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Elemental: Fallen Enchantress is what you might call a “big picture game.” Its blend of strategic empire-building and heroic role-playing isn’t the most focused gaming experience ever, but it does a nice job of turning the player into a true, and maybe even great, warrior-king, ruling from the saddle with blood on his blade.

Fallen Enchantress can be played as one of eight pre-made characters, each the leader of a unique Kingdom or Empire, or you can take advantage of the game’s powerful customization options to create a ruler entirely your own, selecting profession, proficiencies, talents, appearance and even, if desired, a weakness that will put you at a disadvantage in some situations but provides an extra skill or ability in return. It’s not an unimportant choice; despite the title, victory can be achieved primarily through conventional military means or even a smooth diplomatic approach, and who you are goes a long way toward determining how you’ll play.

Fallen Enchantress provides a very thorough tutorial that goes a long way toward easing newbies into the action, as well as instructional pop-ups attached to each new event. It probably goes without saying but the manual is also worth a glance, or at the very least being kept handy for reference when things start to go sideways. This isn’t the most impenetrable strategy title ever, but there’s enough complexity on the table, not to mention a few odd quirks of design, to almost guarantee that sooner or later you’re going to hit a point where what’s going on isn’t entirely clear. Your champion suffered a twisted ankle in her last battle and you can’t figure out how to heal it? Check the manual to find out why! (I’ll give you a freebie on this one: it can’t be healed. Sprained ankles are forever.)

The game has more than a slight Civilization feel to it as you plan and eventually found your first city, but unlike that strategy classic, potential city locations are actually quite limited, ensuring a certain amount of sprawl to your kingdom. City management is fairly conventional, if somewhat simplified. Facilities ranging from simple gardens to the equivalent of Wonders of the World can be built, or units can be trained and dispatched to push out the borders of your kingdom, but it’s an either/or proposition, which can lead to some pretty tough choices. As cities grow, they must be assigned one of three specializations dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, commerce or martial prowess. The one rather unconventional twist to the process is the ability to cast “strategic spells” that can provide a significant boost to growth, production or other attributes. Doing so inflicts a slow but constant drain on your mana pool, forcing you to put a priority on finding, controlling and developing the elemental shards that power magic in the game if you want to take advantage of the potentially game-changing advantages they offer.

Those who prefer a more hands-on approach to leadership will find that the weight of the crown is relieved somewhat by Fallen Enchantress‘ unique approach to “Sovereigns.” You are not an abstract lord looking down upon his people from on high in this game, but a unique, individual character, complete with stats, special traits, a personal inventory of weapons, armor and other items, and even the ability to buy and sell items from merchants in nearby cities. It’s definitely “RPG lite,” but the interaction is still full-featured and engaging enough to make it feel like it’s “you” roaming the lands, cracking the toughest nuts and ruling from the frontier.

And in the finest tradition of RPGs, you don’t have to go alone. Along your travels you will encounter champions who can be recruited to your cause if you’re sufficiently worthy and have enough coin in your purse. Champions are unique characters with traits much like your own, who can be stationed in cities to provide them with unique boosts, assigned to lead your armies or taken along as a fellow adventurer in your own high-powered party. There are even quests to undertake, although they’re generally dull, combat-based affairs wrapped up in a little extra narrative, and despite the role-playing trappings, your band of brothers is effectively just another army, albeit one that packs a considerable punch.

Combat in Fallen Enchantress unfolds on a relatively small grid-based map. Everything is turn-based and initiative is vital, as landing the first strike, or the first series of strikes, can often mean the difference between victory and defeat. Conventional military units can engage in ranged or melee combat, while magic – which is what this is all about, after all – is rarer and difficult to effectively wield but devastating, especially at higher levels. Battles are most effectively handled by the player (assuming you bring at least some minor modicum of tactical competence to the party) but simple battles or those you just don’t feel like dealing with can also be resolved by the computer.

Sooner or later you’ll run into a fellow ruler, and assuming you don’t fall immediately into a state of warfare, it then becomes time for diplomacy. Diplomatic options are relatively simple, but the model that determines the state of relations actually works off a number of factors, including proximity, alignment of interests and whether or not your potential adversary thinks you’re cool. Some of those factors you can control and some you cannot, but there’s enough flexibility to it to ensure that nothing is inevitable. A good relationship can go sour, and a bad relationship, at least as long as you haven’t burned any cities to the ground, can be salvaged. But it’s also absolute, sometimes infuriatingly so. Once made, a treaty cannot be broken, no matter how inhumanly wicked you or your empire may be. Diplomatic relationships cannot be modified mid-treaty to accommodate changing circumstances and surprise attacks, or even a declaration of war in the midst of a non-aggression pact, are simply not an option. It works both ways so there’s no actual disadvantage, but not being able to stick a knife in someone’s back takes a lot of the fun out of being bad.

This is a game that’s all about breadth rather than depth, and it’s greatest strength is also its primary weakness. There’s so much to do and so many different ways to play and win, but none of it goes particularly deep. Instead, Elemental: Fallen Enchantress is a jack of all trades, very much a “sum of its parts” experience, and it’s a pretty good one. If founding, ruling and conquering a fantasy kingdom is on your list of things to do, this is not a bad way of going about it.

Bottom Line: Elemental: Fallen Enchantress engenders a feeling of real accomplishment, without requiring the investment in time and study demanded by truly hardcore strategy titles. The “sovereign” mechanic is a nice twist and while it’s not particularly deep, personally cracking skulls or questing for a pair of dragon’s eyes while simultaneously ordering the construction of a granary in New Foozleville is pretty damn cool, and there are enough customization and gameplay options to keep things fresh for a good while.

Recommendation: If you’ve ever dreamed of leading a fantasy kingdom to glory without getting bogged down in the nuts and bolts of administration and logistics, this is the game for you.

[rating=4]

Game: Elemental: Fallen Enchantress
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Developer: Stardock
Publisher: Stardock
Platform(s): PC

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