Turn-based strategy games will be the death of me. The large, rich maps infested with creatures and side quests are incredibly hard to walk away from. I always want to take just one more turn. One of my heroes is always close to leveling up, or I just found an enemy town, and it's ripe for the picking. These sorts of games typically provide an endless I.V. drip of fun and exploration.
Disciples II: Rise of the Elves is a stand-alone expansion pack for Strategy First's well-received Disciples II. This version includes the original game, Disciples II: Dark Prophecy, with an additional saga covering the plight of the new, playable faction, the Elves, to regain their former glory. Rise of the Elves offers a solid, turn-based strategy game firmly entrenched in yet another Tolkien-esque Fantasy World.
As if there wasn't enough potential play time, each of the five sagas (campaigns) requires you to choose from one of three primary Lords; each offering your forces different strengths and abilities. Initially, your primary lord determines the type of your first hero: magic, melee or ranged. Therein lay the incentive, if you're so inclined, to play through each saga up to three times, and if the sagas are a bit too long for you, there are over two dozen single map scenarios available that utilize each of the five playable factions. Also new to this expansion pack, and spread across all factions, are 33 units and 24 magic spells.
With the future of the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise in limbo due to the bankruptcy of 3DO, a void has been created for a challenger to establish itself as the grand fromage of turn-based strategy games. While these types of games are not usually of the adrenaline-pumping, race-against-the-clock variety that RTS games are. Their appeal lies in their use of a heavy dose of RPG-type elements. Plus, the slower, turn-based gameplay allows for a longer, more involved story progression.
Rise of the Elves devotes a lot of energy to making its frequent battles dramatic and flashy, and they are at that. Offering nicely detailed and suitably moody backdrops and dramatic attack animations, they are very pretty, but the limited animations, character dialogue and sounds start to make the battles seem a bit repetitive after a short time.
Along with this, I was surprised at the lack of flexibility in attacks. Even as your heroes and lesser units level up, they are pretty much afforded only one action in a battle. Even though up to two items from your hero’s inventory can be equipped for use during a battle (potions and such), I found that the lack of depth put me off after a while. There were no limitations for magical units such as a finite supply of mana. Several different types of mana come into play in the game, but these are used to research and cast spells on the world map. For instance, I could summon an Ent, but I had to summon that creature on the world map and send it into battle by itself because my hero’s party was already full. It would be much more useful to have these spells available to the heroes during an actual battle.
Even though there is an option to auto-resolve battles, I found on several occasions that I could do a far better job of managing the engagement than the computer, so in the interest of attaining the best result, you’ll have to wade through each and every battle yourself.
The character evolution system is tied directly to decisions you make with your tech tree. Virtually every combat unit can be upgraded via one of several different tech tree paths. For example, the new Elven Alliance faction can upgrade its Centaur melee units to Striders or Lancers, depending upon which of two structures you build for these creatures. One has a stronger attack while the other is more heavily armored. Leaders (Heroes) are upgraded in a slightly different fashion. You are asked to choose from a list of new skills such as increased movement, ability to read arcane scrolls, etc. This system of unit upgrading is rather simple. Even though your characters attain higher levels of hit points, armor and accuracy, it still feels a bit too simple. You'll start to feel like you want a little bit more on which to chew; a little more control over the direction in which you grow your characters.
As you spread out from your capital city on the densely detailed maps, you'll fight through the usual array of neutral enemies, seek out additional resource nodes and capture neutral towns. Crafted in 2D, the maps are, at times, a bit too indistinct in nature. It is very hard to make out details. I found myself missing stationary monsters, treasure and structures. This small annoyance can be overcome by toggling the banner button. This option places a banner over everything significant on the map, but it ends up being more of a distraction than anything, and it clutters up the landscape.
Multiplayer is still available through a number of different options: LAN, internet, hot-seat. However, Rise of the Elves is not compatible with the other stand-alone expansions Guardians of the Light and Servants of the Dark, nor is it compatible with the original Dark Prophecy game.
Rise of the Elves is a nice-looking and entertaining game. It will easily hook you for many hours once you get into it. Its simplicity and accessibility make it a good bet for first timers to the genre, but this same lack of depth will make veterans of turn-based strategy titles wish for a bit more. The Disciples series is definitely one to watch for in the future. They have a solid foundation from which to evolve.