Demons are about, the elves just want things to stay calm and nature friendly, and the humans just want to survive and be vaguely religious (oh, and everyone wants to kill the orcs).
Disciples III: RenaissancePublisher: Strategy First, Kalypso Media
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: 2010-06-13
It’s been too long since we had a proper Disciples game. While King’s Bounty and Heroes have been going strong this past decade, Disciples hasn’t released a standalone product since 2002. Finally, Disciples III: Renaissance is here to fill the hole left by its predecessor, and it takes a slower, more measured approach to the turn based strategy, fantasy army genre than its brethren do.
Disciples III begins (no matter what campaign, scenario, or hotseat match one is party to) with a lone hero and that hero’s army, facing the massed might of brigands, demons, angels, elves, and worse. Instead of amassing large armies with each unit portrait containing hundreds of troops, your armies will be small. I spent the entire first campaign mission with three troops following my fearless leader into combat.
This might sound like a recipe for boredom or stagnation, and it can be. Even after upgrading your hero’s leadership skill (to increase max army size) over the course of a campaign, I wasn’t able to fit more than 4 units into my army. However, each unit acts like a character in a more fleshed out RPG. They gain levels, increasing the power of their attacks and the level of their key attributes. Thus, my small army of 5 may have looked unexciting on paper, but each unit had a variety of changing skills, as did my hero.
What really makes each unit unique is the relationship between units and structures in your castle. You can only hire 5 kinds of troops from each town: archers, mages, two kinds of melee units, and a special unit. Every troop type has a basic unit type. That’s the kind of unit you’ll get when you go recruiting. Once that unit gains its first level, a wealth of opportunities open up. Each unit has its own tech tree in the castle. Warriors can become witch hunters, holy avengers, and any other number of specialized fighters. There are several tracks that can be built, but only one track can be completed per castle. This means that if you wanted to build a different kind of warrior, you’ll have to wait until the next missions. It’s an annoying restriction, the inability to respec mid-mission (or just rebuild), and it’s indicative of the stiffness and rigidity found in every aspect of Disciples III’s design.
Not only can you not change unit types in game, but high level units don’t feel that much different from their low-level counterparts. Units do gain new abilities (my low level mage can’t polymorph enemies like my high level mage can), but for the most part, high level units feel like slightly souped up versions of their weaker predecessors. My warriors can move a bit farther and take a bit more damage, and they look a bit different. However, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m still playing with the exact same army that I was at the start of each mission, aside from the fact that I’ve leveled up in power with my enemies.
It’s a feeling akin to the complete lack of noticeable progression in auto-leveling games like Oblivion. When everything levels with you, but you only ever level just enough to match up with your new enemies, boredom sets in fast. It doesn’t help that while Disciples III may be a darkly attractive game (the art can get a bit self-consciously gothic and fantasy-like, but it’s detailed and creative for all that), everything looks pretty much the same, even when zoomed all the way in. There’s nothing terribly exciting about leading your level 20 gargoyle into battle. He glows a bit more than the level 1 gargoyle that you first hired, but he does the same things in battle -- he just does more damage while he’s doing it.
Disciples III’s battlefield is unsurprisingly much like the rest of the game. It’s a large hex field, across which different units travel at different speeds. Obstacles, “focus” spots, and other tactically important locations dot the map. When certain units stand on certain spots (if a ranged unit stands on raised bit of ground, for instance), the unit will get a bonus to attack. To retain control of that attack bonus, your units must remain on the “focus” point at all times. It’s tricky enough, from a tactical standpoint to control the “focus” areas for increased damage without ceding increased mobility to your less stationary opponents.
It’s the rest of combat that doesn’t really match up to the battlefield’s tactically interesting design. Almost all attacks and spells are direct damage/effect or AOE. There’s no tactical advantage to different assault positions, no ranged penalties for close ranged fire, not much of anything beyond who’s being attacked and who isn’t. For a game that focuses on creating powerful, small armies, it would be nice if those armies operated differently from each other based on tactics. Instead, all factions have archers, all factions have fighters, and all factions have mages. While some units may have different specialties from each other, they don’t differ nearly as much as units in other games do. The one difference comes in the form of offensive and defensive mages. I hate to compare Disciples III to other games like this, but it’s such a slim, bare bones offering in so many ways. A game with three factions, all of which have identical armies, is doomed to underwhelm people, especially if those people have played any game in this genre, even the original Heroes games.
Disciples III isn’t just unimaginative in the area of unit design and level progression though. Its campaign feels like it was excised from a decades old game, like it was pulled from Disciples 2 even. There isn’t much of a story to any of the campaigns, as you’d expect. Demons are about, the elves just want things to stay calm and nature friendly, and the humans just want to survive and be vaguely religious (oh, and everyone wants to kill the orcs). It’s almost all text only, but the voiced parts are rather painful to listen to thanks to an uncreative script and remarkably bland voice work.
Strategy games like Disciples III don’t have to be this boring. Whether through good, quirky, or surprising writing, interesting combat scenarios, or a fresh feeling quest structure, it’s quite possible to create games in this vein that feel new and exciting. I hate to compare Disciples III to King’s Bounty (they really are trying to do different things), but King’s Bounty is entertaining, funny, constantly engaging, and does its best to combat the late game sameness that Disciples III so totally succumbs to.
It’s not even that I think King’s Bounty does what Disciples III does as well as Disciples III does. King’s Bounty absolutely does not do this. In Disciples III, I shepherd my hero and units through various levels, unlocking abilities and spells. After hours and hours with the same units, my band (because it definitely isn’t large enough to be an army) feels quite personalized. Compare that to King’s Bounty’s hoards and hoards of instantly replaceable units. In Disciples III, I feel like I’m playing a party-based RPG (with a rather boring party, sadly).
Disciples III really does create a more intimate, enduring world that do the Heroes or King’s Bounty series. It’s just not a world that is in any way remarkable or exciting. In King’s Bounty, everything may be Fantasy-like in a very unoriginal way, but I can start fights with magic guardians inside items of clothing, I can get married, and I can do so many other things; for all of Disciples III’s focus, I can’t remember a single thing that I’ve done in its world. Combat, leveling, and castle building are so interchangeable and drab, each faction and unit type blend into the next one. It needs a little color, a little variety, a little anything.
Disciples III doesn’t need tons of units, locations, and actors. It just needs for the things that it does have to stand out a little more from each other. As it is, old Disciples fans will probably enjoy this new game. It just doesn’t do much to stand out. Even Disciples 2 (for all its restrictive, small combat field) had more life and verve than Disciples IIIdoes. Disciples III is a competently made game, but it’s boring and restrictive. It doesn’t let players have too much fun, explore too much, or really do too much of anything. It’s small and shallow in places. In the fashion of its illustrious forbears, what it really needs is an expansion pack or two.