Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes

“M’lord, we regret to inform you that the fortress of Eastfell has been captured by Lord Magnar.”

Lord?! Lord Magnar? How dare you confer that title upon such a brigand! Jacknape! Scofflaw! I have salted his fields, destroyed his armies, burned his capital to the ground, and you bring me news of his survival? Am I to believe that this misbegotten dog not only escaped my spears, but retained the cool cheek to swindle every wretched peasant he came across with a pyrite coin and a wooden sword to attack one of MY fortresses? You bring me this news not in jest, and with the audacity to not supplant it with reports of his immediate death by retaliation? YOU! My craven general! Yours shall be the first name I carve with my own fingers into Magnar’s bleached skull!

Let it be known: I want his hide for my standard and his children for my slaves! I want the land of Eastfell burned! Cursed! Forgotten! I want every man-jack with the forsaken gall to have survived Eastfell’s defense to be executed; their families driven to the coast and scattered upon its cliffs! I want every library in the Empire to sully Magnar’s name and then grind it beneath the heel of Time’s dimming memory! I want every college of the arcane, by spell or by ichor, to purge the land’s recollection of Magnar’s sacrilege until only I, Emperor Malkin of Tan-ta-Kreet, can confess to knowing who this fecund insect was on the eve of my passing! Now! What have you to say to this, General?

“M’lord, another storm dragon has been sighted near Viscount Bay.”

WELL I WANT HIM DEAD TOO!

Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes is a 4X strategy game of immense depth, and that wouldn’t mean a thing if not for the fact that the depth comes from driving players further into their own created narratives rather than just more gameplay options, although there are plenty of those as well.

Developer Stardock has created an ambitious strategy game that brings its familiar fantasy setting into mechanical relief, and its light story elements into the player’s imagination. As in most 4X titles, players still found cities, develop technology, farm, explore, and conquer, but Fallen Enchantress also allows them to acquire magic resources and use them to boost their cities and units with new abilities and enchanted improvements. The strategy here isn’t just about how well one can play politics and command armies, it’s also about how learned one is in regional sorcery.

Admittedly, the magic elements are mostly realized on paper. The mineshaft full of fire crystals that allows players to wreath their cities in flame for protection does so with an uptick of numbers and a special mark on the interface instead of a flashy visual, but it’s still a crucial part of good city defense. However, the game complements this dull representation by letting players preside over their troop engagements in actual turn-based battles. Should the mood strike players, they can decline the usual 4X “bump armies against one another and see who wins” mold in favor of a grid-based tactical battle. Every unit and champion present also has their own inventory, equipment, spell arsenal, and rudimentary skill trees for a richer RPG experience. Tinkering with units and fighting these battles can slow the pace of the meta-game to a crawl, but they’re never forced upon the player, and are good fun against well-balanced opponents. That’s not to say that Legendary Heroes has balancing issues, but that producing armies of superior strength to one’s enemies happens quickly and, in my experience, propelled me to increase the strength-of-force gap as much as I could. This made most encounters perfunctory, but also sped up the meta-game.

In the midst of spreading the good news about one’s empire is the protagonist champion. Each match begins by selecting one of ten unique city founders, who cover a swath of fantasy backgrounds, jobs, races, and genders. Their backstory and personality traits inspire the various goals and behaviors of the empire that will spring from their will, and eventually their story will inspire other champions to take up arms and submit a plea to provide their services. By creating great works or reaching similarly impressive milestones, two new champions will solicit the player to join their empire-- only one of whom can be picked --offering unique battle skills and buffs for the cities they occupy. Likewise, the opposing kingdoms on the map will develop their own clacks, resulting in unique generals across the board, who serve as both marshall and trophy for their rulers.

The focus on unique characters amplifies the narrative elements of each match. Fallen Enchantress doesn’t go to great lengths to establish immersive stories, but it achieves them all the same by providing enough detail about the characters and their motivations to draw the player in and inspire them to regard their opposition, human and AI alike, with estimable favor or scorn. I love that Legendary Heroes gave me just enough aggregate story elements to make me feel as if my command and my legacy were my own; I cherished my cities, honored my loyal champions, and hated my enemies. That’s a feat that no other 4X title can lay claim to in my book.

Legendary Heroes has one more wrinkle to the 4X formula up its sleeve, a quest system. Quests contribute to the games “Master Quest” victory condition, whereby players can win a match by achieving awesome feats. Receiving quests is as simple as talking to certain NPCs on the map, or just as often lucking into them by attacking the roving monsters that traverse the land between empires. The system is nice to have for clutch Fame when an empire is facing extinction, but the quests themselves aren’t satisfyingly designed. Units go trundling off to the one square they need to occupy, the player is treated to some text, and units will then have to go after the next square to kill the enemy, find the artifact, or witness the event that needs killing/finding/witnessing in order to fulfill the quest. It’s basic, time-consuming busywork that puts the pacing on ice, particularly in the late-game stage when hammering out the last few quest contracts on a map is all there’s left to do.

Even so, Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes remains a quixotic 4X title that is just as adept at subsuming players into their emergent stories as it is offering new mechanics and gameplay elements to a genre that is held sway under the rule of yon Lord Firaxis. Competition in the 4X space might seem quaint to some, but Stardock easily proves that there’s more than one great ruler who deserves fealty.