Genre: Turn based strategy
Developer: Strategy First
Publisher: Strategy First
Release Date: July 18, 2003
Buy 'DISCIPLES II: Servants of the Dark': PC
Released in October of 1999 by Strategy First, the original Disciples: Sacred Lands became the sleeper hit of that year. The game featured a diluted take on concepts common to such classics as the Heroes of Might and Magic series, as well as Lords of Magic. The typical fantasy setting was used to great effect in the game largely through the use of extraordinary art work and memorable races. The game did have its faults, the most notable of which was that it took several sessions of play before the games appeal began to show up. Ultimately, Disciples became a favorite of the hardcore crowd, and developed a little niche all its own.
The sequel, Disciples II: Dark Prophecy was released in January of 2002. While the graphics were completely overhauled, and all of the units rebalanced, the gameplay remained almost identical to the original. This did not hurt the game however, as it was well received by much of the media, as well as strategy game enthusiasts of all levels. In retrospect, it’s safe to say that Disciples II cashed in on the acclaim that Disciples should have received. It wasn’t a mega-hit by any means, but Disciples II is regarded as being one of the better strategy games of 2002.
And now we arrive at the games current situation, which frankly is kind of odd. Instead of releasing one fully fledged expansion pack for Disciples II, Strategy First elected to issue two stand-alone versions, one entitled The Guardians of Light, which was released first, and this one here, Servants of the Dark. Again both versions are stand-alone, but there are some subtle yet important differences with both games. For those of you not familiar with the game, Disciples allows you to play as one of four distinct races, which are The Empire, The Mountain Clans, The Legion of the Damned, and The Undead Hordes. The first two are considered good, and the latter two are considered evil. Now what this means to both expansions is somewhat confusing. You see, the Guardians of Light expansion contains all of the quests and campaigns from the original Disciples II that pertain to the two good races, and the Servants of the Dark expansion contains all of the quests and campaigns that pertain to the two evil races. In other words, Guardians of light only lets you play as the good guys, while Servants of the Dark only lets you play as the bad guys. I must admit I am at a loss as to why Strategy First would do this, as all it really seems to do is lower the attractiveness of both packages. There are a few more chapters to this story that I will get to a little further on, but I will say now that this peculiar circumstance raises the single biggest issue I have with Servants of the Dark, that being the issue of value, and what the player gets for their money. Both expansion packs do offer expanded resolutions, an unsupported direct 3D option, the ability to listen to your own MP3’s while playing the game, as well as a handful of new scenarios and two new mini campaigns. But aside from the race limitations and new scenarios, the two expansions are identical to each other. Sort of.
But for the moment, let’s talk about the gameplay. As I have already mentioned, the gameplay in Disciples II bears more than a striking resemblance to a host of turn based strategy games. The player generally starts out with a capitol city, a few entry level units, and an initial Leader. The Leader unit is essentially the same thing as the hero unit in games like HoMM and AoW. They have steroid like stats and abilities, and serve as the starting point for your party. One twist with Leaders is that a party has to have one. Should a Leader perish in combat, any units associated with him are no longer considered a party, and suffer severe movement penalties. The game is played over a well styled, if somewhat cluttered map. The map features the usual assortment of resource producing nodes, merchant huts, and monsters. Obviously, the more of theses nodes you own, the more resources you accumulate per turn. What’s interesting with Disciples II is that instead of simply taking these various nodes over through conquest, the player gains control of them by transforming the land around them. Each of the games four races has a special unit that can plant rods in the soil surrounding a node. Once this has been done, the terrain transforms into whatever style fauna is particular to your race. For example, when playing as The Undead Hordes, I could use my Banshee unit to plant rods around the nodes I selected. Once done, the surrounding terrain turns to barren wasteland, as wasteland is the terrain of that race. Had I chosen to play as The Legions of the Damned, I would use my Baroness to plant rods, which would turn the surrounding terrain into fiery lava. Rods from other races can be destroyed so that the land around them can be taken over. This system is a neat alternative. Because each of the games four races has their own terrain type, it is easy to distinguish who owns what on the map. It’s also a good indicator of the types of enemies you’ll be dealing with in a given scenario. Let’s move on though, as I’m starting to sense a rash of tasteless planting rod puns coming on.
Disciples II also incorporates cities, and they do have a fair amount of flexibility. Within cities, the player can build several initial buildings, such as a stable, a church, and an archery range. The twist here is that buildings can be upgraded in different ways, and the path you select determines what your units will upgrade to when they level up. For example, if I build a stable within my city, then my Squires will upgrade to Knights when they level up. But instead of the stable, I also have the option of building a dungeon, in which case my Squires will become Witch Hunters when they level up. How you upgrade your various buildings has a huge impact not only on the units themselves, but on the scenario as a whole. Once you decide which way to go, there’s no turning back. Because of the sheer number of units, each with diverse abilities, this can be a tough decision. Knights for example, are fairly good fighters, and would be the unit of choice if your enemies use hand to hand. Conversely, Witch Hunters are not necessarily good fighters, but they are immune to fear. Should you find yourself dealing with enemy units that use fear as a weapon, Witch Hunters would be your unit of choice. The biggest use cities offer however is their healing and resurrection abilities. Combat in Disciples II is ruthless, and you will soon realize that a large part of the game is managing your units, deciding when to reel them in for rest and patching up.
When an instance of combat arises in Disciples II, the screen switches to an angled close up of all the units involved. The individual units appear larger, and nicely detailed. There is no movement during combat in Disciples II. It’s a toe to toe fight to the finish. Each unit takes its turn, dispensing with the violence in a handful of different ways. Although limited, Disciples II does allow you to place your party members into some semblance of a formation. More importantly, the game recognizes front and rear ranks, so you can put your fighters up front, and leave your archers and healers in the rear, protecting them from any immediate onslaught. Aside from attacking, you also have the option of placing some or all of your units in a defensive posture, which minimizes the damage they take, as well as holding a specific units turn until later in the round. Leaders may also use items during combat, such as healing potions and artifacts. For the most part however, combat in Disciples II is a refreshingly simple event in which units duke it out quickly and to the point.
One of the more notable aspects common to Disciples II is unit development. Unlike similar games of this type, you don’t play with as many units in Disciples II. Your focus is more on developing them, getting them more experience so they can level up. Opportunities to level up are few and far between, but can have a major impact when it does occur. There is always a new unit to check out, or a new ability to exploit. This has the added effect of giving the player a certain level of attachment to his party. The level of management and nurturing it takes to raise a stout group of units really endears the player. When you factor in the idea that there are several major decisions to make along the way, decisions that will directly affect the units in your party, the game can really draw you in. Unit development is one of the deeper aspects of the game.
As far as graphics are concerned, I can say that the new resolutions included with this expansion go a long way in brightening things up. The higher levels really bring out the crispness the lower resolutions lack, and the whole game benefits. Maps are a lot easier to distinguish, and much better to look at as well. The world seems really dynamic, with water flowing along the sides of mountains, lava bubbling in pits, and birds flying around. I did run into problems with the unsupported Direct 3D option, but at the same time I didn’t find it necessary to begin with. Still, it is a feature of the game, and it didn’t work when I tried it. The sound and music in Disciples II was awesome, and nothing has been cut back in this area with Servants of the Dark. The ambient sounds the game uses have that deep, foreboding feeling to them that really sets the ominous mood perfectly. Simple things like whooting owls and bells ringing in the distance really do a lot for the environment. The music is also good, and the expansion even includes some new tunes. Everything sounds really good, and fits well with the game. A new feature allows players to listen to their own MP3’s while playing, and I found this to be enjoyable as well. But again, I really need to say that the higher resolutions really do a lot for the graphics. This looks like a brand new game at times.
The package allows you to play either a saga, which is a series of linked quests (otherwise known as a campaign), single quest (scenario), or custom campaign. The box makes mention of a random scenario editor, but in truth it’s not that simple. What the random scenario editor actually does is expedite the map making process, adding resources and the like. A fair amount of user tweaking is still necessary in order to balance things out. This begs to question why anyone would want to play through a scenario they themselves created. At the same time there is a decent amount of user created material available on the internet, and with a little searching, it’s likely you’ll find something enjoyable.
There are, of course, a few downsides with Servants of the Dark, and some of them are quite irritating in fact. One of the more pressing issues is that the game does not come with a printed manual. Instead, you get a PDF version. The PDF does a decent job of explaining the game technically, but the fact is, Disciples II can get deep, and you’re going to need to refer to the manual from time to time. For those of you limited to one computer, or don’t want to waste the ink printing the PDF out, you’re going to have a tough time getting started. Servants of the Dark does include a tutorial, but it’s not anything to get excited about. Pop up messages are used to lead the player around by the nose, but nothing is really explained in terms of what the various icons do, or which ones to use to perform a certain task. One other issue with the tutorial that hit pretty high on the annoyance scale was with save games. The game appeared to be auto saving at the end of each of my turns. Yet, when I went back and tried to load the auto save, a message popped up informing me that I needed to have Disciples II: Guardians of the Light installed on my computer in order to play that particular scenario. Keep in mind that particular scenario was the tutorial!
Fortunately, I didn’t notice any other bugs with the game. There is a patch available at the developer’s web site, apparently necessary to fix a few map issues and the like, but nothing too major. All in all the game seems quite stable.
That’s pretty much the jist behind Disciples II and the Servants of the Dark expansion. As I mentioned previously, Servants of the Dark only allows you to play as the two evil races, and that’s where my biggest problems with the package arise. Despite the fact that both Servants of the Dark and Guardians of the Light are budget priced at $20 each, the original Disciples II: Dark Prophecy is available for even less money, like $10 in most retail outlets, and that game has campaigns and scenarios for all four races. Additionally, several of the new features included with Servants of the Dark, such as the auto resolve combat feature and certain AI tweaks are available as free downloads for the original Disciples II. In the end, the only thing you are getting with Servants of the Dark that you don’t get with the regular game is the new resolutions, MP3 player, unsupported direct 3D mode, two new mini campaigns, and about ten new scenarios. You get that for $20. Because of these limitations, I simply can’t recommend Servants of the Dark to new players. The diverse aspects of the four races is a huge part of this game, and players new to the series wouldn’t get the full benefit by going with either one of these expansion titles, especially when the original game is available for next to nothing.
But if you’re a hardcore fan of Disciples II, and the Disciples universe, then Servants of the Dark isn’t a bad deal. Those that fit into this category are most likely interested in playing every official campaign and scenario offered by the developer, and you are getting half of that with Servants of the Dark. You will have to purchase the Guardians of Light expansion if you want the other half. I just think it’s unfortunate for fans of the series to have to spend $40 for two expansion packs that are almost identical. If you’re really into the game, then all the more power to you. But if you’re new to the series, or have only a casual interest, I would go with the original game.