Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Elven Legacy review: A solid, legitimately challenging SRPG

Elven Legacy is a solid, strategic, challenging hex based SRPG that doesn't stray too far from the fundamentals of the genre. It's developed by 1c company, the largest Russian developer/publisher, and it's a PC game, which might explain the games complete lack of popularity here in NA. It's the sequel to Fantasy Wars, which is more or less identical in SRPG mechanics. It bears the most resemblance to the open source SRPG game The Battle for Wesnoth. It contains 18 campaign missions and 7 single player missions independent from the campaign.

Combat is very well balanced with the usual assortment of foot soldiers, archers, horsemen, flying units, stealth units, and siege engines. Units can earn XP and level up, gain access to special abilities, and equip items with various effects. There are a wide variety of abilities that include buffs, debuffs, armor/anti-armor, terrain bonuses, etc. The player must make a strategic choice of one ability out of three every time a unit levels up.

Unit production and economy don't play a very large role in this game. There's no constant source of gold to continue recruiting units with, instead you're expected to keep your units alive and level them up through the campaign. There's room for a variety of party setups, although generally you'll want to stick to a balanced party that can handle any situation.

There are 3 difficulty settings (Easy, Normal, Hard), a scoring system based on turns taken (Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals), and no optional grinding. Adding to the hardcore anti-grinding stance, if the player fails to meet the Bronze medal requirement, the game ends. Gold and powerful items are scattered across the mission maps waiting to be picked up. The maps are designed so that it's impossible to kill every enemy or grab every reward if you're trying for a Gold medal, so it's often a strategic choice of what to do with the limited time available.

Difficulty modes are more than a matter of bumping up enemy stats. There are more enemies in the harder modes and they tend to be of a higher tier and level. Like most SRPGs, playing poorly will result in the game becoming impossible at the harder difficulties, since the players party isn't able to keep up with the increasingly stronger enemies. Most damage outcomes vary by only -1 to +1, so save/reloading a lot will not have much effect if your strategy is poor.

The story missions are fairly fast paced and have scripted events and lots to do. There are bonus missions that are unlocked for earning a gold medal in certain story missions. The bonus missions set you up with a one-mission-only army and are among the longest and most difficult in the game. Finally there are some well done single player missions that offer a variety of scenarios and challenges, all but one of which have gold medals to attain.

Getting a gold medal on all Hard difficulty missions requires efficient general strategy and mission specific strategies, and there's no way to mitigate the difficulty at all. If you're looking to test your SRPG skills this game certainly won't disappoint you. Even on Easy difficulty the game is quite a challenge for the average or unskilled gamer, as evidenced by the many reviews complaining about the challenge level. If your only experience with SRPGs has been easy, simple games like FFT or games by NIS or Idea Factory, this game will be a good kick in the pants to remind you of how skilled (or not) you are at SRPGs.

Not every mission has engaging and clever strategies to figure out, though. The story missions sometimes rely too heavily on the use of magic AOEs that cover a wide radius and deal a huge amount of damage. On some early missions mowing down enemies in a straight line then dropping a bunch of AOEs is the only strategy that needs to be employed. Later on though you'll need to save your limited AOEs for pivotal points during the mission. The last couple bonus missions and campaign missions are particularly challenging.

The AI plays a stationary strategy, knowing that if you want the gold medal you will have to approach it without much aggression required on its part. It's smart enough to hang back until it spots an opportunity to gang up on an exposed unit. However, it's usually all too eager to leave a good defensive spot like a city or castle to start attacking your forces.

If you are a fan of SRPGs you'll enjoy the solid mechanics, party management, and strategic depth/challenge in each mission. Put on your thinking cap and go buy this game and its expansions - easiest to purchase it online, since I doubt you'll find it in retail.

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