Great love triangles of our time: the frog, the zombie and us. Oh, how we long to marry both, but society’s cruel rules forbid it. Also, there’s no space for two wives on the character screen. Damn it. This is a strategy-RPG in the mould of Heroes of Might & Magic, with a simple structure – perform quests, build armies, kill other armies – that still manages to be consistently surprising.
Case in point: wives are an optional interface element whose sole purpose is to grant bonuses to your character’s army. That after dezombification or defrogification they can replace inventory items with children – clothes or babies, what a choice – is either rampantly misogynistic or a stroke of genius. Or both.
In between overseeing turn-’n’-hex based battles, our Paladin has performed dentistry on a dragon, brought peace to a warring family of toadmen, become a pirate, reunited a talking castle with its girlfriend and fought a war inside his own belt. Oh, and he married the zombie in the end, but he had to pay 5,000 gold to buy her off her first husband. The level of invention in this Russian-made wonder is incredible. While strategy skirmishes are its bread and butter, it’s far more interested in being an RPG, in offering absurdist vignettes within a huge, open high-fantasy world.
It’s very much the right choice, especially as the battles themselves can, though they grow in complexity, get tiresome. There’s a singular joy in constructing an army consisting of 98 giant snakes, 206 pirates, 56 Beholders, 12 cannoneers and oh, what the hell, let’s throw in a few vampires for good measure, but the sliiiiightly too long and too frequent fights are sometimes an unwelcome interruption. Regularly upgrading your army with new weird-’n’-weirder soldiers, replete with their own abilities, keeps it fairly fresh, but there’s a tendency to stack the odds a little too high against you.
Between that and the enthusiastic but all over the place Russian-English translation, it’s certainly not a game for everyone. At the same time, it’s free from the stereotypes of bugginess and low-rent production values many associate with East European games: it’s slick, it’s stable and it looks wonderful, albeit in a very Warcraftian way. It’s also the game we’ve enjoyed the most this year, by a comfortable margin. That’s a very different thing to ‘the best game of the year’, but frankly it’s not too far off that either, at least by our standards. Like Space Rangers 2, many of whose developers are behind this, it’s a game that requires a deep and genuine love of PC games – affection for and tolerance of their complexities and absurdities. It’s confusing and silly and fiddly, but it’s absolutely joyous with it.
Turn-based hex-battles or no, it appeals to the same part of me MMOs did before they slid into being all about the statistics. Huge open worlds to explore, packed with sights and delights for the cavalier adventurer. Just as our favorite aspect of WoW was the silly hats and the gimmick quests, here it’s recruiting angry bears to our army, or divorcing our zombie bride for a winsome frog – or any of a hundred other magnificently odd anecdotes.
Nov 7, 2008