I’ve always been rather suspicious of high fantasy — not as any great deceptive and corruptive force in the collective consciousness but of its ability to be anything other than tired and twee. Which is hilarious given that I’ll soak up any old cornball space opera. Fantasy and I have had a troubled history. I enjoyed riffling through the pages of J. R. R. Tolkien’s best and spent hours upon hours in Azeroth during the first and second Warcraft games. Hell, there have even been moments where you would have caught me in some curious, forgotten title like Heroes of Annihilated Empires, but those were fleeting affairs.
In short, I’ve never really been able to tuck away my disdain for the rote tropes of Tolkien’s legacy to truly appreciate what, in this instance, fantasy-themed games can and do offer. At least until recently. I blame an intoxicating dual dark-fantasy hegemony of HBO’s Game of Thrones and Neocore Games’ original rough diamond King Arthur: The Role-playing Wargame.
And now, Eador: Masters of the Broken World. I do like this one, warts and all.
So, just to get it out of the way, Eador is indeed akin to the Heroes of Might and Magic titles. My dilettantism about the older fantasy empire epics means that I can’t very well comment further. You stride about the countryside with heroes, you conquer lands, you develop your kingdom, and you win. Or die in the early game because you had no idea what you were doing, which was illuminated in my paltry book of deeds in Eador for many a session. Death isn’t quite the right word. Reborn into extreme poverty from the lofty heights of once-heroism. Oh verily, finding yourself plucked from a field of dead peasants and reanimated at the keep in some cruel karmic backhand was my tale until I figured out the glacial-but-rewarding-pace of Snowbird Games‘ fantasy strategy game.
And glacial is a word best fitting Eador. Referencing pace but also of sheer size. Eador is colossal. And, like a warming 21st century glacier, it creaks and cracks under its own weight at times but remains a majestic creation.
I must admit at this point that I entirely skipped the campaign. Go custom game or bust in my opinion. It hands you the palette with the paint pot rather than merely a few pencils. Not to say the campaign isn’t gargantuan — it undoubtedly is — but you play here for the systems. Building a kingdom, unfettered from go to woe, wrapped in a pantheon of heroes and their retinues, provincial wrangling, civic development and building the mightiest and most skilled of armies. The problem here is trying to describe it to you with any dexterity; it’s just one of those games. One that holds a little more in its cheeks than your average turn-based strategy game — grand or otherwise.
You start with a fledgling hero or two in a quiet, microscopic realm. Assembling a crack team of ragtag men-at-arms from the dingy, near-neolithic facilities within the walls of your castle, you begin to explore. And by explore, I mean selecting the option to explore your home province or the surrounding locales. Here, you will find a variety of sub-locations, ranging from lonely grottoes and abandoned towers to mysterious ruins and secret fortresses. While you might think every single place discovered during this particular phase is a nice early-game grind paddock, not so fast. Some are brutal and require you to come back later on or to develop your city to the point where higher-grade troops can be recruited.
Each unit is capable of leveling up in a variety of ways, so while a player might not think too much about losing a grubby serf, that very serf might have served a greater, more pivotal purpose for a few later battles. The serf would undoubtedly die or be relegated to gate duty once obsoleted, but this isn’t a game of cheap hiring. Each province proffers a particular specialty, and once you’ve explored a place to its fullest and retrieved all manner of gold and loot — yes, a plethora of loot to adorn and buff.
As you’d expect from a game likened mechanically to Heroes of Might and Magic, combat takes place away from the main map and civic development screens. Atop a field of finely detailed and varying terrain hexes, valiant heroes and their retinue do battle against all types of foes. The combat is a touch slow even with the option to hasten traversal with an extra click of the mouse, but it’s a satisfying aspect and looks quite stunning. Once leveled to the point where troop numbers become somewhat legion, it’s great fun to assemble and use an army of front line troops, ranged units, and a bevy of support characters to wage war. This won’t replace any sort of strategy role-playing game on its own, but as part of the Eador combat experience, it’s more than adequate. Dare I say, quite fun!?
Another part of the equation delivering in the fun stakes is the development of a player’s kingdom. There is an absolutely enormous list of buildings to erect within the walls of your fair cities. Many pertain to units — each with their own benefits to the realm or, indeed, bringing some sort of negative effect to civic operations — but also affect fortifications, economy, and unit capabilities. This is where some of the user interface quirks will either be a bane or a boon to a player. Such an exemplar would be the building construction menu or the version that doesn’t just list the currently available options.
The advanced construction menu is an impressive creation: every building within Eador splayed across the interface; every type of barracks, fortification, market, manufacturer, temple, civic installation, and more. Clicking on a particular building in the menu highlights other buildings that it either requires or affects. There’s a construction queue sub-menu that allows a hefty project — be it sequential or scattered — to be fired and forgotten until a pop-up heralds completion
That said, there’s a touch of higgledy-piggledy when it comes to a cohesive UI across the various menus. It all works, but compared to a title like Elemental: Fallen Enchantress (another fantasy empire builder contemporary), Eador can be a smidgen confounding. Maybe I’ve been pampered by the thematically insistent svelteness of science-fiction strategy, having grown weak and slovenly in the bosom of zero gravity. In any case, Eador keeps its leathery self together rather respectively.
Just to come full circle, I’m really not sure why this of all games has me relishing and reveling in high fantasy. Is it the Russian edge? It’s not immediately apparent outside of the overly ambitious kitchen-sink approach to the design. Is it the strange and subtle morality system that fuses the character development to the empire management? These strange and often wry choices offered when confronting all manner of event situations? Is it the Netstorm-esque floating shards of this so-called broken world?
I don’t rightly know. All I know is that there is a heck of a lot on the Eador smorgasbord, and it all tastes pretty damn good … even if the crockery supplied is a touch misshapen.
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase one of the first 50 tickets and save $400!