If there’s one thing that The Witcher 3 made me realize – apart from the fact that it’s an amazing game – it’s that we need less British history in our fantasy games and movies. Though Wild Hunt and Legends of Eisenwald couldn’t be more different in many respects, the one commonality between the games is that neither one toadies to the conventional fantasy RPG style. Legends of Eisenwald is barely fantasy at all, in fact: the magic and supernatural elements are far overshadowed by medieval politics, a fiefdom system, and its fun sense of humor that seems obsessed with jokes about ale, wenches, and wine. Even if some of these tropes are cliches in of themselves, to play a game so divorced from Tolkien feels refreshing and unique; considering how often the medieval-RPG genre clings to past glories rather than innovate something new. This game’s ethos is closer to Wagner than Westeros, and that’s a good thing in my book.
Legends of Eisenwald is a Kickstarter-funded, indie-developed strategy RPG set in a facsimile of medieval era Germany. The main scenario, at least in the appropriately named “Main Scenario Mode,” is that you are one of three possible protagonists – a highborn lord, priest, or baroness. The game’s plot begins as you attempt to bring your family’s vassals to heel. Upon returning home after a short time away, you discover that the lesser lords of your clan’s lands have broken into conflict with each other. This prompts your character to decide which of the vassals are to remain in power, and which ones need to be eliminated. And this decision sparks a lengthy, multi-chapter campaign quest line that gets better and better before really coming together around Act 4. The dialogue and lore writing in this game is strong, even if the main story takes a little while to build up steam. There are even some different dialogue options and story outcomes depending on which protagonist you choose, which is a nice touch.
Most of the time when you enter an area – whether it’s a market square, enemy stronghold, cave, or some other location – you’re shown an imaginative drawn image of the area coupled with a written description. I was pleased to see these descriptions are context sensitive; for example, even if the name of the location is the same as other places on the map like “Market Square,” this description changes depending on the history, geography, and political alignment of that specific market. This is a small detail in the game’s presentation that really gets your imagination to come alive. That being said, the game doesn’t give much outside text and a series of repeated, yet pretty, images to paint you a picture. When compared to the PC strategy games Eisenwald styles itself after, though, this is relatively par for the course.
Eisenwald is a game that, for my money, attempts to meld together the styles and mechanics of 90’s CRPGs/ Medival strategy games with that of console RPG’s. For example, the game’s menus, mechanics, and aesthetic all scream Baldur’s Gate and Heroes of Might and Magic; whereas Eisenwald’s story and relative simplicity course with strains of console JRPG’s of the same era like Final Fantasy and Arc: The Lad. That being said, I wouldn’t say Eisenwald has enough of either of what made either of those respective styles of RPG’s work to withstand being compared to those iconic games with much seriousness. Even if the similarities are passing, the references minor; the fact that Legends of Eisenwald pays homage to that era in a way that isn’t cheap or insulting is enough to put a big smile on my face.
Eisenwald has a pretty good score – one that really gets you in the ‘feudal German adventure’ mindset. Along with the compelling music, another thing Eisenwald nails is its fun, fast-paced, and streamlined combat system. You build up your party either by hiring mercenaries, finding loyal companions, or for story purposes. Eventually you can get as many as 12 people in your party, provided you make enough money from the various holds, towns, and assets your faction owns. With this group of either friends or employees, through the game’s 30+ hours the combat system stays basically the same: you each stand on a grid, taking turns attacking or using special moves against your foes. Of course, I would have liked more abilities for each of my team members earlier on in my adventure. Combat doesn’t start to get too deep until several hours into the game – yet I’d be lying if I said combat in the early hours of the game wasn’t still fun, in spite of this lack.
Like the Baldur’s Gate games, when characters die they can be revitalized at local religious healing spots. Also like Baldur, there’s an in-game clock that can be sped up, slowed down, or paused altogether. Unlike the iconic Bioware CRPG series however, this clock can only be used on the game overworld map. It disappears for combat, rendering the clock little more than a Baldur’s Gate referencing walk-speed increaser. There’s also customizable weapons, accessories, rings, and a simple yet fun leveling up system that reminded me ever-so-slightly of the Gauntlet games in the way your various characters completely change appearance and abilities upon leveling up. It would have been nice to see more of this gear on the character models – I could only see changes in weaponry reflected in my character’s visage.
Keeping minions around for long periods of time can pay off amazingly well, in interesting ways: start out with a simple looking magic caster, wind up with a mace and shield-toting battle monk. Start out with a vanilla looking healer, and you can end up leveling her up into a formidable witch. Or don’t: the game lets you choose various paths along the skill tree, which provides a decent sense of customizability to the game’s leveling mechanic. That being said, things are a tad too simplistic here – a more in depth skill tree with more variety would have felt more rewarding to sink time into.
The strategy elements aren’t too terribly deep, either. This isn’t Crusader Kings 2 or anything: which I suppose is a good thing, in this case, because it allows more time for Eisenwald to focus on crafting its story and sense of adventure. You’re trying to capture new territory when possible, while defending your own settlements and resources if ever they get attacked. It’s important to stay on top of this aspect of the game, since how much territory you control dictates how much gold you make. And you’ll need gold for pretty much everything: reviving characters, hiring new party members, and buying new gear. It’s difficult laying siege to a castle without at least six men to do it properly, for example. Method Man famously rapped “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” in 1993. The aphorism rings no less true in the era of Barons and Bastilles.
The biggest weakness of Legends of Eisenwald is that, in being a hybrid of console and PC RPG sensibilities, it ends up only providing meager portions of each of these styles. Its strategy elements aren’t really complex enough to recommend it as a strategy game, while its RPG elements aren’t strong enough to recommend it as an RPG. The story, as I mentioned, takes time to build up. And in the meantime, the game gives very little in the way of advice on how to tackle a good many of its numerous quests. I spent a lot of time in this game wandering around trying to figure out what to do; but since I’m about as smart as your average duck, results may vary in this area. Even if you’re as smart as Issac Newton on Adderall, you’d have to admit the quest markers are oftentimes too vague, the quest descriptions too murky, to allow Eisenwald the smoothness and intuitiveness that the rest of the game’s design indicates it is striving towards. By far, the questing system and descriptions are the weakest elements of this otherwise decent foray into the world of RPG’s.
That being said, I do recommend this game for fans of retro-style RPG’s with some time to kill – provided you understand this isn’t the next Pillars of Eternity or anything. Despite not being as good as the best CRPG of this generation, the game is still enjoyable: Eisenwald has solid writing and a unique take on the typical set of medieval RPG tropes, and its battle system is surprisingly addictive. The unclear questing and the lack of in-game interiors might turn you off, but the game’s charm and heart was more than enough for me to look past these arguably minor flaws. And what’s more, the game comes preloaded with a map editor and mod support, as well as two much shorter missions that have nothing to do with the main campaign. With enough time for updates and mods, many of the game’s faults could be evened out. Right now though, it’s just a decently good medieval RPG with a few flaws that’s nonetheless fun and engaging to play.