Posts Tagged Etherlords II
Do you know Nival Interactive? They are a russian game developer, perhaps best known for creating the latest installment in the Heroes of Might and Magic series. But Heroes of Might and Magic V is by no means their only game. Way back in 2001, they released a game called Etherlords, the sequel of which I want to highlight today.
Etherlords II is perhaps best described as a cross between the Heroes of Might and Magic[ series and the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. It's run of the mill fantasy world is filled to the brim with a magical energy called
mana, sorry, ether. Turns out, this ether comes in four different flavors, each one having a matching faction: Earth, Fire, Air and ,uhm, Cybernetics. Maybe things aren't this run of the mill after all?
Even though ether enables to perform all kinds of wondrous acts of magic, its unsurprising prime use is warfare. The four factions of this world are constantly fighting for power. Except for once every thousand years that is, when they pause briefly to fight even harder for power. Don’t look at me like that, I’m just giving you back story here. Anyway, you’re dropped fresh into the fight for the faction of your choice. After earning your spurs however, you’ll soon find out that the rivaling factions aren’t the biggest problem right now. A mysterious sorceress by the name of Diamanda, who apparently gave all four sides of the ether-lolly a lick, is supposedly traveling the world and robbing it of color and ether alike.
You’ll spend the first half of the game trying to find out about this enigmatic lady and the puzzling pale disease she’s spreading, but after a few twists and turns, without trying to give too much away, you’ll spend the second half controlling Diamanda herself. Let’s just say she hasn’t been draining the magic on her own account.
For all the cliche it sounds, it may surprise to hear you that the story isn’t actually half bad. To keep up momentum, believable motivation and characterization through not only one, but two changes in perspective is not a small feat, but Etherlords II pulls it off. Despite staggering a bit in the beginning, the story turns out to be functioning perfectly. What’s especially impressive is the huge change in the character of Diamanda throughout the plot. During the entire first half she serves mainly as a carrot on a stick, occasionally posing just out of your reach. But as soon as she is under your control the game goes through great lengths to fill her with more life. She’ll be talking, thinking and reflecting plenty. Hell, she even managed to get me rooting for her.
But I digress. Gameplaywise, Etherlords II is divided into exploration and combat. Exploration is where the Heroes of Might and Magic part of this hybrid comes in. Unlike HOMM (and Etherlords 1) however, you only get to control a single character at all times. Whom you use to walk around the map, looking for quests, treasures, merchants and above all, trouble. Not unlike its big role model, Etherlords II is clustered with creatures that stand in your way.
This obviously is where the combat part, and the Magic: The Gathering part comes in. To fight, you have to rely on a deck of 20 spells of your choice, that you’ll be able to go through up to 7 times during combat. Once you confront any kind of monster, you’ll find yourself in a small arena with your opponent, starting with 5 random spells on your hand. At the beginning of each of your turns, you’ll draw one spell and gain one ether channel (more if you’re higher levelled). Each of these ether channels will produce one ether every turn, to be spent on your spells. These spells allow you to summon creatures, boost your own creatures, weaken those of the enemy, deal damage, heal, hide, reflect, destroy, resurrect and all other kinds of crazy things. To win, you’ll have to rid the enemy of all his life points. And to do so, you’ll have to attack him with your creatures, which he will try to block with his own (And vice-versa once it’s their turn). There’s about 200 spells included in the game, 50 per faction (But safe for Diamandas part of the campaign, there’s no mixing in between factions), and you’ll gain more just like you gain experience: For completing quests and beating enemies.
Combat is the point that really made the game stand out for me. Not only is it a unique new take on turn-based combat, but it puts a much larger stress on creativity and tactics than similar games. While in most games you can’t actually mess up hard enough to lose provided you have big enough an army, the most powerful spells will mean nothing in the hands of an inept player here. And this simple fact does not only raise the challenge up quite a notch, it also does wonders to your self-esteem should you succeed. It just feels good to have a working combination figured out, or as Hannibal Smith would say: “I love it when a plan comes together”.
But with the large dependence on your brain comes the lack of a “skip fight” button, that would calculate how the battle would probably go down and take you straight to the results. And since monsters not only give you experience points but also new spells, you’ll spend a relatively large part of the game fighting for easy victories. Combine this with the warm-up phase even the mightiest deck needs to clear out any opponent and things can get a bit frustrating after a while. But fortunately, those periods never go too long before you face an actual challenge. Sadly, there are other flaws. As with any card game, luck plays a much bigger role than you’ll like. While it’s never as big a factor as tactics, it can happen that you start out with much too expensive spells while the enemy is off to a flying start.
And while the exploration in between fights serves beautifully to string things together, the mechanics it’s based on should perhaps have been updated once the developers decided to go for one character only. For instance, why does it need to be turn-based, if you’re the only one who moves? Instead of just clicking somewhere and the character going there immediately, this means that I have to set a goal, then click the “End Turn” button, then the character will move there. And before I can do it all again, I have to acknowledge the “Turn X” pop-up. Despite all this, I genuinely enjoyed going through the campaign, if only as warm-up to Duel mode, which offers all the tactical possibilities without any of the exposition.
Bottom Line: There’s a relatively simple way of finding out whether you’re going to enjoy Etherlords II. If you like either HOMM or Magic: The Gathering you’re in for a treat (especially if you like both). If you dislike both the concept of trading card games and turn-based strategy, then the game won’t sell you on it. But if you’re still undecided, you should check it out by all means. It may have its shortcomings, but at the end of the day it sure feels nice to have a trading card game that doesn’t constantly ask for money.