Once upon a time, there was a game called Elemental: War of Magic from the PC development house of Stardock. War of Magic was set on the troubled world of Elemental imagined by CEO Bradley Wardell, and it was a shitty strategy RPG hybrid. It was virtually unplayable due to technical issues and the user interface was as esoteric as the magic the playable rulers wielded. There were a few decent ideas though, and Stardock doubled down on them by hiring new designers to clean up the mess. In 2012, Stardock released the standalone expansion Fallen Enchantress and it was an eminently playable revision of the War of Magic engine. Stardock’s latest expansion, called Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes, further refines all that came before it and the result is – finally – a fantasy-themed turn-based strategy game you can devote hours to without even knowing it.
But enough real-world history, let’s focus on how you forge the fictional history of your realm in Legendary Heroes. You start by choosing from a pool of pre-made rulers from the story of Elemental, or by creating your own with the robust customization options. Your ruler isn’t just a faction leader, he’s a unit on the board able to cast spells and engage in the tactical turn-based battles. Once you are plunged into the game world, you have to balance exploring your surroundings, beating up monsters, building your cities up and researching technologies in the three trees of warfare, magic and civilization.
What’s different – and much improved, honestly – in Legendary Heroes is how you recruit the hero units that support your troops. These heroes have traits and abilities similar to your leader, and can sway the battles pretty much singlehandedly after you’ve them leveled up a bit. In previous versions, you found these heroes on the map and paid gold to get them on your side, but that mechanic forced players to explore in order to succeed and put too much of an advantage on the random map placement of these heroes. There’s a new resource in Legendary Heroes called fame, which you earn by clearing out monsters and completing quests, but also by building monuments and grand structures like the Adventurer’s Guild. After you earn enough fame, a dialogue box pops up with two different heroes you can choose to join your forces. The new system still rewards exploration, but players who enjoy building up slowly aren’t hamstrung either.
How your leader and your heroes improve has become a lot more fun, too. After gaining a level, you can choose from one of five archetypes for your champion: assassin, defender, commander, mage, and warrior. This opens up a skill tree that lets you improve your hero and is a lot more satisfying than the semi-random pool of skills you’d get in previous versions. Even within the trees, there’s a good amount of specialization available – a warrior can concentrate on axe skills, while another can focus on improving his swordplay. I was able to kit out a pretty devastating mage as my faction leader with tons of direct damage spells, and paired him with a general with tons of commander traits which buffed the whole army and give a unit an extra action once per battle. Elemental was mine!
The tactical battles are pleasantly challenging, and the maps have been significantly improved, providing many different paths to success. You get a small damage bonus the more friendly units are adjacent to an enemy, so it makes much more sense to form battle lines to swarm the foe. There’s also a lot more decisions you have to make in equipping and training units. Units and heroes gain an ability based on what weapon they are wielding, such as maces letting you bash enemies for more damage at the cost of your next turn. Each faction also has a special ability only they can use, and this ability applies to every hero with that nationality, so it’s yet another thing to consider when choosing your champions.
The A.I. takes as much advantage of the tactical situation as possible, focusing fire on your weakest units while attempting to protect ranged units like archers. There’s still a few broken ways to ensure a victory – I found catapults were a bit too useful in every battle as they can lay down splash damage every turn. But conversely, the huge dragons and demons which populate the strategic map can feel just as broken and require well-considered tactics and not a small amount of luck to defeat.
Several strategic-level balance changes in Legendary Heroes might fly under the radar to the casual player, but they were much appreciated for veterans. Unrest is very important now, for example. If your empire starts taking over massive amount of another’s territory or expanding too quickly, you have to spend a lot of resources towards keeping unrest down, which balances the sprawling empire against the smaller ones. Cities can also be set to “build” specific resources like mana or gold, and that helps make each settlement useful once you get farther in the tech trees.
The story of the world of Elemental still holds the game back from true greatness. You could argue the narrative isn’t really important in a strategy game, but the blandness of the cliché fantasy world in Legendary Heroes doesn’t improve your experience one bit. Some bits of humor or interesting character development beyond meaningless binary choices in the simple quests would have made the game much more memorable.
Legendary Heroes is definitely an improvement over the original War of Magic release, and even last year’s Fallen Enchantress, and Stardock is making good with its fans by offering this standalone expansion free to anyone who purchased War of Magic in a rare show of goodwill to consumers. But even though Legendary Heroes is a very well-designed turn-based strategy game, it lacks a certain magical something to make you want to play it over and over again. The replayability should be very high – with so much customization available – yet once you’ve played through a few times, you feel like you’ve seen everything Legendary Heroes has to offer.
Bottom Line: This standalone expansion is a wonderful fantasy strategy game in its own right, but it doesn’t quite have enough to place it in the pantheon of classics.
Recommendation: Pick up Legendary Heroes if you’re looking for a pleasant strategy challenge with a fantasy bent, but don’t expect it to be the next Alpha Centauri.[rating=4]
Game: Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Available from: GameStop(US)