NEED TO KNOW
What is it? A medieval RPG/strategy game with turn-based combat
Influenced by: Darklands
Play it on: Quad-core CPU, 4GB RAM, GeForce GTX 560
Alternatively: Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes, Eschalon Trilogy
Copy protection: Steam
Expect to pay: $20/£15
Release: 2013 (Early Access)
Publisher/Developer: Aterdux Entertainment
Link: Official site
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I knew that Legends of Eisenwald wasn't quite as it appeared not long after I began playing the tutorial. I'd captured a bandit who'd been terrorizing a local stretch of road, and after confessing and explaining that he was merely a pawn in a much bigger game, he asked if I'd spare his life. Unable to resist my Boy Scout impulses, I decided I would. The game had other ideas. "Honor does not demand that justice be abandoned," my character Sir Malygris intoned, before giving him a Ned Stark haircut. Well then.
Legends of Eisenwald, which has been kicking around on Steam Early Access since October 2013, isn't really an RPG at all. I don't feel like I'm the hero when I play; I'm just some random goon with a sword and a trust fund, going where the game tells me, doing what it wants me to, and then toddling off to the next entry on the list of Things That Must Be Done. There are some choices to be made, such as which vassals to tune up as an example to the rest, but individual quests are purely linear and have fixed outcomes, and won't progress until the previous step is made as required—steps that are often unclear.
In one case involving a woman whoring out her daughter, a rumor hinted that I could find them at Green Stone Street. But there is no Green Stone Street in the game; I can say this with confidence, because I spent an awful lot of time looking for it. In reality, it was just a scripted reference made by an NPC, and to trigger the next step in the quest (and this is a spoiler, so beware) I needed to sell a diadem I'd taken off a dead mercenary at some point prior, which had been lying, forgotten, at the bottom of my inventory. Not only that: After selling it, I had to engage in gossip in order to advance the quest, and if I gossiped before selling, I'd have to leave the city, return, then gossip, and then the quest would progress. But there was never any indication that these were the specific steps, in the specific order, required to move the action forward, and in fact were it not for the mercy of the Steam forums, I'd probably still have that stupid diadem in my inventory.
Combat is similarly obtuse. In battle, all melee fighters must, without exception, attack the enemy closest to them, so while they're all nominally under my control, I often have very little actual control over them. It's possible to pass a turn, but NPCs cannot move without engaging someone, nor can they pile on to one particular enemy if others are closer. The computer is stuck with the same restriction so it's not really unfair, but it leads to some ridiculous situations: Powerful mystics would occasionally conjure spirits within my ranks, and my soldiers were then obliged to stand and swing through them repeatedly, even though the wispy ghosts couldn't be damaged by their weapons—and while corporeal enemies were busy laying the thump on one or two of my fellows a few hexes away.
The Russian (I think) to English translations can be a little rough in places (not unreadable, just awkward, like Gunther Reike's analogy of a frog in a milk jug turning the realm into a wasteland), there's a graphics glitch after alt-tabbing, and NPCs sometimes refer to dead characters as though they're still alive in conversations. I could continue, but it starts to feel like nitpicking; the point is that it all feels very beta, much more than I would have expected from a game that's been on Early Access since October 2013, and while it's still being actively developed—the most recent update was posted on April 1—it's certainly not blazing along.
Yet for all of that, I've got more than a dozen hours in Legends of Eisenwald, and I'm actually looking forward to more. It's a lovely game, with a gorgeous day/night cycle, backdrops styled like oil paintings, and a beautiful soundtrack, and the four difficulty levels let me dig into it without having my ass handed to me repeatedly. And even though I don't think it's a particularly good RPG, it is quite a decent adventure. That admittedly stretches the definition of the genre, but the glacial pace of character growth, limited customization options, and utter inflexibility result in an experience that's much more akin to solving a set of puzzles with a static character than to conventional RPG questing. The assault on the gate leading into my family's castle, for instance, was more about figuring out how to gather the requisite allies at the nearby drinking hole than about the battle itself; I couldn't even begin the attack until I'd got everyone together.
But what really polishes my sword is the way Eisenwald so powerfully evokes Darklands, the "realistic" Microprose RPG from 1992. Both games take place in medieval Germanic lands as they were envisioned by the people of the time: filled with great heroes, powerful clerics, mythical creatures, and boundless adventure awaiting those bold enough to seize the day. It's a superficial likeness, and they really aren't anything alike in terms of gameplay, but there are enough presentational similarities to ring the bell—and until a proper Darklands sequel comes along, I'll take what I can get.
That puts Legends of Eisenwald in a place where I can (and do) enjoy it, while not feeling entirely comfortable about actually recommending it to anyone. Even when it's ready for release, I suspect it will be one of those oddball European games that attracts a fiercely dedicated but relatively tiny audience; the Euro Truck Simulator of fantasy RPGs, perhaps. And right now, it's most definitely not ready for release. But I think I'm going to play it some more anyway.
Legends of Eisenwald isn't quite the old-school RPG it seems to be, but still manages to be oddly engaging.