Over the years, the 4X genre (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate) seems to have fallen into disregard, which doesn’t seem as a good idea (economically speaking) nor entirely deserved, if we are to look at the acclaimed titles that delighted us over the years. Stardock is one of the few remaining companies which has not abandoned all hope for this genre, and judging by their latest titles, it’s refreshing to see a developer that listen to its fans, appreciates gameplay above profit and still manages to release commercially successful titles. However, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and unfortunately, Elemental: War of Magic is a very good example for this.
The producers call it a strategy game in an RPG environment and true to their word, there are plenty of features from both lineages. The gameplay revolves around building strongholds, gathering resources and conquering enemies, but there are also detailed units and a main story. If you will get past the clichés and the rather over-inflated text descriptions, you’ll discover the story of the human-titan war, which led to the appearance of the Magic Shards into this world. The player can control any of the eight human-like races in order to gather as many shards as possible and rule the land. I said human-like because in fact, only four of the races are completely human, while the others are simply corrupted life-forms, yet visually they all look alike, which is to say, pretty dull.
Each faction is designed with its own set of advantages and disadvantages, although some only have upsides, since these traits are not game-breaking. Besides, in the race creation screen it’s pretty easy to eliminate all the negative features, which makes the entire system questionable. Everything starts with selecting a sovereign, which will represent both the king and the initial exploration and fighting force, at least until more advanced units become available.
He will also be responsible for creating the capital and the location must be well-thought of, since it will determine which resources in the immediate vicinity can be extracted. These cities can also level-up as they grow in size and boast a bigger number of inhabitants, extending their influence area and thus able to harvest more resources. However, the entire resource system seems to be ill-designed, considering how many types there are. We can grow food, mine materials, gold, metals, crystal, elementium and mana, not to mention diplomatic capital and the magic shards (of different colors, mind you).
Most of these resources can only be used for only thing, and you will often find yourself swimming in one type of resource, while another type needed to build something cannot be found at all. Sometimes a crystal mine, for example, does not appear at all on the map, while on other occasions, there’s really no need to look for the best site for building a city, since some resources seem to appear randomly, from time to time, pretty much everywhere.
The building list for the cities is somewhat limited, as you can construct housing for the citizens and a bunch of other structures which seem to have the same effect: bonuses to different resources and research points. There is also a trading system available, involving caravans that travel either between your own towns or to an ally’s, but they can become obsolete due to the almost inevitable economic welfare.
Aside from the Sovereign there are also the so-called Champions roaming the strategic map, which are in fact RPG-type characters which can level-up and increase their stats. Most offer some sort of economic bonus to the city they are stationed in (which we don’t really want) and they can also be useful in battle as casters, but aside from that they are not really much better than regular units.
The Sovereign is not only a founder of cities, but also a father to other Champions, should you chose to find him a wife from either the wandering Champions or the daughter of one of your allies. A funny feature, if anything, since our Sovereign is either well-endowed or capable of making love with some distance-denying magic, since it’s not required for the young bride to travel with the Sovereign in order to have children. These younglings will become, in time, Champions of their own, and can be used in battle as royal-blooded cannon fodder.
In fact, there is an entire chapter for the whole Dynasty business, but the entire system seems to be somewhat of an afterthough, considering there’s really no need to care about the offsprings, since the king never seems to, you know, grow old, and therefore you don’t need to worry about that moronic Champion who will inherit the throne once the old man bites it.