Spellforce 2: Demons of the Past is the latest in the Spellforce 2 series – a grand, epic tale of monsters and might, crossed with magic and swordplay. Or so the FAQ told me, after I was forced to look up exactly what was going on in the fantastical world of Eo.
Yes, despite being billed as a standalone title in the series, Demons very much feels like an expansion pack – and one which makes little effort to explain either what’s going on, or how to do it.
Combining aspects of role-playing games and real-time strategy, Demons plants the player in the boots of a Shaikan warrior – one of a caste of heroes sworn to preserve peace in Eo, against all comers.
However, a dark being known as Zhazhut has been unleashed, bringing with it a force of evil warriors set on enslaving and burning the world. Feeling hopeless, but courageous nonetheless, the player’s warrior sets off to complete quests, ensure freedom, and assemble a crack team to fight the darkness.
If you were hoping for further detail, I’d hit the internet – explanation is a little thin on the ground in Demons…
That said, If you’ve been playing the series for the last eight years, it’s a worthy conclusion to the mythos.
What’s your angle?
I have to admit, having never played Spellforce before, that I wasn’t sure meshing RPG and RTS elements to the extent promised by developer Nordic Games would work at all.
However, I was pleasantly surprised by just how well the two genres mesh when done right. It’s true that the original Spellforce 2 is some eight years old now, but the gameplay still holds up well.
The player and a number of NPCs can be upgraded, armoured and armed much in the same method as every other RPG – including various laughable combinations of armour and weapons far too big to be swung by the average human. There’s also a selection of skill trees and experience points to be spent on new spells and abilities – sadly, these are all hidden in a dense network of stats screens.
Not that I wasn’t expecting this – RPGs love their stats screens.
Aside from this core group, the player then has to build bases and all the usual paraphernalia of RTS titles to form a bigger army, spewing out ranks of swordsmen and bowmen to fend off some of the nastier beasties infesting Eo.
The AI of these characters, however, is pretty poor. They can be ordered to follow the player avatar and patrol areas, but otherwise lack the initiative to track down foes, or cut them off.
They won’t move to attack enemies unless they’re led by the nose into combat – and this can be especially infuriating, as many of the cursed foes on offer are pretty tough. The difficulty is high early in the game, and a serious amount of grinding, trading and killing is necessary before you can beg, borrow or steal yourself a good sword and armour to match.
It also doesn’t help that the in-game tutorial consists of merely a handful of badly cut videos, not an interactive gameplay section.
I thought all games had one of those…
Bugs of the Past…
And so we come to one of the biggest problems with Spellforce 2: Demons of the Past (aptly named, so it turns out) – it’s basically a coat of paint over gameplay that was old eight years ago.
The most obvious signs of this aged system can be seen in the graphics, which are rather boxy and faded when viewed up close – and since the game pitches itself as part RPG, you spend a lot of time looking at the character models from very up close indeed.
From a distance the title still has a solid graphical offering, but once you zoom in, it all falls apart.
In a similar vein, the score, sound effects and voice acting are all rather low-budget, and cheapen the experience. Oddly, some of the NPC voices are so quiet, you can’t hear them over the music.
Also, quests which are already a little laughable become even more so when the character you rescue is doing a terrible job of sounding drunk.
Plus, hearing your player character say ‘yes’ over and over and over as you click around the map gets old, fast – RTSs all do this, but the speech tends to have more than three responses.
However, despite these niggles Demons does not lack scope – some of the quests can lead to epic battles, and though tactical thinking isn’t required for the majority of the combat (the NPCs just keep shooting or hacking away till your target is dead), the RPG integration works well.
Putting it simply, right-clicking on a foe will start the combat, but after that, individual spells and abilities can be used by clicking on icons on the screen. This gives the game an oddly strategic focus, as some of the enemies take far more damage from spells and special abilities than the legion of swordsmen hacking at their ankles.
Aside from the singleplayer campaign, the game also features a sandbox mode more akin to a traditional RTS, which is arguably easier to get into than the campaign mode.
In fact, I’d even go so far as to suggest that you start there – you’ll learn more, quicker, and in a game which has such a punishing difficulty and learning curve, that can only be a good thing.
Demons of the Past is basically a reskin of an old game – but that’s not to say it lacks for fun and adventure. Although a lot of issues drag the core experience down, there’s still 20+ hours of upgrading and adventuring to be had here, if you can see past its flaws.