It's probably been some time since you last heard of the Disciples franchise — and you wouldn't be alone, as the last expansion was released in 2002, and we haven't had a new game in the series since. Well, if you've been missing that mix of turn-based strategy and role-playing gameplay that was so popular years ago, you'll be pleased to know that not only is a new Disciples game coming to North America via publisher Kalypso Media, but that we also got some time with it at this year's GDC expo.
Russian publisher Akella has taken the game development in-house this time around, having their studio, .dat, work on the project, which means the license-holder has much more control over the end product. That hands-on management of the title seems to be helping, as we saw some pretty solid visuals and a game with a strong emphasis on keeping veterans happy while attracting new fans.
Disciples III: Renaissance is all about turn-based small-party tactics. What does that mean in plain English? Simply put, you recruit a party of characters that are led by a hero character, and you head out to complete missions. The missions, as you'd imagine, almost always involve beating up some kind of monster or monsters, and that's where the tactics come into play. Once you start a battle, it's more like playing a boardgame or miniatures game, where you place your pieces (characters) on the battlefield in the best formation possible, and then start assailing the enemy with spells, swords and whatever else is handy.
While you won't have direct access to a map of the game world, the map we were shown was plenty big enough to accommodate an extensive campaign of 19 missions, which are split across the three factions of the game: The Empire (Humans), Legions of the Damned (Demons) and the Elves, who apparently don't get a fancy name. The game starts with the story of an angel falling from the heavens, and the three factions attempting to capture it, each for its own reasons. The Empire wants to use it to spread their religious fervor across the land, the Legions want to resurrect their disembodied leader, and the Elves just want to use it as a tool to maintain the balance of power across all the races. The campaigns will, we were told, overlap a bit during gameplay.
You start the campaign on the global map, which, like a traditional RPG, is how you move about the world. Your hero character is your main avatar on the map, and when you make changes to him/her on the inventory screen, you'll see those changes manifest visually immediately. Add a crown to him, and it'll appear right away on his avatar both on the global map and the battle map, for example.
As you set out in your journeys across the global map, you'll encounter plenty of fabulous beasties. We were shown a mix of creatures, including werewolves, bandits, evil mermaids, a Kraken and a couple of others. These monsters, with the amount of detail they sported, really showcased the new graphics engine that's being used for the game. Once you decide to pick a fight with a creature, the game drops out of the global map and down to a more tactically focused battle map. At this point, you start moving your units for optimal attack position, while making sure weaker units (spellcasters are always wimps about armor) are covered by the stronger units or natural cover. It becomes a distinctly turn-based affair at this point, with whomever earns initiative moving first, then attacking/defending, and so on.
It wouldn't be an RPG without plenty of leveling and skill trees, and there's certainly plenty of that in Disciples III. The game, however, uses a more accessible and streamlined skill system in an aim to make it friendlier to new players while still keeping old fans engaged. Your hero character now has a skill board, instead of a plain old tree. This board allows you more flexibility in learning new skills and testing out others, as you can "move" in multiple directions on the skill board, without being forced to complete one "branch" of a skill tree before starting another branch. You have much less control of the skill sets of your party members, but through the use of a building system, you can still lead them down the path you prefer. For example, in your capital city, you can build a Magic Tower, which lets your mages turn into Battle Mages as soon as they have enough XP. At later levels, even the towers have skill tree-like branches, so you might have the option to create a tower to train Battle Mages or Elemental Mages. However, once you start buildings of one path, you're stuck, there's no going back and no way to re-spec. This system works for every class in the game, so Archers, as they level up, work toward becoming Imperial Assassins, fighters become Paladins, and so on.
As a strategy game, there's always a need for resources; otherwise, how would you pay your party members? In Disciples III, when you're on the global map, you'll see strategic points that are available for capture. Just sidle up next to one and plant a magic rod, and it will start to become yours. After a bit, the area around it will cosmetically change to appear more like that of your race; Humans have settlements, Demons' areas will be more volcanic and hellish, and Elves will be sparkly and have a pretty forest. Once you've secured a strategic point, the game leaves a defender unit there for you. You can boost this defender by leaving him items from your inventory or even a few party members to help.
Disciples III: Renaissance looks like a solid return to the turn-based glory of old but adds just enough spice to freshen up the license and the genre.
Publisher Kalypso Media is shooting to release Disciples III: Renaissance this summer in the U.S., U.K. and other territories, and from the looks of it, this game should make fans of the genre and the Disciples franchise very happy.
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