Elemental: War of Magic is one of Stardock's most ambitious games to date, combining a loose form of empire building with surprisingly interesting unit design tools and RPG-style hero mechanics. Rooted in a fantasy-based world, Elemental picks and chooses some of the more interesting mechanics used in other games — and genres, to some extent — but it does so at a cost. The game is sometimes uncomfortably difficult to place and shifts between feeling like a great jack-of-all-trades and, at the same time, not giving enough attention to certain aspects.
Elemental is most easily explained by comparing it to games such as the Civilization series. You start your fledgling faction by founding a city using your leader unit. Cities take up one full tile, and as you develop them, they grow. These expansions can take up a full tile but most commonly take up a quarter-tile. Workshops increase your materials generation, and huts increase your population. These buildings benefit you by increasing your city defenses, magical prowess, money generation, research skill, or other boons. In addition to taking resources to build, they can also consume food or have other negative aspects, so it's important to carefully select these expansions because they affect your city's growth.
Unlike other games, Elemental doesn't put a heavy emphasis on natural resources. While you will certainly find mines to gain metal and gold and fertile land to build farms to increase the available food for a city, the game doesn't have a ton of different types of these resources. You should be careful to build cities next to these valuable resource points, but you won't see fields of wheat or six different types of minable deposits scattered all over the place. The game pares them down, which helps streamline the economy.
You will mainly expend resources on unit production or items for your hero units. On the surface, unit production is not much different than the genre norm: Pick a unit, choose if you want to make a single one or group of them, and determine their starting experience level (if you've researched the ability to do so). Of course, these selections increase the unit's overall cost, but even a band of four peasants is much stronger than one. Units that are made in groups always stick together and cannot be broken up, so you trade versatility for power. As units fight, they gain experience naturally, but starting them off at higher levels means you can throw them right into the mix without first cutting their teeth on darklings and bears.
Designing units is where the game gets interesting, as you can design units from the ground up in terms of aesthetics and performance. Depending on your research level, you can have an array of available equipment to design units, including armor, accessories and weapons. Equipping these items add to the overall cost of the unit but lets you tailor them to very specific roles. If you are making an archer, you may wish to spend cash on the best bows instead of decking him out with thick plate armor. At the same time, you may want to make a tanking unit that has massive armor and relatively weak combat abilities to distract the enemy and soak up damage. Your hero units, such as your leader, can visit market expansions to equip some items themselves at the cost of some money, improving their effectiveness in combat.
The cosmetic side of unit design is free. You can change a unit's hairstyles, clothing (assuming armor isn't already taking up that "slot"), and the appearance of its unit card. Unit cards look like something ripped straight out of a collectable card game, showing the unit's stats as it appears in a customizable pose and backdrop with a description of your choosing. It really makes custom units feel like part of the game so that they're indistinguishable from stock units. At the same time, you have the satisfaction of knowing that those royal guards you just created are ready to wreck the enemy by using their shields and big ol' axes.
Now that your hero has a broadsword and is flanked by some stalwart soldiers, you'll want to expand your empire, which almost always involves some form of combat. Combat against basic faction-less enemies is auto-resolved based on the relative combat strength of each side with a bit of randomness tossed in. Fighting enemies based in another faction will give you the option of auto-resolving or manually taking control of the battle in a turn-based fight. These fights are quite simple: Your side starts on the left, the opponent starts on the right, and it all takes place on a randomized grid of tiles. Each unit has a certain amount of action points per turn that can be used for fighting and/or moving. Moving a tile or swinging a sword takes one point each, whereas more intensive actions, such as shooting a bow and arrow or casting a spell, can take two or more. This makes fights somewhat tactical since units can choose how they want to allocate their points and whether they want to attack, move, or both. Ultimately, it puts each side in melee with the other until one emerges victorious.
Magic plays a surprisingly subtle role in Elemental, and with a game that has the subtitle of War of Magic, it plays much more like wizards are second-class citizens. Most of the combat comes with the delivery of a sharpened edge or the flick of a bowstring rather than the flash of a magical bolt. Though some units have magical prowess, they do less damage than their physical damage counterparts. The tactical spells used on the battlefield lack any real punch, to the point that it can sometimes feel like a waste of action points to use magic at all. However, strategic spells, which are used outside of combat and can help or hinder cities, can be quite beneficial.
As your hero units scour the land, they can happen upon many points of interest, which can either yield one-time boons, such as additional money or resources, or better finds, such as items or quests. Quests are randomly generated in the game, and once completed, they net you larger experience gains and better rewards. These quests can range from killing a certain powerful creature and clearing out its den to simply acquiring a number of basic items, essentially feeling like a microgame built into your ever-expanding goal of growing your kingdom and power.
At every turn, your kingdom expends effort toward researching both practical and magical arts. Practical research goes down five different trees, and every time you reach the next research level, it allows you to select a new breakthrough, such as new unit options, expansions or other desirable developments. Magical research is much more straightforward, and you can either pick a new spell to learn or you can choose to devote that research to learning the next higher tier of magical abilities. Both of these feel straightforward enough to not get in the way, but it can be difficult to know exactly what you are getting out of your research before you actually get it.
The campaign mode is mainly a letdown and consists of the already-simplified aspects of the game — but watered down even further. As you guide the young Lord Relias across an unforgiving and often hostile landscape, you will found cities and take down enemies, but it is such a static world that it is boring. Your cities are rarely in any danger at all, and the key to victory is little more than amassing an army, pushing forward, and teleporting back to get better units and equip Relias with the latest advancements in equipment. The backstory, which involves Relias trying to notify the continent's factions of an impending invasion, goes on at a plodding pace and makes the campaign mode feel like a fantasy-based version of Paul Revere, only completely without the sense of urgency that such a reference evokes.
One of Elemental's flaws is that it often doesn't explain itself well. Though the game has plenty of tooltips, it really doesn't have much in the way of a tutorial other than the basics. Learning the game becomes the result of trial and error, and it will be at least a few false starts before the average player feels like he knows enough to stand a chance of surviving the onslaughts of rival kingdoms. It never gets so bad that information is completely obscure, but the interface lacks a way of helping new players figure out what it all means.
Elemental: War of Magic has a lot of good ideas that set it apart from being another kingdom-building clone, and while it borrows from many places, it doesn't really do a great job of making any of them feel particularly strong or fully fleshed out. The unit design is quite deep, but the combat feels awfully shallow. There are a multitude of spells that often can be too weak to be useful, and there's a potentially rich and vibrant backstory that is the backdrop of an unfortunately weak campaign. Stardock has stated that an upcoming patch will address many of these issues and has made known its commitment to improving the game, and that's definitely something to consider. Elemental's glimmers of greatness are easy to see, but it currently feels like an incomplete piece of work.
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