For me, 4X strategy games begin and end with Civilization. I’ve tried others in this subgenre over the years, but I always kept on going back to the time honored Sid Meier franchise. At some point I decided I only have room for one such series in my life, since they all feature daunting gameplay complexity and it’s far too easy to get “End Turn” tunnel vision after a few hours of play. I expected Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes to be par for course in this regard, but I was pleasantly surprised by it. Legendary Heroes hits all of the right notes in delivering a satisfying empire building game: it’s complex enough to make it highly replayable but not so much that it’s too intimidating right off the bat. The RPG elements work well to break up the monotony of queuing up build orders and shuffling units around; the quest system on the world map is particularly well implemented. It’s a nice blend of big picture empire management meets strategy RPG. After spending some time in the world of Elemental and a couple of game completions later, I’m happy to add Legendary Heroes to my admittedly limited library of 4X games.
Legendary Heroes is a direct sequel to Fallen Enchantress as far the game story goes. Set in the world of Elemental, this is actually a post-apocalyptic game, where several factions struggle for control as they pick themselves up out of the ruins left behind by a cataclysmic event. There’s a good amount of background information and lore available on the game’s website. Elemental’s back story is fairly fleshed out and intricate; some of this translates into the game design such as the faction ideologies and the magic system. Obviously it’s not necessary to dive deep into the story fluff to play the game, but this extra layer is well crafted by the developer and will reward you with a deeper appreciation for the game world if you choose to explore it.
Before getting to the game play, you’ll go through the obligatory game configuration screens, beginning with your player character choice: the sovereign. Each sovereign is a leader of their respective group which is tasked with restoring their civilization to glory, and each comes with a different set of unique bonuses, weaknesses, and starting gear. After faction choice you’re presented with the typical settings you might expect here, such as map selection and the number of opponents, AI difficulty, as well as pacing options. If you’ve ever played a 4X strategy game before all of these things should feel familiar to you. Game configuration doesn’t take too long to get through and soon enough you’re presented with your sovereign in the starting position on the world map. In terms of game mechanics the sovereign is the unit you use to found your initial town, and afterward they are your most powerful military unit on the board. The sovereigns give Legendary Heroes a lot of personal appeal: they’re playable throughout the game and are upgraded in an RPG-like system.
For the most part, empire management is handled in the typical city screens and menus that are filled with various vital stats of your country: what’s getting made where, what technology is being researched, what the general sentiment of your citizenry is, how much money is coming is in, etc. This information is best left to sub screens anyway. Things get far more interesting on the world map as you start to explore with your sovereign’s party. You’ll soon come across quest markers, treasure drops, and NPCs that dot the area. Moving your unit into a quest marker will initiate a short fetch quest, which typically involves a trip to another marker that will initiate a battle. The battle screens are small grid based tactical maps with all the friendly and enemy units placed on the board. The individual unit initiative stats dictate who goes first, and these fights go back and forth in this fashion until the bitter end, unless you have a special item or skill that allows you to escape a battle. The combat is fairly intuitive and they aren’t overly deep and complicated show downs. The unit with the best gear and spells will almost always come out on top. To help you gauge what you can take on, unit strengths are denoted as Weak, Medium, Strong, and Deadly – by the time you’ve leveled some of your characters and troops and gotten the more expensive equipment and gotten their strength to “Deadly,” there’s virtually nothing on the board that can match them in battle. This may seem like a drawback on the surface, but it actually works from a pacing perspective. It’s already pretty exhausting expanding and maintaining an empire. Throwing in half-hour long or more tactical battles into the mix would be overkill.
At first glance, the game economy feels more like a set of loose ideas that complement each other rather than being strictly aligned mechanics under one unifying system. Cities can only be settled where there are ample sources of Food, Material, and Mana, and these areas are denoted for you on the game screen. Eventually other resources become visible on the map and can be exploited, such as elemental shards, metals, and crystals. On the face of it it’s not obvious that these are unique resources required to build certain unit types (i.e., why do some units require Crystal to be built, but not others?). Likewise I was surprised to discover that the Mana resource and the elemental shards were directly tied to spells that could be cast in combat. I appreciated the strategic implications of this fact: that you can be damaged at the tactical level in this way is added incentive not to leave your borders open to marauding troops who will happily plunder your network of land improvements. Another novel economy feature is Fame. As you win battles and complete quests, you accumulate fame points which eventually attract friendly NPC heroes called Champions to your banner. Like your sovereign, you can level these unique units however you wish, and often they are very useful in gaining control of the map.
Speaking of controlling the map, Legendary Heroes has several win conditions which can be conveniently toggled on or off during game set up. The conquest victory should be self-explanatory. I found my AI opponents to be competent enough to make this challenging, particularly since I had a tendency to stretch myself way too thin in the expansion game phase (old Civ habits die hard). The building victory, called “Casting the Spell of Making,” consists of satisfying several tech and resource requirements, and then constructing special buildings to enable you to cast the Spell of Making. There’s also a main quest victory condition in which you complete a series of in-game objectives as they appear, and take on what amounts to the final NPC boss of the game. One play through on default settings took me roughly six hours to complete, though results should vary considerably for those who choose to play on larger maps and with higher difficulty settings.
I haven’t played the previous entries in the Elemental series, but apparently they left something to be desired. Developer and publisher Stardock is to be commended for sticking with a troubled IP and supporting its community, and honing the experience into a more than acceptable game. I obviously can’t speak to the various bugs and deficiencies that plagued Legendary Heroes’ predecessors which may have been corrected, but I only came across a few technical rough spots that weren’t by any means deal breakers. That said I do have some minor gripes about the design. The diplomatic interactions with AI opponents are sadly very limited and feel overly streamlined, which is disappointing considering there is no multiplayer available. In some areas the intersection between RPG and 4X strategy is less than perfect, notably inventory management. I found this be more of an issue when playing through the first scenario mode: trading between your sovereign and champions is a very cumbersome affair. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for me was the lack of in-game information systems: as far as I could tell there are no equivalents of in-game advisors who you could consult with at any time for next steps in different aspects of the game, or at least offer you unsolicited advice about what to build next. This was only jarring to me during my first couple of plays and thankfully Legendary Heroes is intuitive enough that you can get the hang of it all relatively quickly.
Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes is a very solid strategy game. The RPG elements are not always seamlessly integrated within the 4X gameplay, but more often than not they work extremely well in tandem, doing much to alleviate the boring “watch mode” that 4X games can suffer from. It’s actually going to be hard to go back to the Civilization style of combat after playing all those tactical battles, and the high fantasy setting has been a nice break. Like any good strategy game, there’s a fairly robust customization mode that allows you to craft your own maps and units as you please. Strategy fans shouldn’t shy from trying this game, and it may even appeal to strategy RPG fans as well who are looking for something different – but not too different.