Spellforce is a long-running series and while there have been expansions to the last entry in the franchise, the standalone was released way back in 2006. In more than a decade, the developers at Grimlore and THQ have improved upon and refined Phenomic's vision of RPG/RTS hybrid and finally gave us Spellforce 3. With a new decade comes new audience so Spellforce 3 goes for a more streamlined, modern experience while also being a prequel, requiring little to no knowledge of previous games while still foreshadowing the future events for the loyal, longtime fans.
In the last two years, isometric RPG's came back in a big way with a couple of high profile games that, personally blew me away with the amount of content and its quality. Can Spellforce, beyond its unique genre hybridization do the same? Let's dive into it.
Spellforce 3 is available for purchase on the KeenShop.
As mentioned, Spellforce 3 serves as a prequel to the first game in the series – The Order of Dawn. This means that the developers only had one hand tied behind their back as they offer you this story of how the later famous Circle of Mages was created. Mages that tried to seize ultimate power and basically broke the world in the process.
The story starts you off playing as Senteza Noria, Commander of the Wolf Guard and on a mission to crush the festering rebellion along with their leader – Isamo Tahar. Although this introductory mission serves as a simple tutorial, it might give you the wrong idea that you will be playing him for the rest of the game, especially given his voice actor. Fear not, however, as soon you'll be taking the role the role of Isamo's child, who decided he wanted nothing to do with his father's rebellion and conveniently has a bag over his head when you see him first so you can jump right into character creator.
After your father escapes, a bloody mage war ensues that decimates the population and the actual game jumps forward 8 years with you being under Senteza's wing and recruited into the Wolf Guard. You are then thrust into the world still fresh out of the mage war, the crown in a crisis of leadership, and already plagued with a new set of problems arising left and right.
Except being reminded of the fact that you are the son of the enemy, the paranoia and fear of mages is a theme that permeates the game. There's also a sinister cult called Purity of Light that also adds fuel to this fire, branding everyone who uses magic as a defiler, and even those that are allowed to use it are scrutinized, shamed and considered a necessary evil. If this wasn't enough, a mysterious and uncurable plague ravages the lands and as you guessed it, it will fall to you to solve it all and tie a pretty little bow on top. You'll do that by traversing every part of the world, engaging in conversations with dialogue choices, combat, both with your character and entire armies.
Now, even though the game tackles some topics like politics, social injustice and the like wrapped in a fantasy setting – I never felt really into it. Mostly because these kinds of themes being explored in almost every fantasy game in the last couple of years, from Dragon Age to Witcher. Individual stories and some lore will get you interested but there are no surprises when it comes to the overarching plot and any attempt at a twist is visible a mile away.
The game often has difficulty conveying any sort of attachment or emotional connection to most main characters as the supporting cast falls into the generic fantasy tropes and is instantly forgettable save perhaps one or two characters. The RTS segment further waters down characters as they become heroes in an army and not the sole focus of the game. It does get progressively interesting the further you go but it might be too late to keep your interest.
Starting off in Spellforce you will find that it plays like a typical RPG, you get to create your character and control him and a small group of heroes in the beginning of just about every mission. Isometric RPG mechanics here are very solid and if there wasn't another strategic layer of gameplay, the game would make for a fairly good RPG. You fight your enemies in real time, which is only slowed down when choosing which skill to use by holding down the Alt key. There's plenty of loot in the form of weapons, armor, and talismans as well as different skill trees for you to pick, choose and customize. You will also be doing plenty of talking with numerous NPC's to further the plot, solve quests or just learn more about the world in general.
When it comes to skills, one thing that bothered me here is that you get to have only 3 skills equipped as active for your heroes. There are different tabs, but in the heat of a skirmish where I'm already having problems picking out my heroes and positioning them well among 30-40 combatants, this can and does get annoying. This will especially bother you if you are coming off an RPG where you could slot a whole host of skills to hotkeys for quick use. Other than that the radial menu that pops out when in slow-mo gives some helpful info on resistances and strengths of both you and the enemy so that you can better position your heroes and troops depending on what you need.
The RTS element is organic to the game which means that there isn't a pause and switch with something like a loading screen or a message. The entire game is structured in a way that it's logical and necessary to include dozens of soldiers in order to overcome an obstacle since it's one of the rare isometric RPG's that literally pits nations, cities and their armies against one another. You'll be able to take control of three separate armies – humans, orcs, and elves. Differences are largely cosmetic but quests tied to each faction conveys their struggles in the crisis pretty well and kept me interested throughout. It helps that, gameplay wise, where other RPG's call something war, it's usually a maximum of dozen characters on screen at once – in Spellforce, there could be a hundred or more which makes the scale and the stakes involved really unprecedented.
You build buildings, some for resource collection, some for troops that you send wherever you need them to go. It's good to send heroes along for the ride as the basic troops feature one simple attack with no abilities whatsoever. There is a basic system of rock-paper-scissors in place so certain troops are better against other troops and some do more damage to buildings and such. There is also a layer of strategy concerning positioning as formations and terrain play a role in how well your troops do in combat. Unfortunately, as soon as your and enemy soldiers number in dozens, things devolve into an all-out brawl where all strategic elements fall apart and enemy AI just doesn't care. This is especially evident as most scenarios can be won by using superior numbers even if you are using paper against scissors.
Each map has a different region which you can take over that hosts its own set of quests, resources and other places of interest to further your goals. I really enjoyed this mechanic where taking territories over gives you a sense of urgency that makes the game sometimes move at a breakneck pace with something to do at any given time.
At the time of my playthrough, the developer has already addressed many of the bugs that plagued the poor state of the game at release but there is still much to do. I had one occasion where the game forced me to reload a save that I made a couple of hours ago because a quest chain would not end. Other time, a critical quest would not begin no matter what I did. I also experienced situations where the enemy would be completely inert while other times it would spread across the map as if using cheats, dialogue not displaying and some other. The game would have certainly benefited a slightly longer time in the oven since this kind of bugs really brings the experience down.
VISUALS AND AUDIO
Visually, Spellforce excels. Especially in the level design. Everything is just so grand and inviting while remaining realistic, lived in and believable. The world is filled to the brim with detail and is densely packed, in stark contrast to what you would expect from an RTS, which usually feature a bit more open spaces. In-game visuals coupled with the UI design exude a certain old-school/new-school combo that mixes nostalgia of isometric RPG's of old with the doodads of modern games. This coupled with the amazing music gives a sense of atmosphere that few isometric RPG's can convey given the perspective.
The game is fully voice acted and it's a mixed bag. Right off the bat, you are greeted with a familiar voice of Dough Cockle who previously voiced Geralt of Witcher 3, this time being the narrator and voicing Senteza Noria character. This is a good start and there are a few other voice actors who are equally good, but most of them deliver their lines without any emotion and come off as bland. These voices stick out, even more, when they are put opposed to some of the mentioned good voice actors which can really throw you off.
Music is appropriately grand as you would expect from a fantasy setting like this. As mentioned, it features a couple of really outstanding orchestral pieces but even the rest of the soundtrack is of superb quality and easily one of the more memorable ones of the year for sure.
I liked my time with Spellforce 3, it's a beautiful game and definitely a unique combination of genres that's unlike anything else out there. Where other RPG's talk about your involvement in a war or large-scale skirmishes, Spellforce actually lets you not only take part in but also control such battles with the addition of the RTS element. I would definitely recommend it if you are a fan of either genre but perhaps you'll want to wait some time for the bugs to be cleared out with additional patches. But even now, it's a fun throwback to a bit older RPGs in a modern coat of paint. Might not be as deep, layered or polished as Original Sin 2, but it has enough going for it that makes the 30-hour long campaign well worth it.
+ Genre combination
– RTS AI
+ Great visuals and music
– Bugs, lots of bugs
|+ Good storyline and atmosphere||– Mixed quality of voice acting|