A Sword Too Broad
Not every game is a special and unique snowflake. Some games have something that makes them unique, like a masterful story or innovative control scheme, but not always. Sometimes you get something into which a visible effort has obviously been placed, but not enough of one to make the finished product something noticeable. Games like these can be very difficult to write about, simply because there is so little to say.
So in such a case, where does one begin? Does one sugar-coat it, or get straight to the truth? Does one hide the truth of the game’s quality by opening the review with a goofy and vague question, leading into the review proper? Or does one say straight up that SpellForce 2 – Demons of the Past just isn’t that great?
…oops. I guess we’ll do that, then. Let’s get started.
SpellForce 2 – Demons of the Past is an expansion of the original SpellForce 2 by Nordic Games, the final expansion in the series leading up to the release of SpellForce 3. Demons of the Past is, however, a fully independent experience for those unfamiliar with the series – at least, that’s what it’s promoted as. The sad truth is that this game, while technically its own beast, is one almost completely inaccessible to those not already familiar with the series.
Demons of the Past puts you in the shoes of an avatar in the ranks of the Shaikan, a group of peace-keepers facing a daunting task; a wrathful being called Zazhut has been unleashed upon the world of Eo, and must be stopped. Even the Shaikan and the dragons that fight for good feel powerless to stop the cloud of darkness falling upon the land. But your character refuses to give up hope, and takes on the task of assembling a force strong enough to take down Zazhut once and for all.
If that introduction failed to thrill you, you are certainly not alone. The game opens with a recap of the events of SpellForce 2 leading up to this expansion, but does so in a narration that does nothing but throw names and events at you without taking the time to really explain what they mean. The campaign itself has a story that is not badly written per se, but lacks any kind of hook. You can employ all the good writing tricks you want, but if you bury them under hours of tropes and dull moments, they don’t amount to much. The game’s story is essentially its own thing, yes, but it doesn’t set up things for the uninitiated so much as it just tosses you in, saying “Here you go. Hope you like names that mean nothing to you.”
The gameplay itself suffers from the same issue as the story; too much to do, with too little introduction. You command yourself and your choice of healers, archers, fighters, and more, all at the click of a button. Some are named party members, and others are your standard expendable soldier-types. You click around the map to choose where to move to, a simple task made wearing by the “yes” “we’re leaving” and “forward” lines regurgitated each time you click somewhere. You can set your units to either follow your avatar, patrol a certain area, or stand around like idiots, the latter being the default for each unit you collect. Battle is initiated by right-clicking on an enemy to start an auto-battle of standard attacks, freeing up your cursor to select special attacks from a menu, somewhat MOBA-style. There are also some RPG elements, in the form of a selection of multiple skill trees for each character. All this makes for a solid system with potential for variety and customization.
So this is all well and good, but a severe problem arises in how the game teaches you to use the assets it gives you; it doesn’t. As in, not at all. When playing a game with a considerable degree of complexity to its mechanics, as this has, a push in the right direction makes all the difference. Giving no such push frankly ruins the opening moments of the game, slowing them down to a complete tedium before the player finally discovers what to do. You’re dropped immediately into battle, having to choose party members without fully understanding what will help you most in battle, or how any of them work. About two hours in, I only happened to stumble upon a menu that had been hiding several unequipped abilities that would have made the last half hour significantly less of a hassle. There are a set of tutorials for you to check out, but they’re not actually interactive; they’re videos of someone playing through an interactive demo. They run extremely slowly, and only the last few really teach you anything beyond the most extreme of basics. My only explanation for this is that figuring out how to actually play the game was suggested as a new mechanic in jest by someone at the studio, only to have a higher-up greenlight it in a fit of utter madness. The game makes only a half-baked attempt to properly explain itself, and it hurts the whole experience. An unfairly high difficulty curve won’t do anything to sway newcomers, either.
On the other hand, one thing Demons of the Past does have going for it is a variety of modes. In addition to the aforementioned story mode, there is a free play mode. This is like the campaign in that you can create your own avatar, hand-pick NPC party members, and take on all the quests your heart can handle. This mode actually starts out far more promisingly than the story mode, but after your initiation it turns out to a map-hopping series of over-glorified skirmish maps. These maps also get their own mode, minus the thread of the free play story mode. Skirmish consists of a lot of resource management, as you set up different parts of a base camp from which to manufacture soldiers to send into battle. Unfortunately, the maps are mostly dull and uninspired, and the battles tend to go the same way every time. There are also Conquest and Survival modes, which both add variety, but also get old fast. You can play matches online, if some more intelligent competition strikes your fancy.
So what kind of presentation does this medieval adventure bring to the table? The graphic quality is like a cougar bar regular desperately applying layers of makeup. You can put as much polish on dated graphics as you want, but the flaws become more apparent the more you do so. It’s not hideous, but not striking at all, and shows its age. Character designs are bland medieval fare all around, but not quite to the point of laziness. A few stylistic elements help to keep things from feeling completely unoriginal, as does some quite lovely art in the opening of the game’s campaign mode. The game features a nice soundtrack that never gets tiring on the ears, but even this is brought down by the game’s otherwise poor sound design. The voice acting is mostly okay, but some characters voices are significantly quieter than others, almost to the point of complete inaudibility amidst the music and sound effects. The sounds of battle become increasingly grating on the ears, and every sound tone related to getting an item, leveling up, or completing an objective is so big and bombastic that it overshadows anything else. These may sound like nitpicks, but in the midst of play they become piercing and unavoidable. The game also suffers from some obnoxious graphical glitches, such as buggy menus and enemies suddenly vanishing in the midst of battle.
SpellForce 2 – Demons of the Past feels less like an independent expansion, and more like DLC. It promotes itself as being inviting to new players, but gives almost nothing to new players in terms of gameplay or a hook into the story. The story it tells is not particularly badly written, but suffers from an inherent blandness that never really goes away. The gameplay is incomprehensible at the get-go, regardless of which game mode you’re playing. Once you get the hang of things, you might have some fun, but there’s nothing mechanically interesting or unique enough to keep players engaged for more than a sitting or two. If you’re already a fan of SpellForce 2, this is more of the same, so you won’t have any trouble hopping back in. But being new to the series with Demons of the Past feels like walking into a movie that’s halfway over. You might be able to piece together what’s going on, but you lose the initial draw that’s meant to engage you. Demons of the Past has no such draw, and there fore, no such engagement.
But as bland as it may be, the gameplay is solid, and there are enough modes to give you more than your money’s worth if you really feel yourself sticking to it. It’s just unfortunate how the presentation seems to have been forgotten in relation to the game’s intended purpose. What the game lacks in originality, though, it makes up for in being at least competently put together, enough so to earn it a 3 out of 5.
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Nordic Games; Developer: Mind Over Matter; Released: January 16th, 2014 ; ESRB: Teen; MSRP: $19.99: