Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Grimlore Games
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Review code supplied free of charge by the publisher.
Describing a game as a mash-up of other titles is often regarded as lazy writing, and I should know because I do it all the time. However, sometimes it’s appropriate because Spellforce 3 is Baldur’s Gate meets Age of Mythology and in its mixture of RPG leveling and RTS base-building you can find mechanics taken from numerous games from across the years. It’s like a Frankenstein’s monster, all stitched together, a little rough around the edges, prone to getting in trouble with local villagers and yet has a heart of gold. Or at least, the heart of somebody.
The story is largely familiar fantasy tropes with your character being the chosen one who will save the world from a mysterious threat, although this time you do get to play as the son of a treacherous mage in a story that acts as a prequel to the previous two Spellforce games. Having been tossed out of the legendary Wolf Guard you find yourself caught up in a story that involves Elves, Orcs, Humans, religion, a mysterious plague, the coming of a God and an ancient race. I mean, that’s a lot of fantasy cliches in one place. It’s like developers have a checklist or something these days.
In other words, the story isn’t all that exciting in its originality and some of the writing is weirdly inconsistent, with some characters awkwardly “swearing” using words like blazes and heck, and then later merrily throwing f-bombs around later. However, the whole thing is supported by likable companion characters and surprisingly strong voice-acting across the main cast, though the side-characters struggle a bit more. And while it may not win awards for originality I found myself caught up in the lore and storyline. It was enough to keep me engrossed for the 20-30 hours of playtime you can get out of the campaign.
At first glance Spellforce 3 looks a bit like its using the Infinity engine that powered Divinity: Original Sin 2, it’s isometric view letting you get a birds-eye look at the beautiful landscapes. There’s a lot of detail in this world, combined with some great lighting, that makes it a pleasure to look at and explore, although while the areas are reasonably large they are also mostly empty with only a few NPCs to chat to. To be fair, though, that’s because the space is needed for the real-time strategy shenanigans that you’ll be getting up to. The point is, aside from the clunky animations this is mostly a very pretty game bolstered by some great orchestral music which has a Skyrim vibe to it.
Being an action-RPG getting into scuffles is a common occurrence. Combat here is largely in real-time with your group of up to four heroes having a maximum of three special skills mapped to their little sections of the screen at any given time, but you can also access these by holding a key while hovering over an enemy or friendly to bring up a contextual radial menu that will display defensive abilities or offensive ones based on what the cursor is above. By default, this menu slows down time, but it can be tweaked to pause the game entirely if you feel like catching your breath, especially in the hectic RTS sections which we’ll come back to later. Initially, I found the idea of being limited to three skills to be interesting, but the game doesn’t fully commit to its own concept as you can actually jump between “action sets” at the press of a button, and thus, in reality, all skills are available to you. Why not just have them all accessible via the radial menu, then?
Combat isn’t particularly deep or nuanced as it typically just involves charging into the fray while keeping your ranged heroes back, but it is pretty good fun regardless. There’s a hectic pace that other RPGs of this type sometimes lack, and while you might basically be spamming the special abilities you do still feel as though your inputs are making some difference in the fight.
Fighting and completing the fairly frugal selection of side-quests, as well as doing the main story, gives your rag-tag group of heroes XP to level up with. Again, it’s simple stuff with each character, including your own, getting three basic skill trees. You’ll find a few skills in these trees as well as basic stat buffs, but it’s unexciting stuff. It would have been nice to have deeper trees so we could have really built characters up and combined their abilities.
Some of the abilities you can unlock are very specific in that they can do damage to buildings, buff troops, and other things. That brings us to the moments where you are suddenly tossed in charge of an army, the game usually managing to justify why you can’t just send in the cavalry for everything. These RTS segments play out how you’d imagine; you toss down basic buildings like hunting cabins and logging stations in order to get the basic resources you need to fuel the production of better buildings and troops.
In what feels like a knowing nod to the Company of Heroes and Dawn of War series’ capturing command points is key. These positions let you build small outposts that generate some workers who can in turn cut down trees, gather food and so on. Where the difference in Spellforce lies is that each sector acts like its own ecosystem. While supplies can travel between sectors workers never do, and thus even if you have a surplus of workers at your main base they can’t be sent to help man the defenses on your frontlines. It forces you to choose how you want sectors specialized unless you want to have it do a bit of everything. By upgrading outposts you can get more workers to help out, but that almost feels like a shame because the idea of having very limited workers creates interesting decisions.
In order to help keep the action flowing each sector also has limited resources, and so if you spend too long just building forces or hiding behind defenses you’ll eventually run out of wood, food, and stone, leaving you unable to reinforce with anything but the most basic yourself if anything goes wrong. It’s a smart choice because while I’m a self-confessed turtle player in most RTS games, preferring to build insane defenses and laugh as my pitiful foes smash themselves again them, a game such as this needs to keep things moving.
On the downside in the campaign it seems that the A.I. does not have to deal with such trivial things as stone running out, though, and is able to continue pumping out troops. Ir’s annoying because it makes the concept of taking sectors and cutting down the enemy supply lines feel completely pointless. Why bother making an epic run into enemy territory in a bid to slow down their soldier production when the A.I. simply carries on like nothing ever happened?
As an RTS veteran, I have to admit I found myself frustrated by a few of the missing options. For example, your troops can be told to hold the position because otherwise if you place them behind a few guard towers they’ll merrily run straight forward to fight the enemy. More frustrating still is that like a teenage girl chasing a celebrity crush they just won’t stop running after the retreating enemy so it can be surprisingly easy to lose a bunch of troops because they charged straight into the maws of death with naught but a cheerful smile. The issue is there is no middle-ground, so you can either have your troops standing around like idiots while your frontlines are massacred or you can lose most of your army because they followed the enemy home. It stops you from leaving your soldiers alone to defend an area properly.
Behind the scenes there is a basic rock-paper-scissors system going on that defines combat with the likes of pikemen faring better against cavalry, but in reality the enemy tends to throw big blobs of mixed units at you and the only real way to respond is doing the same, thus fights tend to be resolved by whoever has the biggest blob, or in many cases by the heroes. Yes, by slipping RPG heroes into the mix you get an intriguing balance of power, with the heroes being vastly superior to standard troops, almost laughably so at times. It makes it feel like you always need to have your group of heroes on the frontlines.
There’s the option for offline skirmishes against the A.I. or matches against real opponents online, but this only serves to make you realize how basic and awkward the RTS mechanics really are. Three factions are available to pick from, those being the Humans, Orcs, and Elves, but aside from a few minor differences like the Elves being a tad better at ranged fighting, they play largely the same.
But then, that’s the weakness of a game like this: it doesn’t do either of its distinct halves particularly well. The RPG mechanics lack depth or meaningful choices that have lasting repercussions, there aren’t a lot of skills to choose from and chances to develop and shape your character are slim on the ground. Likewise, the RTS sections are very basic affairs with little genuine tactical or strategic thinking needed to win, an A.I. that simply throws enemies at you, generic units and three factions that are largely identical.
This is also its strength, too, however. Attempting to marry deep RPG mechanics with a more refined and challenging RTS game would have probably made it much harder to move between the two smoothly, whereas here the transition between exploring to full-on commander is fairly smooth.
Some bugs and issues hold the game back, too, although a fair few of them have been ironed out since the game’s initial launch back in December of 2016. Unit pathing can be a problem as you order a group of soldiers across the map only for half of them to wander off on a different route, while occasionally unresponsive commands can be frustrating during the frantic combat where finding your heroes amidst the scrum is a pain sometimes. There were also some quests that didn’t trigger properly, forcing me to go back to older saves, plus a few framerate drops here and there. Others via Steam are reporting a lot of other issues, too.
But hey! At least you do get to go through the campaign in co-op mode, although annoyingly only the host’s character is persistent, so everybody else wont get to keep progression.
Yup, Spellforce 3 is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, all cobbled together from bits and bobs to create something that on paper doesn’t sound like it should work, and yet somehow it does. Sure, there are problems and neither the RPG or RTS side of things are particularly developed, but getting to build bases and command troops gives Spellforce 3 something missing from a lot of so-called “grand” RPGS; a sense of scale. How often in RPGs are supposedly epic events happening yet there is just a few soldiers running around? Well, here you have proper armies colliding.
So, my final verdict is that Spellforce 3 is a good game, but perhaps not one you need to rush out and purchase right now. The full £40 asking price feels too big for a game like this, so personally, I’d wait for a sale. Putting the price aside, though, it does provide a blend of genres that few other games do, as well as a chunk of content to work through. I’d like to see a Spellforce 4 with everything deepened a bit yet, but for now I had fun with Spellforce 3.