[Ed’s Note: What with our impending closure only a month and a half away, we wanted to bring back one of our old writers, Michael Raston, for one last review and as luck would have it a sequel to one of his favourite franchises just released. He was kind enough to put together his thoughts on it for us, and if you’re curious to see what else he’s working on these days, you can head over to his Pen and Paper focused blog, The Lizard Man Diaries.]
Illwinter Game Design, the Swedish development team of two responsible for the Conquest of Elysium and Dominions series, is a lot like Blizzard Entertainment. Both happily stick to releasing new iterations of their flagship series, Warcraft & Diablo and COE & Dominions; both have a loyal fan base that will buy anything they release, albeit a magnitude smaller in scope for Illwinter; both cross-pollinate ideas and resources from their different titles, such as item naming conventions from Diablo to World of Warcraft and Illwinter using the same sprites in every game; and finally, but most important, both release games that are distinctly of that developer. There’s a little magic in both developer’s titles that only a select and glorious few are able to capture. Not the same magic to be sure. The ultra-polished-neon-casino-fantasy vibe of a Blizzard game is not the vibe Illwinter goes for. Illwinter games are hoary, misty, murky, strange and interesting. When I’m playing an Illwinter game it feels…special. And that’s why I think they are the Blizzard of the indie fantasy strategy world.
It’s important to talk about Illwinter in reviewing Conquest of Elysium 4, because if you don’t ‘get’ Illwinter games then you’re probably not going to ‘get’ Conquest of Elysium 4. A casual observer could look at the previous iteration of the game, released 3 years ago and think “it looks exactly the same, what’s going on here?”. An Illwinter fan on the other hand will say “holy f&*% they changed the font!”. I am in the latter category. I am so much in that category that I know the sprite used in Conquest of Elysium 4 to show movement cost (a little foot flayed of skin) is the sprite used in Dominions for the Boots of Youth magic item. Boots of Youth are made by blood mages, drenched in the blood of ten virgins, which cease aging and reinvigorate the wearer during battle. I digress, but I’m attempting to show the unconverted why they should appreciate Illwinter games. There are other changes to the game outside of the font. These are all going to either appear slight or monumental depending on the factor in which you ‘get’ Illwinter games. The major changes are the aforementioned font, an updated combat system, a plane system, and slight changes to map/climate generation. Other than these, and minor tweaks and twerks that could be considered patch level minutia, Conquest of Elysium 4 is identical to Conquest of Elysium 3.
Conquest of Elysium is the streamlined and simplified cousin of Dominions. Dominions is Illwinter’s magnum opus of fantasy turn based strategy – enormous, involved and daunting. Conquest is the easier alternative, the gateway drug to the world of Illwinter. The factions of Conquest of Elysium 4 are the same as the previous game. These factions are simplified versions of some of the factions presented in Dominions. One half of the Illwinter team has a background in theology and history and this results in some of the most interesting and engaging unit descriptions ever found in a video game. Even in the simplified factions and units of Conquest of Elysium, one of the most interesting and inspiring fantasy settings ever lurks. It would be very exciting to see Illwinter further intensify their focus and create a party based RPG in their realm. It’s not often text descriptions of units stir the imagination but like I said earlier, Illwinter games are special.
One of the things that Conquest of Elysium 3 did so well was making each faction feel unique to play. Conquest of Elysium 4 nails this too. A good way to illustrate this is to explain the different resources that factions need to collect and spend. All factions need gold and iron, collected from farms, towns and mines. Different factions require different components to cast their faction specific spells and special abilities. The demonologist, for example, needs blood from blood sacrifices (obtained from the unlucky town inhabitants), whereas the necromancer needs Hands of Glory (which are the pickled left hands of those hanged until death – collected from gallows and cemeteries), druids need herbs and troll shamans need fungi (both of which can be found in forests and jungles). Each faction needs towns and mines, but different factions will hunt out different sites of interest for their components. Druids will patrol up and down forests (being invisible to other factions while in them), controlling as much of the foliage as they can. Trolls don’t need the foliage of trees to get their mushrooms, so they can set the druids’ much-needed forests on fire. Demonologists will ignore the forests on the hunt for more towns while Necromancers will search out grisly gallows and cemeteries. The druids will flit through the trees, conducting their animal summoning rituals in secrecy while the other factions march around the forests in search of different goals. That is unless they don’t decide to set the forests on fire to clear the druids out.
The special abilities and spells of the factions also help to create the sense of uniqueness. The Druid will command a massive horde of summoned animals bolstered by bare-chested warriors and slingers – all with the ability to be invisible when surrounded by trees. The Troll King has the ability to not only regenerate, but to single-handedly pulverize small armies, his recruitable goblins die extremely easily though. The Troll King is also always joined by a Troll Mum, a troll shaman unhappy with her son’s ability at waging war. The Necromancer can summon large numbers of the undead for almost free, the only cost being to his sanity. Necromancers are able to cheaply amass a huge number of troops but will often refuse to move for a turn due to bouts of insanity. Conquest of Elysium 4 does an amazing job of translating the lore and personality of a faction into unique ways of playing the game.
The new battle system illustrates the clashes between these factions much better than the previous edition of the game. Rather than a black void, units now fight on a terrain appropriate square graphed map. Grass, rocks, snow, caves, and walled fortifications are represented. Units themselves are viewed from the top down and will move with respect to the other units and terrain conditions around them. Like the previous edition, the player has no direct control over their units. When a fight starts, the units are on autopilot, moving and fighting their way across the battle field. The only control the player has as a general is to decide which units are given to what movable commander. The system is elegant and refreshingly straightforward once you get used to it. One issue I found with the new system is that the unit transfer system is a little less clear than in CoE3; often units were left behind because it was unclear that I had not transferred them to a commander.
As well as having no control over the tactics of your units, you won’t be building any structures either. Conquest of Elysium 4 only puts you in control of the recruitment and special abilities of your commanders and units. Factions move around the map, wresting control of pre-existing towns, cities and structures – never making their own. It is an apocalyptic time of war in Elysium, no time for building! Control of your structures can still be taken from you by wandering wild life. A curious deer can bound into your undefended settlement, stealing your income. I wasn’t sure if I liked this or not, but ultimately I feel it adds to the dire atmosphere. A giant crab truly has the ability to menace your fledgling coastal towns. You will want to keep an army posted there, keeping an eye on the coast for that gargantuan crustacean that could emerge at any moment. Wandering wolves and bandits too become a constant threat and menace – Elysium is not safe! A semi rogue-like/permadeath philosophy is present. Gallows humor is required when you lose on the second turn due to a snake crawling into your only citadel. A lack of a load/quit to main menu options re-enforces this, and deters save-scumming (but is also a little irritating).
Illwinter has released another distinctly Illwinter game with Conquest of Elysium 4. It’s paradoxically nothing new while also very different. The wars waged by Elysium’s bizarre and interestingly detailed factions result in a unique turn based game, but it feels unusual calling the game unique when it’s so similar to the last edition. The slight changes and updates in Conquest of Elysium 4 are going to be appreciated by those familiar and fond of the game and lost on those who are not. Regardless, it’s an Illwinter game and for those, like me, that are going to love anything put out by those weird Swedish strategy magi, it’s another opportunity to play war in one of the best fantasy settings ever created.