It would seem that Russian gamers are a hardier, altogether more old-school breed than most of us. At least, that’s the feeling I’m getting from this rising tide of very ’90s’ style PC games coming out of those cold and unforgiving lands. I’m also not complaining – while I don’t buy into the nostalgia, it was a great time for PC gaming. The latest neo-retro monster to emerge in English is the Kickstarter-funded, Greenlight-aspiring Legends of Eisenwald by Aterdux Entertainment, a strategy-RPG set in a somewhat more down-to-earth medieval setting than most. The developers were kind enough to let me at an early Beta build of the game, so I decided to give it a closer look.
Word on the grapevine, and what attracted me to the game in the first place, were rumors that the game was inspired by obscure classic RPG Darklands. While the similarity is there – a grim Germanic medieval setting with ‘low’ fantasy elements in the form of faith-based magic and pagan skulduggery – a quick dive into the pre-order beta revealed that this has far more in common with the (also quite nifty) Disciples series, which took the framework of games such as Heroes of Might & Magic and focused it into something a little more personal. As an interesting aside, the developers weren’t even aware of Darklands’ existence when they started development; it’s pure coincidence that they ended up with a nigh-identical setting.
Unlike HoMM, the focus of Eisenwald seems to be on questing and narrative-driven gameplay, but with the freedom to roam a bit off the beaten track, recruit NPCs as you see fit and put together a real strategy. Rather than playing as a general who stands on the edge of battle and commands hundreds of expendable units, your character is right there on the field from the first battle. The current demo allows you to choose from a Knight (melee), Baroness (ranged) or Mystic (magic) leader, and each one appears to have their own skill tree and growth options over time. While your leader is fairly tough, they’re just as mortal as the rest of your party. Party being the key term here – the game may call them ‘armies’, but at most you’ll be fielding a dozen or so hand-picked troops.
Brave, Brave Sir Robin
The combat engine feels and looks like a blend of HoMM (back when it was hex-based) and Disciples. An initiative bar at the side shows what order you and your enemies are going to be taking their turns in, and most of the time you’ll just be giving simple ‘move to this hex, attack this guy’ orders. There are some support units such as clerics and herbalists, but nothing too taxing at this point. I’d imagine that there’ll be more interesting abilities layered onto the formula as the campaign advances, though. As you can see from the screenshots, this is a pretty game. Production values are great all round, and animations are smooth. There’s quite a lot of detail to the authentically medieval gear worn, and even the long-haired Baroness character wears a convincing looking ensemble of plate, chain and leather.
“We feel that all these similar looking fantasy worlds with dragons, necromancers and ancient gods became tiring for many players. The world of Eisenwald is not a fantasy, rather, it’s a world with supernatural elements where many medieval superstitions are actually true.”
Right now, the game is very much still in Beta. It’s an incomplete package. All the core gameplay elements seem to be in place, but there’s still a lot of missing details and placeholders. There’s only music – no sound effects – and there only seems to be a single, partially complete quest in the current build. There’s also no effects for mystical powers, or much in the way of UI feedback other than health-bars going up and down. Simply put, the game is deep in development, so don’t go pre-ordering if you expect to just jump into a nearly-complete game. Only disappointment lies that way.
Beta issues aside, what is obvious from the current build is that Legends of Eisenwald has massive potential. There’s the framework here to hang a genuinely impressive retro SRPG from, and there’s every indication that the developers know what they’re doing. The graphics are excellent, the presentation is sharp, the setting is pleasantly different from the norm and the gameplay is challenging but accessible. If Aterdux keep on down this road, they might well have a hit on their hands. You can follow development on the official site, or buy into the current beta (if you’re feeling adventurous) over at the games’ Desura page here.