The RPG genre and I go back a long way. In fact, a little known RPG called Times of Lore was one of the first games I ever played and loved. This being the case, I’m always interested when a new addition to the RPG genre comes along even though the genre is a mixed bag. You could say that every genre is, but plot heavy, story driven RPGs especially are at a disadvantage; if it doesn’t hook you and quickly, all the other aspects of the game no matter how cleverly and gorgeously executed become redundant. I would even go as far to say that a game could look and sound like it’s been developed by a kindergarten class, but I’d still play it if the story was good. This is the first thing I noticed about SpellForce III. In my opinion it didn’t start particularly well.
I’m not sure I like tutorials that don’t let you play as the character you’ve just created. I want to sink into their shoes, not be told that the hour I’ve just put in is kinda important to the story but it’s all set years before the start of the game proper. Just tell me what happened in the prologue and let me go from there. With this being said, and because I can’t write a fair review after an hour of gameplay, I trudged grimly through the tutorial. Thankfully what I was met with beyond it was far more to my liking. If I’d just decided to have a quick look though, I might not have chosen to go any further.
You set out playing the son or daughter of a corrupt mage. You only have your head on your shoulders because you betrayed your father and were saved from sacrifice. You join the royal guard, known as The Wolf Guard, and manage to rise in its ranks. You certainly aren’t classed as a hero; you’re an outcast, but this is probably the best kind of character. At the beginning of the first real chapter of the game, you are sent out to investigate a magical plague that has beset one of the local villages. This is where I’m going to stop, story-wise; we don’t want any spoilers now do we?
SpellForce III combines two very different, well known styles. There’s the very traditional, top down RPG in the style of the Baldurs Gate games or more recently Pillars of Eternity. This is a tried and tested format that works really well. This style is combined with building mechanics similar to those in games such as Command & Conquer. Blending two genres that are really distinct is a great idea. You aren’t doing both at the same time of course (that would require brain splitting tantamount to multiple personalities), but rather switch between the two as the story demands.
The RPG elements shine in SpellForce III‘s great skill tree which makes the different heroes feel unique. This is important as there are areas where you can pick your party. Choosing your skills wisely is doubly important as you’ll be using them in the RTS sections of the game as well. You can’t just think like an RPG player. In an RPG, you build your character for a party of up to five heroes. In this game, you’re dealing with your troops as well. This makes your choices really important as your favorite dungeon running build might not work for a more strategic encounter.
Graphically, SpellForce III has a very late-90s look. This isn’t a criticism by any means. The game doesn’t feel outdated, rather it seems that this was very much a deliberate move by the devs. They could have ended up going for style over substance and it’s very clear that they haven’t. The SpellForce franchise has been around for a good while now, so it makes sense to stick to the game’s roots and what it’s always done well rather than giving it a total revamp just for the sake of it. This being said, alongside the retro feel (have we gotten to the stage of calling the late nineties/early noughts retro yet?) there are some really lovely FMV sequences thrown into the mix.
So, let’s have a little of my likes and dislkikes, shall we? Well, I’ve already mentioned the prologue. This isn’t a huge dislike; it’s entirely a matter of taste and I’m not down-marking for it. I totally get there’s different ways to tell a story, but personally I’d have done it differently. Another point that I can’t 100% make my mind up on is that you’re kind of drip-fed the gameplay mechanics. It’s not a case of learning everything in the first five minutes and just going for it.
For example, I didn’t find Godstones, which are pretty important teleportation/re-spawn devices, until I was about five or so hours into the game. Incidentally, for those of you that found them much quicker, well done; I’m slow. These are really useful and very necessary but aren’t even mentioned at the very beginning of the game. I like this because you’re discovering new things all the time but for no-nonsense gamers, I’m not sure whether this is a fitting approach.
Speaking of being drip fed – and I mean in a good way – let’s go back to narrative for a moment. I really enjoy story-driven games where I don’t know quite what’s coming. I’m at a stage where I’m not really sure who the good guys are and I really rather like this. A note to developers: we don’t always want to know who or what we’re up against, sometimes a little bit of back-stabbing crookedness is a good thing.
A con for me is that the game feels a bit awkward in places. When there’s a lot going on, and there can be some pretty big battles especially in the RTS sections, the game can feel a bit clunky. You’re trying to control your own characters and watch what your troops are doing, and build new ones and … yeah, a lot of ands. This is fine, but I lost count of the amount of times I had to restart bits of battles because I’d had to dart off and build more units only to see one of my heroes die. Is this bad gaming on my part? I seriously hope not, but it didn’t always feel 100% fluid.
Another con for me is some of the voice acting. Every conversation is spoken. Though some of it is very good, I’d say that there are definitely a few actors who shouldn’t give up his or her day job any time soon. There are certain exchanges that feel slightly stilted and even a tiny bit cringe-worthy. You could turn the sound off, but this isn’t really in the spirit of the game.
All in all, SpellForce III is a solid RPG with a good story and some interesting gameplay mechanics. The RTS bits make the game appealing and the two styles balance well with each other. Actually, I’d say this almost adds a few points to the game. If SpellForce III were just a stand-alone RPG or RTS, I think I’d probably be saying that it’s good but there’s better out there. The blending of the two styles mixed with the really intriguing story (once you get into it) actually makes the game greater than the sum of its individual parts.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Not a blockbuster, but still well worth a go.
Look and Style - 7/10
Story - 8/10
Challenge - 8/10
Sound and effects - 5/10
SpellForce III is by no means perfect, but it's a very playable title and well worth several hours of your time. If you like the RPG and RTS genres, you should like this. The story here is key and it's great. For me, this is more than enough reason to immerse yourself in the game.