Legends of Eisenwald is an unusual mix of RPG and strategy, a tactics-based adventure set in a low fantasy version of medieval Germany. The game originated as a Kickstarter project by Minsk, Belarus-based Aterdux Entertainment and is a reworking of the team’s previous game, Discord Times, which was self-published in 2004. The player can choose from three protagonists: The Knight, a heavily-armored melee specialist; The Baroness, an expert in ranged combat; and The Mystic, a character designed for advanced players who uses various magical abilities to bolster the player’s army while weakening and attacking enemies. The main thrust of the story is the investigation into a former stronghold whose vassals have revolted under mysterious circumstances, though the majority of the player’s time is spent gathering the forces required to capture territory, defeating aggressors, and pursuing the numerous quests given in taverns and villages throughout the kingdom.
The fast-paced combat system is by far the most satisfying component of Legends of Eisenwald. Upon initiation of combat the perspective shifts from the large strategy map to a tactical view where turn-based battles take place on a hexagonal grid. The player’s army consists of three rows of combatants: infantry and cavalry in the front, followed by ranged fighters and then healers/buffers. A unique aspect of Eisenwald’s combat system is that each unit must take an action every turn; simply moving units around the map doesn’t count unless the unit is ordered to retreat altogether, and the player is not allowed to skip a turn. Between this and the fact that the battle arenas are generally very small the player quickly discovers that savvy unit upgrades and smart positioning are critical to winning battles. Further adding to the tension is the injury system: a unit is “wounded” when they’re KO’d or a single attack takes more than 50% of their HP. If the wound is not addressed the unit will fight with reduced stats in the next battle, and three accumulated wounds results in permadeath. Because healing is relatively expensive and gold is fairly difficult to come by this adds a nice layer of pressure to battles and further underlines the importance of smart unit positioning. All of these design choices combine to result in a series of satisfyingly quick and bloody battles.
There’s an array of unit types to choose from, and each comes with a bevy of upgrade options. At a certain point in each character’s level the player has the option to evolve that character’s unit type; for example at level four a healer can either stick to the healing path or become a “witch,” opening up a whole new set of abilities. Each of these specialized unit types can be further fine-tuned with a wide variety of equipment options. Customization also has a tangible effect on gameplay: as your units gain levels and skills, your options in battle expand from simple attacks to include more nuanced maneuvers like wounds, stuns, and various buffs.
Though not egregiously awful in any sense the story was lacking overall in creativity and innovation. There were several interesting side quests but the main plot wasn’t particularly engaging, populated as it was with standard fantasy character types and unfolding in an almost entirely predictable manner. The beginning of the game fails to provide any sort of unique “hook” and as a consequence it felt like I was playing through the main story missions simply because that’s what it took to proceed in the game, not because I was at all interested in what would happen next. More importantly, the limitations on dialogue options and restricted player influence over the course of the story made it feel like much less of a traditional RPG experience than I was expecting.
The other minor issue lies in the somewhat imprecise localization of the game from Russian to English. For the most part the translation is perfectly serviceable, though there are more than a few instances of amusingly odd turns of phrase and sentences that don’t quite flow as well as they should. However most of these issues are perfectly benign, as any confusing elements in the way the player is directed to proceed seem to be baked into the game, and are not the result of poorly-translated dialogue.
The game is sometimes frustratingly vague when directing the player toward the next objective. On one hand, I enjoyed the challenge of having to figure it out on my own without the normal methods of hand-holding, arrows and map markers and journal entries that spell every step of the quest out in exhaustive detail. On the other hand there were several instances where I felt that the pacing of the game was negatively impacted by my having to fumble around trying to figure out what to do next.
Nothing breaks the flow like having to painstakingly click through every inch of a forest for fifteen minutes in order to simply find the path that the character is supposed to take to get to a bandit camp, or combing the map for a specific street that doesn’t seem to exist.
For all of the upgrade and customization options available, most of the meat of the game is ultimately permutations of the same battles over and over again. If you’re sufficiently pulled in by the upgrade system and can appreciate the fine differences to be found therein, you may take pleasure in the ability to master battle situations through a series of fine tweaks. If, conversely, you’re the type of gamer that gets easily bored by repetition this might be the type of game where you say “ok, ok I get it” after a few hours and put it aside.
It wouldn’t be entirely off-base to posit that Legends of Eisenwald looks to be a few generations behind the times in the graphics department. The larger strategy map is presented in isometric perspective; panels open to interact with various buildings, and dialogue takes place in standard box form. There’s a certain charm to the anachronistic look of the game, and the developers have added some nice touches like changing the shading based on time of day, but the overall effect is generally unimpressive and there are several concrete issues like an awkwardly-presented UI and the lack of an adequate zoom function on the strategy map.
Though not a particularly great RPG, Legends of Eisenwald shines as an adventure/strategy game. The fast-paced combat, numerous upgrade options, and replayability for those who are invested in fine-tuning their battle strategies make for a satisfying game that values depth over looks. If you’re into strategy games and tend to be more invested in gameplay than in the story, then all signs point to “Give it a shot.”
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