As one of the key bedrocks of Personal Computer gaming since about 1843, the humble strategy title can appear in a surprising multiplicity of forms. Though the dominant and iconic jewel-in-the-crown of Starcraft has its inestimably vast pantheon of imitators, its satisfying base-building to action ratio and real time template can only be stretched so far. Of course, the RTS is by far the most popular form of shift-clickery available, but there remains a dearth of alternative titles for those whose mentality lends them more favourably to considered, cognitively involved tactics than reflex reliant trigger fingers.
Elven Legacy, 1C’s sequel to their 2007 offering Fantasy Wars, is a hex-grid, turn-based riff on the genre. Those less well versed in obscure, Eastern European developed curios will be able to draw some form of comparison in the way of Nintendo’s highly popular Advance Wars series. Unrivalled in its unique fusion of rich tactics and accessibility, it has earned an unlikely analogue in the shape of Elven Legacy, and on the surface they share many basic sensibilities. With regards to movement and attacking, the two are for all intents and purposes identical, save for the handheld titles’ square grids replaced by hexagonal ones. Click a unit to select it, click a box to direct it there, click an enemy to attack it. The parallels are only skin deep, however, and Elven Legacy is a markedly more hardcore and multifaceted experience underneath these superficial similarities.
It’s all in the numbers, see. The simple statistics that govern each unit placement and assault in Advance Wars give way to a byzantine matrix of number crunching. To the uninitiated, it can be pretty daunting. These numbers, though, do flaunt exactly what Elven Legacy does best, and that’s purveying several layers of old-school tactical manoeuvring wrapped up in a neat, if unexceptional, presentational sheen. Yes, those lines of code may be hidden behind the visible movement of soldiers, but it’s a thin veil that struggles to conceal the wholly cerebral nature of the game at large.
Troop placement becomes imperative, and differing conditions can change the direction a skirmish goes. Take that village with spearmen to gain a defence bonus, but at the risk of ignoring that band of peasants in the trees and exposing the general to a surprise attack from wolves. There’s certainly a nice ebb and flow to battles, and though it’s more complicated than that, one wishes it weren’t. Often, the ugly mask of incessant stats could use lifting, if only to allow encounters to feel much more natural in their progression and less governed by the calculations. It’s doubtful that Sun-Tzu cared in what precise measure archers received a boost for their placement atop a hill, he just knew that was the case and capitalised on it.
The tactical depth on offer is impressive however, and fans will get exactly what they’re looking for. In fact, Elven Legacy is equipped with overbearing tabletop war-game properties as standard, and as a solution to the manual addition of points and repeated rolls of differently wrought dice, it does an admirable job. Unfortunately, the absorbing lore in place for Warhammer and its contemporaries is nowhere to be found, with the omnipresent fantasy tropes being trotted out for another round of flog (the already rotten corpse of) the dead horse. No delicious quasi-religious mythology, no clear cut and comprehensible plot line, no characters approaching interesting… it’s a wonder they bothered. Were it a little more knowing and self conscious, the story and universe could have fulfilled their purpose as unoriginal backdrop, but the game insists on forcing the player to sit through reams of dialogue and walls of text which nobody – not least the writers (who to be fair were probably also programmers and designers) – in this day and age could give a hoot about. It’s a cumbersome and unnecessary distraction.
Subjectivity is one of the most cherished facets of humans’ worldview, and considering the obtuse difficulty Elven Legacy provides its indispensability can only be considered stronger than ever. At first, on the lowest setting, the game appears to be perfectly pitched, easing players in with its surprisingly tactile gameplay and hapless AI. A handful of missions into the campaign, however, and that gentle curve becomes a venomously precipitous sheer edge. Given that complete, workable knowledge of a game’s systems is contingent upon efficient but relatively straightforward learning of said intricacies, it can be concluded that Elven Legacy’s development was most definitely approached with an “in at the deep end” mindset. The popular – but largely redundant in the modern era – mantra “evolve or die” is most certainly in operation in this case, and slow learners are to be punished without compunction at the hands of a brutal and seemingly unassailable set of foes. Though progress is possible, perseverance is the order of the day, and falling by the wayside is not an option.
This, of course, will have no bearing on what most players will make of the game. The truth is, Elven Legacy has a ready-made audience that will absolutely lap up its particular brand of turn-based, RPG-tinged strategy. For those interested – and they as much as the developers know who they are – it’s nicely constructed, deep and offers almost perverse challenge. The whole notion of a scored review seems a little arbitrary in the face of the niche and dedicated fanbase this game will attract, and its attempts at populist window-dressing are virtually pointless because for the rest of us, the whole entity is at its most lenient completely mystifying, and at its most uncompromising utterly impenetrable.