of the greatest disappointments in life are born out of high expectations. In
the case of Stronghold, a franchise rightfully beloved for being an outlet for
all of those childhood fantasies of building forts and repelling the forces of
darkness, years of waiting have built expectation to a fever pitch. At the time
of the first game’s launch, the combination of city management and real time
strategy was unique and gripping, and captured a wide audience looking for a
break from the traditional RTS formula. Above all, it was well executed, and
fans have been waiting with baited breath for the chance to revisit gaming’s
premiere castle building franchise.
disillusionment begins almost immediately.
As soon as you’ve loaded up one of the game’s two campaigns (either
military or economic), the clunky presentation douses some of that initial
excitement. The story, such as it is, is presented through black and white
comics that tell the tale of a dispossessed monarchy whose kingdom has been
stolen by an evil usurper. Though the voiceover acting is remarkably good, the
still frames don’t do a tremendous job of imparting any momentum or energy to
what is a clichéd and unimaginative narrative. And then the proper game loads,
and the sighing begins in earnest.
the outset, the controls are unwieldy at best. Targeting enemies is difficult
under the best of circumstances (often the cursor refuses to change to the
attack icon, regardless of how closely over an enemy you hover it), and attacking
specific enemies amongst a group is almost impossible. On top of that, broken
pathfinding and bizarre engagement ranges mean that retreating your wounded or
breaking your units into distinct groups only results in more casualties.
Regardless of how many times you desperately order soldiers on the brink of
death back from the fray, after a few steps they’ll charge right back in as if
desperate to throw themselves on your enemies’ blades. Changing their engagement mode to passive
stops them from rushing in, but most often results in them standing around
glassy-eyed while the enemy hacks them to bits. Flaws like this steal the
pleasure from almost every encounter, from slaying stray wolves to epic sieges.
building and strategy layer retains most elements that made the earlier entries
so successful, which has the unfortunate effect of making Stronghold 3 feel
overly familiar. The game tends to
over-emphasize the constant management of your citizens’ needs and mood, which
detracts from the pure joy of building an amazing castle. You’re also given
fairly narrow spaces to work in which, given the massive number of ancillary
buildings you’ll need to keep your population happy, makes building complex
multi-tiered keeps functionally impossible.
in-game graphics are serviceable but feel flat, and fail to provide much
character to a game that is badly wanting for some. Unit models are bland and
uninspired, and structures are often difficult to distinguish from one another.
While the mechanics being a throwback is charming and evokes nostalgia, the
same can’t be said for a graphics engine that feels like it was designed at the
turn of the century. Sound design provides some limited relief (zooming down to
various buildings provides unique sounds tailored to each) but can’t alleviate
the overall sensation that this is a game whose time has already passed.
or reinventing beloved franchises is always a tricky gambit. Developers risk
changing too much and destroying the core appeal of a series, or changing too
little and producing a sequel that feels more like an expansion pack.
Stronghold 3 is a bizarre third outlier, clinging to an aging formula but
making changes that actually feel like a step back. The real crime here isn’t
that Stronghold 3 is a bad game, it’s the disservice done to a series that has
provided so much joy in the past, ruining our nostalgia. Somewhere, a child in
a tree fort is weeping.