I have to start this review by coming out and saying that Conquest of Elysium 3 is the kind of game I love. I want to be honest about this because due to this fact I will be slightly blind to any of COE3’s (as it will now be known) flaws. COE3 is a game that a lot of people will play and be bemused by its basic graphics and slightly obtuse interface and wonder what drugs I was on when I was praising it. I haven’t fallen in love with COE3 due to any one tangible facet of the game itself, I like it so much because it’s a game that has been created by people who clearly enjoy what they do and have a genuine enthusiasm for the creation of fantasy game worlds. COE3 wasn’t made to turn a buck; it was made because the guys at Illwinter love games (Although please give them your money so they can make more games!). Like Dominions 3 before it, COE3 is a game that bubbles with personality, like a heady brew in a witch’s cauldron, each turn and battle is filled with details that flesh out its misty old-school fantasy world.
What shines throughout COE3 is that the guys at Illwinter have a real reverence and appreciation of fantasy, not the big budget, shiny and revamped fantasy 2.0 seen in the likes of Kingdoms of Amalur. No,no,no… this is the old dusty type of fantasy only one or two iterations away from real world mythology. The kind of awe-inspiring fantasy you stumbled across as a kid when you opened up an old Dungeons and Dragons book from the 80’s and soaked up the black and white art. This isn’t the airbrushed and photo-shopped fantasy of the now, this is the wiry hand-drawn renditions of middle earth that Tolkien used to draw. It’s old school in that amazing way where your imagination is allowed to fill in the gaps. And if that isn’t good enough for you there is a god-dam Lovecraftian “The Old Ones” inspired faction you can play! That’s right, you can play a cultist who attempts to summon Old Ones who may or may not attack you for your efforts, while back in your home village women have sex with things deep in wells to give birth to mutated fish-men monsters to bolster your armies. Seriously if that sentence didn’t pique your interest enough, just go away.
I’m not sure if I’ve made myself altogether clear in those previous two rambling and gushing paragraphs, but what I’m trying to say is COE3 is old school in aesthetic, made by people I respect and think are awesome. It’s a fantasy themed turn-based strategy game with 17 different factions. 17 may seem like a large amount, but considering Illwinters last opus, Dominions 3, had about 30 this is a relatively streamlined offering. The factions really make the game for me, each of them is lovingly created with background stories, individual units, and abilities that make each of them subtly different to play. As mentioned before there is the Lovecraftian inspired High Cultist, who needs to hug the coast to use its abilities, there is the Druid that needs to gather herbs (therefore required to hold forest tiles) to summon animals, a Hobbit faction that can trade its “weed” for gold and iron, the Witch faction summons swamp things with fungus, and the Dwarf Queen that literally gives birth to more dwarves. Once you’ve decided on a faction you generate a map and “Conquest” it, clearing out independents, and capturing gold and iron producing areas to raise armies with which to ultimately destroy all other factions on the map. There’s no campaign, just you and a whole lot of fantasy units to muck about with.
The battle system is relatively unique for the genre, taking all control away from you when your forces meet opposition. It’s your job to decide what units will be on what tile, but the game will decide in what order they arrange themselves in,
This may sound odd, but it makes a lot of sense. You’re always going to put casters and archers at the back and melee at the front so why bother methodically placing your units every battle. It works, some people may find it irritating to lose that control fidelity but I found it a refreshing lack of unnecessary responsibility. Another interesting design stemming from this is that all casters (most importantly your commanders) will randomly cast from their known lists of spells, meaning your Necromancer MAY cast his finger of death spell and kill that Beholder in one shot but more often than not he will do something stupid like raise a couple of skeletons. The quick snappy battles feel like the antithesis of Dominions 3’s day long pre-battle planning.
I guess I can’t talk about the battle system without addressing the fact that the battle screen itself is pretty spartan. I was disappointed that Illwinter has replaced Dom3’s epic sprites on 3D battlefields with ah, sprites on a black background. I’m not going to lie it looks boring as bat shit in screenshots, but it’s testament to the game that after a while I stopped noticing and in no way did it hinder my enjoyment. The black brings out the beauty in those little sprites any way.
If we are going to talk about the battle screen, we may as well talk about the graphics in general. I personally love them, there are a lot semi-familiar faces from Dominions 3 and I think the sprites pack a lot personality into the game. They are what they are though, and you’re either going to get it and love it or you’re a stupid baby and I hate you. But seriously, remember what I said before about your imagination filling in the gaps? Therein lays the beauty.
Illwinter is a very independent studio. As far as I know it’s just two guys in Sweden. What that means is that they get to make exactly what they want, without some marketing guy going; “Hey, this is great guys, but I think it needs more quick time events and mini-quests”. This is good because we get Necromancer factions that slowly lose their sanity as they raise more undead and Pale Ones (giant, one-eyed, underground troll things) that scavenge gems to summon monsters. But it can also be bad because COE3 got released without the options in-game to; “Quit to main menu” and “Load a saved game”. COE3 is missing a number of things at release, the most bizarre being the complete lack of an after game report, so after spending how ever many hours conquering a map your prize is a screen simply stating “You won”, while gold coins rain from the top of a black screen (I’m yet to understand the connection of raining gold coins to the rest of the game, perhaps its a Con-air reference). This is apparently in the works for the first patch, but still, come on guys!
Mid to end game becomes unnecessarily and horrendously difficult to manage your lands as the only visual indicator that you own a tile is a coloured border at the four corners of a tile. This becomes rather hard to see when zoomed out on a massive map. Another issue is that the game won’t give you an after turn report telling you what lands you lost and to whom. This is very annoying when a singular goat takes your highest gold producing mine with out you realising. Especially after several turns of you wondering why you haven’t been producing any gold. I’m willing to overlook this in the meantime because I love the fact goats can march into my mines and wrest control of them from me. The randomly powerful independents, without any way to either tone them down or beef them up before a game start, can be very annoying. It’s disappointing that you may have to restart the game a couple of times before you get your foot in the door and your army rolling. Again, this should be addressed in the future.
Regardless of its issues, I’m more than willing to recommend Conquest of Elysium 3. It’s the perfect old school fantasy remedy for all the tripe that gets released by big studios nowadays. Watching the heavily regimented human armies of the Baron smash against the bizarre parades of animals and swamp things summoned by the Druid or Witch is gorgeous in its own very special way. It’s such a nice feeling to actually be excited by a faction, reading their lore and looking forward to all of its kooky abilities later in the game. Conquest of Elysium 3 is a strange and wonderful beast and just like the Troll Mum or Dwarf Queen units, I can’t help but love it, I’m giving Conquest of Elysium 4 out of 5 stars.