When it comes to the medieval fantasy genre, there are two game types that spring to mind: the hero (or band of heroes) driven RPG (think Dungeon Siege or the recent Divinity: Original Sin II); and the resource-gathering, army-building RTS (think Warcraft III or this year’s Northgard). SpellForce is a game that aims to combine the two, offering a band of heroes looking to explore mythical lands in pursuit of an all-powerful enemy while also gathering resources, expanding settlements, and recruiting armies for battle. Does it manage to strike a balance between the two genres, offering the best of both worlds? Or does it satisfy neither RPG nor RTS cravings? These were the questions I had in mind as I played.
SpellForce is not a new series, of course, with the first two instalments released in 2003 and 2006, respectively. Despite the ‘3’ in the title, this is not actually a sequel, instead acting as a prequel set some 500 years before the original game. Set in the world of Eo, the story begins with the aftermath of the Mage Wars and the pursuit of the rebel mage Isamo Tahar. You play the child of a rebel, who defected to the side of the Crown, determined to prove your worth and shake the tag of the “Betrayer’s Child.”
The war has caused great distrust of mages and magic, and if that sounds familiar, it is probably because there was a similar theme present in Divinity: Original Sin II. The initial presentation of the game also draws comparisons with its isometric view and detailed environments. However, these are very different games. Divinity: Original Sin II is a pure RPG centred on a group of heroes, main and side quests, and turn-based combat. SpellForce 3 includes those RPG elements of individual characters in pursuit of quests but also includes real-time combat both for your party and for larger forces.
This offers a great deal of variety and challenge on the gameplay. While pursuing quest objectives with your character and exploring the map with your companions, you also have to be mindful of building bases, claiming territory, and gathering and stockpiling resources so you are ready to meet the enemy in battle if need be. For hardcore RPG fans, this may make the game seem light on quests and ‘things to do’, but it is a necessary balance to ensure the player does not get overwhelmed.
After creating your character (an option that comes after the prologue chapters of gameplay), you can acquire skills, talents, and equipable items to boost your stats. Whichever race and army you choose to start with, you can recruit others later on, adding allies to your party and potentially opening up new faction-related quests and storylines. Characters in your party and certain NPCs have full voice-acting, which is an appreciated addition to the game, even if the quality of the acting is not always great (along with the North American accents more reminiscent of a modern military drama than an epic fantasy).
So far, so RPG, especially as quest chains often begin with a directive to explore an area, gather a resource, or investigate troubling reports. However, you will inevitably be pulled into a situation in which you need troops to support you in battle. That means you need to build your barracks, ensure your food stocks and supplies of raw materials are being replenished, and think strategically. One does not simply march in and take supplies, however, and you will need to build outposts to establish control over a region before you can start exploiting its resources.
When it comes to battle, troops basically just attack, either as close-range infantry, ranged archers, or mounted cavalry. It is up to your hero and party members to bring in the magic spell and healing powers. The use of real-time combat sounds daunting and potentially chaotic at first. However, this is a very nicely-implemented part of the game. Hovering the cursor over enemy or allied combatants and pressing the alt key brings up a circle of options to cast spells and attack/protect. The action of battle goes into slow-motion when you bring this up, allowing for decision-making time without interrupting the flow of the fight.
While this is a neat system that works great in small-scale party skirmishes, I found larger-scale battles to be a numbers game. Victory often comes down to building up a larger force and outnumbering the enemy. Tactics and well-timed special attacks could play a greater role, but I always go for the easy option in these situations, and more troops worked most of the time, so that is what I went with.
Furthermore, while the in-battle controls were well-designed, at other points in the game, I found the default control settings confusing. Early on in the prologue, I spent a long time trying to figure out how to regroup my party after sending one of them off alone. In general, selecting troops and units and placing buildings felt awkward, and the map controls (such as ctrl + the mouse wheel to rotate the map at high speed) could have been easier. When I again draw a comparison to Divinity: Original Sin II and its full controller support, the default settings in SpellForce are at times too complicated.
One final aspect of the game to criticise is the loading screens. The first time you enter a chapter in the story and a new region of the map, these are up for a long time. The introductory voiceover is often forgotten by the time the map actually loads. Even though I do not have an SSD, I do have a five-month old gaming laptop with a powerful processor and plenty of RAM, and the wait time felt like too much.
I have read comments online from other players experiencing bugs with quests and areas of the map, but I did not experience any of these personally in about twelve hours of play. The developers have shown themselves to be highly proactive so far though, with patches and hotfixes released on a daily basis. Such commitment and responsiveness to customer feedback and bug reports should always be commended.
Ultimately, SpellForce is neither a great RPG nor an engaging RTS. However, it is an enjoyable game. In isolation, the role-playing and strategy elements do not match up to their non-hybrid competitors, but they do mash together well. Battles may not require advanced levels of strategy, but they provide a change of pace from the quests and storyline advancement. Despite some clunky controls when navigating and controlling the camera, the crucial combat controls are well-designed. An established setting, extensive lore, and a well-written story make for a good game.
Developer: Grimlore Games/THQ Nordic
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Release Date: 7th December, 2017