About ten years ago, thanks to the likes of Heroes of Might and Magic, Warlords, Age of Wonders, and Disciples, there were fantasy-themed, turn-based strategy games coming out with regularity. But over the past few years, that hasn't been the case. We've seen the reboot of the King's Bounty franchise, but otherwise the well has been pretty dry, as developers seem convinced (and perhaps rightly so) that turn-based games won't appeal to the mass market. So I was happy to hear that .dat (developer) and Akella / Kalypso (publisher) were bringing back the Disciples franchise with Disciples III: Renaissance. Sadly, this new offering is so sloppy and discouraging that I don't think it's going to do anything to convince developers that they're wrong about turn-based games.
Not surprisingly, Disciples III has a lot in common with Disciples II. You still put together squads of units, and you use these squads to explore the map, battle enemy squads, and pick up resources. You still manage a single capital city, and the buildings you construct in it still determine the upgrade path of the units under your control. You still try to spread your influence across the map, so you can capture resources and eventually overwhelm your enemies. And everything about the game is still turn-based.
Of course, there are also some differences. Most notably, combat has been re-worked. Disciples II had a deceptively simple system where you'd place your units in two rows, and there wasn't any movement on the combat map. Disciples III has a standard gridded map, and it added a goofy "cover" system where melee units can potentially protect weaker ranged units, but usually just protect each other. There isn't anything wrong with this new system (provided that you don't mind waiting for units like zombies and ents to slowly shamble across the screen), but it's just a case where .dat took something that was useful and unique about a game, and threw it away.
Squad leaders (which are required for each squad) also got some attention. In Disciples II, squad leaders improved automatically as they gained levels. In Disciples III, when leaders gain a level they receive three points to spend on attributes (including strength and intelligence) and two points to spend on skills. Most of these "skills" are just bonuses to attributes or resistances, but some increase the "leadership" of the leaders, allowing them to carry more units in their squad, and some are actually skills, such as the "revive" ability that allows leaders to raise a unit from the dead. It's always nice when you get to customize the characters under your control, so I liked this addition, but unfortunately each leader only gets about 70 skills, and you might be able to purchase all of them before the end of the campaigns.
Speaking of the campaigns, Disciples III comes with three of them, one each for the Empire (human faction), the Legions of the Damned (demon faction), and the Elven Alliance (elven faction). The Mountain Clans (dwarven faction) and the Undead Hordes (undead faction) are supposedly going to get campaigns in upcoming expansion packs. Unfortunately, the campaigns aren't very well designed, and they're not a lot of fun to play. The first mission in each campaign tends to be tough, because your enemies get free random squads that make a beeline to attack you, but the other missions are just long, boring slogs, and nothing in them is even remotely challenging. If there was an intriguing story to go along with the campaigns, or some exciting side quests to keep things interesting, or even some fun characters or dialogue, then the campaigns might be bearable, but there aren't. How dull are the campaigns? Most of the towns you capture are named "Neutral Town." Yeah, a lot of thought went into the content.
If being dull wasn't bad enough, Disciples III is also plagued with all sorts of bugs and sloppiness. There aren't any hotkeys. There isn't any way to tab through your leaders. Saved games are shown in alphabetical order and don't include any helpful information like a timestamp or the game turn. Sometimes when enemies cast a spell on you, you're not allowed to cast a spell on your turn. Squad leaders frequently aren't allowed to use their skills during the first turn of a battle. Some enemies (like archons) don't do anything during "quick battles" (or at least I don't think they do anything; the game includes a battle log, but there isn't any way to scroll through it). One spell is named "strid not found." Enemy squads don't have to fight neutral enemies, and so they can run around the map and grab resources far more quickly than you can. And appropriately enough, I couldn't finish the final mission of the final campaign because the last quest broke.
Worse, there is all sorts of cheese in the game. Skills don't have costs or cooldowns, so you can use them in every round of every battle. That doesn't sound bad, but one of the skills is "paralyze," and nothing is immune to it, and so you can use it to remove the toughest creature from any battle -- which is bad regardless, but it's especially bad in this game because some of the "toughest" battles only have one enemy. And then there's the "Life Water" spell. It's supposed to heal a squad for 75 or 150 hit points every turn for ten turns on the world map, but it heals in combat, too -- every round! -- and so it completely removes the need to have a healing unit in your squad.
Want more? The AI isn't at all challenging (all it does is charge right at you without any thought for strategy), there isn't any true multiplayer support (there's a "hotseat" mode, but that just means all the players have to use the same computer), and the voice acting is terrible (imperial assassins always sound like they're saying "lunch!" when they attack, and the narrator does his best to put you to sleep at the start of every mission). I'd be confident that a developer would be able to fix a lot of these things in patches, but Disciples III has already had two patches that I know about (at least on the Steam version I played), and it became available online last year, giving .dat all sorts of time to stamp out the bugs for the North American release -- all to no avail. Either .dat doesn't know what it's doing, or it doesn't care. I'm not sure which is worse.
Obviously, Disciples III: Renaissance is a game to skip. It looks nice, and playing through its included campaigns might take you upwards of 100 hours, but otherwise it's dull, sloppy, and buggy. There isn't a lot of strategy involved, and there isn't a whole lot of fun, either. I'd recommend that people go back and try Disciples II (a game that I liked, and which can be purchased in a bundle pretty cheaply at this point) before slogging through this mess.