For all the slinging I’ve been found doing at RTS and RPG titles, you may be surprised to learn I actually enjoy both genres thoroughly. I’ve been burning my free time with the help of Total War Warhammer 2, Persona 5 is a definite highlight of the year and I have been playing XCOM 2 on and off constantly since release. You could even go as far as to say that a combination of the two enjoyable genres should create an improved greater genre in what some Americans may call the “peanut butter and jelly formula” and no English call the “bubble and squeak formula”. Yet, Spellforce 3 underlines that sometimes the combination is a sickly slurry, like curry with minced strawberries.
Spellforce 3 is an RPG/RTS title with some legacy, the first title releasing back in 2003 and the second releasing in 2006 (both containing plenty of DLC content). Although interestingly, the series fell out of the hands of the original developers, Phenomic, just after being bought out by EA (in case you want another sin against EA for the Book of Grudges). Under the publishing grasp of Nordic Games (and then THQ Nordic), the next DLC packs were developed by Trine Games (Spellforce 2: Faith in Destiny), Mind Over Matter Studios (Spellforce 2: Demons of the Past) and now Grimlore Games for Spellforce 3. Don’t worry, we’re coming to come back to this history lesson, I promise.
In the campaign, you play as a character who pretty much rolled snake eyes on the “fate” dice. First, your mother dies in childbirth. Then your father becomes an infamous sorcerer. It is at this point you suddenly grow a conscience and try to rebel against your father, which predictably leads to your head being on the executioner’s block. What luck, just as you’re about to magically have your brains ejected out of your skull at full force the empire arrives! Hooray! Said empire whose major religion treats magic users as those to be tortured in public, which you happen to be a magic user. Oh dear.
Basically, Spellforce 3 isn’t written well. True to a significant portion of RPGs, there is a real sense of the protagonist being built up as being a big deal for no real reason except fate. Your bloodline is special so the church decides not to make your head explode or drive you insane. On the other hand, in contrast to a lot of modern RPGs, it is laughable how linear everything is. Spellforce 3 dangles conversation options over your head like a pair of shiny keys with no payoff. I purposely tried to change both significant and very minor plot points via conversations with just no such luck. Even the areas are arranged as levels rather than an open world.
Although it feels like even Grimlore Games agrees the writing isn’t the strong suit in what is meant to be part role-playing game. Often you’ll spot narrative holes, inconsistencies, and other issues. One glaring example was my protagonist just couldn’t seem to remember if they were sentenced to die by the rope or pike. This is when bugs don’t invade. One dialogue option gave me a “choice”, except said choices, had disappeared which left a blank area and no good way to leave the dialogue, which led to no good way to leave the area and continue the story. Another time, the level ended mid-sentence.
That said, I could sense Grimlore Games gave characterization a shot. The voice acting by the actors is excellent, with range and depth given. Doug Cockle (Geralt from The Witcher series) even makes an appearance among the cast. Except, well, Cockle has a very stoic voice acting performance style and with absolutely no body-language it sadly comes off as more flat than it really is. In addition, too many times voice actors felt miscast, some voice actors feeling too effeminate for how the characters looked. That said, I don’t blame said voice actors who did wonderfully with the material given.
Then again, perhaps it is unfair to judge Spellforce 3 for its story?
I personally wouldn’t judge it favorably for its RPG mechanics either. You have an equipment loadout (which you’ll reap equipment like a Diablo title), 5 attributes (that affect what equipment you can equip and the potency of skills) and the option to pick three skill trees out of six (with each skill tree containing 6 skills to put points into). Each character in your party (which it seems you can have up to four in your party) can have three skills in the taskbar ready to use. Often this RPG combat involves just slapping your force’s numbers against the enemy’s numbers until one falls down. It isn’t flat out bad, but it’s the gameplay equivalent of eating glue.
Where bad strolls in is the life system. If a character is downed and they bleed out, or if you have a party wipe, your fallen friends will respawn but a charge is removed per resurrection. If you run out of 6 charges the game ends. The more I flailed and would die by attrition of lives, the more I began to think we were beyond life systems. What’s wrong with simple free resurrections, with enemies getting their health back? Maybe some games can handle frugally giving lives out as a form of challenge, but Spellforce 3 only utilizes it as a form of cheap difficulty. This is especially as you’ll never know the difficulty of an encounter before you are knees deep in your own blood after just one swing.
So, if the RPG mechanics aren’t really any good, what about the RTS end of things? You may remember some time ago I reviewed Dawn of War 3. The RTS segments follow an odd cross of that multiplayer mode with Age of Empires. You build buildings that harvest resources and assign workers to them, with each capture point giving you a larger zone to harvest. You then throw troops at the problem until it solves itself.
An area I don’t think I gave Dawn of War 3 enough credit for is how the inclusion of heroes really change the landscape of battles, as in contrast Spellforce 3 the playable characters feel more like “elite troops” than heroes and can still easily get torn to shreds by a surprisingly small weak force. Moves just don’t feel powerful enough or alter the landscape via area knock-backs and terrain manipulation. Personally, I think the “low fantasy” approach to RTS hero difficulty does clash with the prior hero-actualization narrative style.
Besides that, the RTS angle is just an inoffensive dull state of tolerance akin to white noise.
Then again, the more I think about the gameplay the more I feel this RTS/RPG combination venture was doomed from the start. This is going to require a somewhat longer explanation involving a point of comparison.
In grand strategy titles like Europa IV, there is a tactical decision between building tall or building wide with regards to your country. This means either capturing a lot of land that is weak (e.g. The Ottoman’s gameplay style), or upgrading and building up small parts of land (e.g. Venice’s gameplay style). Similarly, in RTS titles, you have to make a decision between using a few powerful troops or raiding your foe with sheer mass in the form of a flood of weak troops.
Spellforce 3 seems determined to answer this question with “both”. Not in the sense of giving you the option of building tall or building wide, but doing both simultaneously. You will flood the fields with troops (exclusively in the RTS sections), and then upgrade your hero characters (primarily via the RPG sections). By trying to do both there is a distinct lack of focus and tactical play in the campaign mode. The heroes and the general troops don’t intermingle, one informing the other’s gameplay style, rather they fight the same battles somewhat separately with their own individual tactics.
However, it’s weird to call Spellforce 3 conceptually doomed because of the long history I laid out before. If Spellforce 1 and 2’s focus on a blend of RTS/RPG was so bad, then why were sequels made? To this, I have a hypothesis: Albeit one born from someone who has not played prior games.
While the original developers of the series, Phenomic, had an ideology that gave a good blend of RTS/RPG gameplay, other developers have been unable to capture the same lightning in the bottle. This is something similar to what happened to the Silent Hill series, as after Team Silent no developer managed to recapture what made Silent Hill fantastic. I may be wrong, but it would explain to me the bad time I generally had with Spellforce 3’s gameplay, the positive score for Phenomic’s work on Steam and the mixed review score for Spellforce 2: Demons of the Past and Spellforce 2: Faith in Destiny (both not made by Phenomic).
Overall though, the RTS/RPG genres feel too independent from each other. The two genres feel like they’re siphoning much-needed resources from one another, leaving somewhere between a bad and a generic white-noise aftertaste.
We then get to the multiplayer. I tried giving co-op a punt but realized it was just two inputs onto the same single-player campaign board. We both had only one created character between us, we both controlled everyone and we both got frustrated as we kept accidentally stepping on each other’s shoes. Rather than adding another dimension and acting as a form of social bonding, it was just a cheap tacked-on mode onto what was already there.
Before we conclude, we should talk about the graphics. If you’ve seen the screenshots (including the ones dotted through-out this review), they really are gorgeous to look at in motion as well. There is just a majestic variety of the lands you will see as you launch on your campaign. It is the main positive of Spellforce 3. Even if this environmental beauty is harmed by constantly blocking the view (as terrain doesn’t become see-through if things go behind it) and heroes often blending into the environment a bit too much.
The final score for Spellforce 3 is a 4 out of 10. While some games ruin themselves with one or two major issues despite some good parts, in Spellforce 3’s case it is the collection of many many problems with very little to justify it. I couldn’t even get angry with it, as overall it was just boring. It was the combination of two deeply mediocre attempts at genres (with the odd small issue), which only served to highlight the flaws and overshadow the achievements. It is genuinely hard to recommend Spellforce 3 to anyone, even those who find humor in bad games or want to learn from blunders. I wish good luck to anyone who wishes to venture into these patience-testing lands.
A PC Review Copy of Spellforce 3 was provided by THQ Nordic for the Purpose of this Review