Episode V: Striking Back at the Empire
When the media blames yet another violent incident on video games and gamers, they never mention that millions of us enjoy games without rocket launchers. Although I love a good headshot as much as the next guy, I've always been a huge fan of the slower, more thoughtful turn-based games. I still play Heroes of Might and Magic 3 in airports across the country whenever I travel. I once lost an entire semester of college to King's Bounty.
But the genre doesn't get a lot of new entries these days. Even mainstays like X-Com have fallen by the wayside, leaving only the ongoing sagas of Heroes of Might and Magic and Age of Wonders to continue the legacy.
So when a new contender showed up in my mail, I was excited. Some fresh blood is exactly what turn-based gaming needs.
Unfortunately, Empire of Magic started bleeding right when I took it out of the box. After spending a week playing this game, I urge all of you to do the opposite. Go to the movies, build a model ship in a bottle, learn to knit, but don't waste any of your hard earned money on this weak and anemic empire.
Even in the game's story, this empire is in trouble. Whole towns and garrisons of troops have been vanishing without a trace. The dead have begun to rise from their graves, and they're bent on destruction. The Council of Mages just sit around arguing and bickering, leaving it up to you, Artemain, apprentice mage, to do all the work.
And playing this game is clearly work; I would have never done it if I didn't have to.
Let's start with the graphics, which are pretty hard on the eyes. The landscapes are the only good thing going on, since they are all designed by hand and not from a tileset, giving each map area a unique feel. It's the dumpy-looking, really, really badly animated characters and monsters that infest these backdrops which is the problem. Forget combat - these guys don't even have any animation for turning.
Even worse than the graphics is the sound, which is abysmal. I'm not talking about the music, which is an adequate orchestral score. I'm talking about the sound effects, which are the worst I've heard since my Atari 2600 stopped beeping. Swords sound like someone hitting a pie plate with a screwdriver, grunts and groans are clearly one of the programmers using the free microphone that came with his Dell, and I swear they got their echo effects by just moving that mic to the bathroom.
At least you don't have to deal with any bad voice acting, because there is none. No voices at all, that is. The whole story and every encounter is told through text, often badly translated from whatever language this game was originally in. Even standard messages, like level increases, are stilted.
And, unfortunately, the gameplay is the most work of all. This really isn't a strategy game at all, playing much more like an RPG. But it keeps all of the turn-based limitations. Want to go back to town to buy that new skill? Let's say you have four little groups of units. You have to move Group One a few spaces (based on how many "action points" they have), then Group Two, then Three, then Four. Then you have to end your turn. Then you wait. Then you move Group One a few spaces, then Group Two...you might have to do this 20 times just to get back to town. Big fun.
Even if you run into a fight along the way, it doesn't get much better. The "action" zooms in a little closer, but there's almost no strategy to the fighting whatsoever. Every unit can move across the whole battlefield and attack in one turn, so there's no placement or movement strategy. Almost every battle comes down to who has action points left and who doesn't, because if you have no action points, you just stand there like a moron while the enemy pounds on you.
But wait! There's more! Empire of Magic is buggy beyond belief. Crashes are frequent and there's even a bug that prevents you from continuing the game. Patches fix the absolute worst of them, but plenty more are lurking under the fridge.
The multiplayer game is LAN only, where you can try to kill the other player on one of two total maps. Since you have to play the same tedious game only now you have to wait for another person as well, it's barely worth mentioning.
Normally, I love my job. Hell, I get to play video games and write about them and call it work. But in this case it really was work. Playing Empire of Magic was something I really didn't want to do, and that might be the worst thing you could say about a game. Let me put it another way: as soon as I'm done writing this, I'm hitting the uninstall button. Trust me, learn to fiddle like Nero and let this Empire burn.