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Disciples III: Renaissance
Platform: PC
Publisher: Kalypso
Developer: Akella
Genre: Strategy RPG
Format: Download, DVD-ROM
Released: US 07/13/10



Scorecard
Graphics: 95%
Sound: 60%
Gameplay: 65%
Control: 65%
Story: 75%
Overall: 65%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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This has absolutely no impact on gameplay. I guess it's your castle?
 
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The obligatory and impractical zoom-in cinematic in-battle feature everyone turns off right away.
 
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There's absolutely never this much space in the game. The picture lies.
 
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I swear, the dialogue's not terrible!
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Bob Richardson
Disciples III: Renaissance
08/16/10
Bob Richardson

Back when my little brother and I were but wee folk, we had a lot of fun simulating warfare with our Mega Man, Star Trek, and miscellaneous action figures. At times, the play was balanced and entertaining, but in the end, I would trounce my brother through clever ruses and strategies suitable to the pre-teen imagination. However, more often, I would end up pounding my brother's army into submission through repeated, mindless figure-to-figure combat. Little did I know back in those simple times that I was preparing for the quality of game design Akella would provide me nearly two decades later in Disciples III: Renaissance (D3).

What you need to know first

Fans of Heroes of Might and Magic (HoMM) might have rejoiced when the newborn Disciples III hit store shelves around the world, but upon dropping about $40 USD, one of two things happened to them: 1) the game would install and load up without trouble, but a horribly incomplete and buggy tutorial campaign would leave them confused and trepidatious of what was to come, or 2) they would get a disc read error. Allegedly, this is due to attempts to prevent piracy, but when honest consumers buy the game and cannot run it, this is a fatal flaw which I must unapologetically make note of.

To exacerbate the situation, the game is prone to blank screens, freezing up the player's computer, graphical glitches, and faulty campaign triggers that render the act impossible to complete unless the player waits for a patch or replays the entire act, which can take well over 30 minutes. I have experienced all of these, but the "fun" doesn't stop there – I couldn't even complete this game, because a bug stopped me from progressing to the final battle. After waiting for a week to receive a patch, I decided that if fixing this game-breaking flaw was not important enough for Akella to address in a timely fashion, it was a support issue that should be disclosed in my review. Still, let's assume that gamers are so enticed by the trailers and the quality of the preceding games in the series that they just have to buy this game, despite the risks. What then? Is it worth all this?

Gameplay

In terms of gameplay alone, I would say no. Every single act runs exactly the same way: you use limited movement points to traverse the map until you run out of movement points or hit a battle. Then you end your turn and the enemy may or may not send a unit after you. Stationary units do not usually move. Similar to King's Bounty (KB), the overworld map yields goodies to be found in every nook, while the crannies hold grind dungeons. However, unlike KB, freedom of movement is an issue due to D3's movement points. This artificial limitation takes away from the fluidity enjoyed in similar games, which I will address in greater detail later.

Resource management allows you to learn spells and upgrade units, and this sounds like an interesting component, but the depth can be likened to making scrambled eggs or toast. The spell book offers five spells per tier, but players can bounce around however they like among the five tiers. Usually, tier 2 or 3 spells are the most reasonable to learn, along with one bizarrely cheap tier 4 healing spell. The variety's pretty neat, but don't bother with anything besides healing and nuking, and maybe magic resistance spells, because the rest are all pretty worthless. So, even though the magic system lacks any sort of interesting or useful variety, surely the unit upgrade system hosts unprecedented, thoughtful trees and abilities, right? Sadly, no. Although I still can't quite believe it, none of the four units (melee, archer, mage, healer/support) offer anything of interest. Maybe, at the high end of the two- or three-stratum tree, units will get an ability! Ooooo, ahhhh. And sometimes these abilities are useful! But don't worry, the designers kept things lively by resetting the entire tree and every spell you learned after each act in the campaign, so that you can grind up resources again by taking control points later on. Fun.

Fortunately, the leader (or hero, a la Warcraft III) can join battles and use abilities earned through a simplified ripoff of Final Fantasy XII's license board system. Of course, it's likely that players will only dump points into one of the abilities, generally those that disable the hardest enemy in the battle or spam high level summons. This makes fighting against enemies who stand alone in battle painfully simple. In fact, the only time that enemies will prove to be a challenge at all is when they mass archers or AoE spell casters. For all the other battles, the "Quick Battle" button is going to be the player's best friend. This button lets the AI duke it out in super-fast-forward, ending battles nearly instantly. Truly, it's a bad sign when something like the "Quick Battle" button a game's best feature. This leaves the entirety of gameplay resting on exploration and those rare battles that require some semblance of strategy, but compared to any other strategy RPG, even these are quite simple. Most of the game is the equivalent of smashing the player's action figures into the enemy's action figures until one falls down. Yippee.

One last thing I should mention is that this game offers multiple difficulty levels. The problem here is that although Normal is far too easy, it is nigh impossible to get off to a good start in Hard. Each of the three campaigns under the Normal difficulty start off the same way: initially respectable in difficulty, but once the leader gains some levels and the player discovers the overpowered ability they're going to exploit, the remaining acts become a simple pattern of AI abuse. Not all upgrade or ability trees are created equal. Alas, this is no Ogre Battle or Disgaea.

Story

In a land ravaged by war, the treaty between the humans and elves has ended, and the legion of demons constantly threatens the lands. Peace has been long forgotten, and the humans' territory is continuously under siege. However, the prophets' predicted "savior from the heavens" arrives in a meteorite-esque fashion. Lambert, an aged and respected general of the humans, is sent to retrieve the angel, who turns out to be a delicate young woman. She tells the emperor of her purpose, but the secret is his and his alone. Ordered to take her to a specific destination far away, Lambert must escort the wingless messenger. What's her mission, and what twists and turns lie ahead?

The pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword, but that's not saying much in this case. The plot itself is slightly less predictable than the usual fare, but no huge surprises rear their heads. In addition, it's improbable that players will form any kind of attachment to any of the protagonists. Put simply, the problem is a lack of exposure. If individual characters had been offered more camera time, then the personalities and relationships between the lead and supporting cast could have been fleshed out. However, Akella seemed to weighted gameplay above character development, which is unfortunate, because the characters bleed potential.

Whether the thanks goes to the original Russian writers or the localization team, the dialogue is masterfully crafted. Sure, the occasional awkward hiccup bursts the tiny, fleeting bubble of immersion experienced every time a dialogue window pops up, but for the most part, the conversations flow naturally, giving strong personalities to goodies and baddies alike. What impressed me most was the way that the designers wrote the protagonist for the demon campaign. As any writer who's attempted turning a "bad guy" into a likable lead knows, this is no easy task. They didn't compromise the fact that Haarhus is a demon who nurtures his underlings with vinegar more often than honey, but I still found myself rooting for him more than the human or elf heroes. He is multidimensional and "human," and players are likely to enjoy the demon campaign the most if for no other reason than its exploration of the inner workings of its antihero.

Graphics

Indisputably the game's strongest suit, the artwork and graphics cannot help but earn PC gamers' respect. The game will give even modern computers a workout at the highest settings. Fluid and seamless, horses, men, and demons all communicate what today's graphical design is capable of. As if that weren't enough, the loading screen before battles shows off some of the best artwork offered in RPGs today. D3's only graphical failing is a lack of variety that dulls the mind and leaves gamers wanting more.

Screenshots and trailers cannot illustrate just how fantastic this game looks. Aside from repetitive enemies and artwork displays, few flaws can be found. A game cannot stand on graphics alone, but this game's graphical excellence definitely eases the monotony of the gameplay.

Sound

Before I say anything about "appropriate sword slashing" sounds or music, I have to comment on the narrator, who speaks between every act and during cinematics. He. Is. Awful. He doesn't seem to have an accent, so although I can't imagine that he's Russian or that English isn't his first language, I can only assume that they hired a narrator who's either never read a script or was willing to work for free. It's true that he can be unintentionally funny, but players should never be subjected to his inappropriate emphasis, awkward pauses, and inability to control the volume of his voice. The only compliment he can be given is that he sounds somewhat like Leonard Nimoy. Sorry, Mr. Nimoy.

With that out of the way, I can start in on the forgettable music. Despite the amount of time I spent in battles, I cannot for the life of me remember one note of it. All I can say is that the music isn't bad – it's just completely incapable of leaving an imprint. On the other hand, the voice acting in battle is fantastic. Every unit type occasionally calls out for help when critically wounded and has an impassioned war cry before a strike. Fortunately, this is done in moderation at seemingly random intervals. Typical strikes and fire blasts sound fantastic, but sometimes casting spells can be hard on the speakers and ears. If a mage hits every enemy on the screen, and the opposing team has a rather large force, the sound triggers for every unit, which creates a jarringly loud buzz or screech. If you use a headset, you have been warned.

Control

I'd like to think that as the gaming industry's beard grows longer and whiter, designers will stop making silly mistakes that players endured generations ago. I'd also like to think that the time I put into this game was worthwhile, but neither is true. While the items are beautifully detailed, the method of scrolling through one's inventory couldn't be more taxing. Clicking the arrow to move your item box to the right takes about a second to shift over, and the player must wait until it's done before they can click the arrow to scroll again. This leads inevitably to far too much time carefully clicking an arrow. To make matters worse, the best items are usually at the end of the list, since the items picked up first were appropriate for low-level play. As if that weren't enough, the game includes a scroll bar that can't be dragged to move the inventory – it just indicates how far one has clicked over. I have to wonder if the QA team even played the game. I sure hope they weren't paid.

The inventory system is by far the weakest part of the game in terms of control, but the rest of the game feels stiff and unapproachable as well. I have to reiterate my early point about King's Bounty: that method of movement, where players are limited by boundaries rather than a number of movements, was far more pleasing than D3's system. I recognize that the turn-taking and limited movement aspect is one of the core features of the game, and it certainly has its merits, but I can't help but feel as if this could have been tweaked in some way to make the game feel less rigid. The stinted movement made the world feel less real and more like a grid. I wasn't trudging through muddy grime in a swamp, eager to end the rule of a nefarious lich queen – I was stepping on invisible squares until I ran out of movement points. I may be exaggerating this point, but it definitely hindered my enjoyment of the experience and made me think that maybe the gaming industry's beard hasn't even come in yet, let alone become long, flowing, and white.

All complaints aside, the game's camera flows naturally with the mouse, and everything clicks the way it should.

It's over!

And not soon enough. I have to be honest: the game wasn't a chore to play – on some level, I did enjoy it a little bit. The traditional plot had interesting characters that made me want to continue playing, and the grind offered the occasional challenge, though this challenge occurred at completely random intervals. Would I recommend D3 to anyone? No, I can't say that I would. Would I recommend it to fans of the series? Well, I can't speak from personal experience, since I have never played the rest of the Disciples series, but from what I've read of the other game, this entry is a tragedy. Akella clearly didn't rigorously test the game, since most people experience the exact same bugs for weeks at a time, and while they have patched some things with updates on Steam, many crucial bugs aren't being addressed.

Although this game reminded me of plastic people fighting to the death in stiff, catatonic glory, the nostalgia didn't make up for the game's oversimplification of the strategy RPG genre. When compared to games made as far back as 1998, Disciples III simply falls flat on its face. Haven't we established some sort of standard for what class and spell trees should look like? Did it honestly take Akella four and a half years to create this game? I can only imagine that most of that time was spent working on the graphics. Unfortunately, graphics aren't everything, and neither is good dialogue.



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© 2010 Kalypso, Akella. All rights reserved.


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