Friday, September 3, 2010
Battle Realms: An overlooked masterpiece
Battle Realms places you in the role of a commander in an Asian-themed, fantasy setting. You'll command small armies of ronin, samurai, warlocks and werewolves. It's more of a tactical game in spirit than a strategy game, but by taking the focus down to a much more personal level, Battle Realms succeeds in drawing you deep into the action.
Battle Realms gets by with only two resources -- rice and water. Instead of buying units outright you'll need to train your peasants as warriors in order to create your armies. This is a really refreshing approach but has a few shortcomings. The more units you have on the map, the slower new peasants are created. This means that building up your army towards the end of the missions is a lot more time-consuming than it needs to be. Apart from being strange from a gameplay standpoint, it also seems like bad biology -- I would think that, up to a certain point, more units on the map would mean a quicker birth rate for your peasants.
Inexhaustible resources and a severe fog of war also lead to one of my biggest frustrations with the game. As long as a single enemy peasant is able to escape destruction, your opponent can quickly set up a new camp somewhere and be up and running again before you're likely to find him. This isn't a problem when you're only facing one enemy but when you've got to go head to head with the Lotus and Wolf clans at once, you can find yourself destroying the same base over and over again.
Tons of personality in the animations and voices bring the units to life. Every warrior has a handful of combat animations that are truly thrilling to watch (your own hero unit will occasionally draw his sword and practice some moves when at rest). Samurai kneel and pray, wounded units stagger and limp around and peasants get thrown to the ground when taming horses. Perhaps the most thrilling animation is when you select a group of your units and watch them all draw their weapons in anticipation of carrying out whatever ass-kicking you've got in mind.
In Battle Realms all units start as peasants but they can train at various buildings to become other units like spearmen and archers. You can then take those units and send them to be trained at other structures to produce even more powerful units. Spearmen can be sent to the archery range to become dragon warriors. Archers can be sent to the alchemist hut to become chemists (apparently a Japanese word for "guy who shoots fireworks at you"). You can then even take these units and train them at other buildings as well to produce yet even more powerful units.
While it's an awesome concept, there are a few shortcomings. One, there's no clear indication as to which units are suited to a particular task. The manual sort of hints at some general strategies but it's still not clear why you'd pick a lower level unit when it's just as convenient to upgrade all the way to the top. And as the birth rate of your peasants slows as you reach the higher levels, there's always time and resources enough to make an army of the biggest, baddest unit available. If you've managed your economy just right, you can make do with only one person collecting each resource. But if you do run out of a resource you can't untrain or retrain units so you'll have to kill some units before you can produce more.
Ultimately, dragon warriors are way better than a mixed group of archers and spearmen, and samurai are better than a mixed group of dragon warriors and powder keg cannoneers. Heck, the samurai are so tough that they'll prostrate themselves right in the middle of a river and start praying while underwater. If that wasn't enough to convince you to leave them alone, the fact that they kill themselves before the enemy gets a chance to should convince you not to mess around with them.
Given the tactical nature of the game, it's a shame that there aren't any formation controls. You can set sort of general rules of engagement (strangely not all the time) but for the most part your units will run in a big clump to attack whatever big clump the enemy has around. It's best not to mess with them when they're like this, but just pray that your units will come out on top once the skirmish is over. And while the units themselves seem to have a good time finding targets of their own to attack, the healer units show almost no initiative on their own, meaning you have to heal damaged units during a fight by yourself.
A lot of personality has been incorporated into the environments of Battle Realms. The game takes place in a beautiful and detailed world. Realistic ripples appear when your units cross rivers, shadows of rain clouds drift across the ground and birds dot the landscape. But far from just being aesthetic effects, these details are integrated into the game. Rain affects combat and can turn the tide of battle by extinguishing the fires you've set in the opposing villages. Birds scatter and fly whenever enemy units are near, giving you an early warning of their approach. Blood pools on the grounds and in ponds as units are killed.
The cutscenes let you get close to the action between the missions. While the graphics aren't spectacular at this level, it really preserves the feel of the game to see the same units in the cutscenes as you see on the mission maps. Good voice acting and a stirring story only add to the illusion. The story itself involves your efforts to subdue the rival Wolf and Lotus clans through recovery of a hidden artifact. And even though the game is relatively linear, there's a really good sense of choice built into it all. At the beginning of the game you're presented with a moral choice that leads down one of two campaign paths.
Just as an aside, I take notes while I play these games and then I use those notes to write up the review. Usually I can fit them in to a coherent sort of outline but there's this one entry in my notes that I don't know where to put, so it's going here. I have written, "that warlock lightning [expletive]." Let me just say that "that warlock lightning [expletive]" is perhaps a bit unbalanced. The part where I talked about the blood in the water? That was the next entry under "that warlock lightning [expletive]." It's kind of a cop-out in terms of organization, but I thought you'd like to know.
In short, Battle Realms is a remarkably well-produced and intimate game that is the perfect answer for all of those "more is more" strategy games. By focusing on small unit action and narrowing the field to a handful of units, Battle Realms reminds me a lot of the time I spent with Warcraft 2. The hardware requirements are a bit steep, but if you do have the rig to run it (at least a P500 with a minimum of 64MB of RAM and a decent video card), it's definitely rewarding.