This might be the first game I've ever been given as penance. It's a standalone expansion for the turn-based strategy game Elemental: War of Magic, which was released in such a shocking state of disrepair that Stardock decided to make this expansion free to everyone who bought the main game at launch. It's an extreme gesture, but the right one. Elemental: War of Magic was patched drastically and often, but the constant state of flux made it hard to get into. Fundamental game mechanics were being changed, and savegames were usually incompatible between versions.
Those of us who loved its potential were willing to wait for Stardock to take a proper second stab at the idea: a turn-based fantasy strategy game about building an empire while your hero fights monsters and levels up. But yeah, we would have balked at having to pay for it.
Like Elemental, Fallen Enchantress is a game about building an empire, and among your armies are a few special units who can take on quests and find magic items. Enchantress does add new features, but they're not the main attraction. The maps you're fighting on sometimes have big Wildlands areas, which are rich in resources but dominated by powerful creatures. They're not really worth the effort: if you've got an army strong enough to clear them out, it's usually better spent clearing out your actual opponents.
There's also a new story-driven mode that strips out all the base building and restricts you to a couple of heroes. In effect, it cuts out most of what makes Elemental interesting and replaces it with pages of ponderous fantasy wank – I strongly suggest you ignore it.
The reason Fallen Enchantress is exciting is simply that the main game is fixed. It hasn't crashed once for me, the AI is much more aggressive and challenging, and clunky systems have been ripped out and replaced by more elegant ones.
You can only build towns on scarce patches of fertile land now, which makes the terrain much more interesting to explore and squabble over. As they grow, your towns each have to pick an area of progress to focus on, giving your empire distinct production, research and military centres. And the faction you choose to play as has a much bigger influence on your playstyle.
Playing as stealthy hunter faction Tarth, I could explore the map without being attacked by any creatures I didn't want to fight. But I wasn't quite ready for how much better the AI was at expanding and building up a military. By the time I encountered the other two factions, one of them was more than twice as powerful as me, and immediately started demanding money for my continued survival. I cosied up to the weaker faction, and eventually persuaded them to be an ally. And then, in my travels, I found a boat.
There's still no naval combat, but neutral transports can be used to access isolated islands. And on one island, I found a dragon shrine. I devoted my whole empire to researching it, hoping for a dragon ally, and years later one stomped out. I escorted it all the way back to the mainland and declared war. Then another one popped out. By the time my sovereign reached my rival's capital, she had six dragons in tow.
It was exactly the kind of comeback Elemental's blend of strategy and RPG promised, but nothing like it happened to me in War of Magic. Fallen Enchantress still has issues: a single big army of archers seems to beat every balanced or distributed approach, and the AI still isn't very aggressive in war. But I was never dreaming of a perfectly balanced strategy game, just one with lots of interesting possibilities, and one that actually works. Fallen Enchantress finally manages that.
Expect to pay: $40 / £25 (free for Elemental owners)
Release: Out now