being assigned to the outpost), or they can defend the sector (by being assigned to a tower).  As this description implies, your workers are spread pretty thin, and so you have to make some tough decisions about what resources you want to gather, and if you want to try defending the sector at all.

Sectors share resources with each other (but not workers), so you have to maintain several sectors and keep track of what they're producing to run an effective economy.  Unfortunately, the interface doesn't help you a lot with this.  If you bring up the mission map, then you can see the outline of each sector, what resources are available in each sector, and how many workers are unassigned in each sector, but that's it.  The interface doesn't give you an easy way to see how many logging cabins you have, or if a quarry has run out of stone, or how upgraded the outpost is, and so you have to keep checking everything manually, which is a problem since you can't pause the game, and you're trying to expand and defend as quickly as possible.

Worse, the RTS balance is awful -- even worse than the RPG balance -- because of how much the computer-controlled enemies cheat.  Perhaps in an effort to counteract how powerful your party of characters is, Grimlore gives all sorts of free troops and resources to your enemies. This allows them to expand quickly, and if they get to the point where they start can producing their own troops and resources in combination with the free troops and resources, then you have no chance.  By the time you defeat one huge wave of enemies -- even if you have defensive towers and RTS troops backing you up -- the next wave comes in, and there isn't any way to make progress.

As a result, you can't play the RTS missions in the "right" way.  If you take the time to capture sectors, grow your economy, and expand your army, then it's already too late.  The only way to win is to take your party of characters and immediately send them to the enemy town center, so they can destroy it and end the mission before your enemy can gain a foothold anywhere.  Because of this, despite finishing the campaign I can't tell you anything about any of the three available factions (humans, elves, and orcs) because I barely used them.  They were almost immaterial to completing the RTS missions.