"As a newcomer, jumping into the deep end was my favourite aspect of the story. Actually experiencing the quest to save Eo was not. "
Spellforce 2: Demons of the Past's most obvious flaw is given to you right in the title: Demons of the Past. That could mean a lot of different things, but here it represents a barrier to entry for many who may otherwise enjoy it. Demons of the Past is an RTS/RPG hybrid and is the third and final expansion to 2006's Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars. It is a continuation of a story that was started 8 years ago, and it's running on an engine just as old. It carries a lot of baggage.
While the design flaws can't be blamed on its age, there are many places where Demons of the Past does show its wrinkles. The graphics, for one. As a firm believer that art direction trumps technical fidelity, I see many ways this could have been avoided through keen art design. Though functional, the art is uninspired. I do like the use of bright colours that make the low-poly units a little more visually appealing. Demons of the Past's biggest stumbling block visually comes from the cutscenes. The cutscenes use the in-game engine, which is great for seeing your customized avatar, but less useful for absorbing the player when they are constantly reminded of the dated aesthetic. It doesn't help that the direction in these scenes is lost somewhere in the blandzone between forgettable and terrible. With so much progress in cinematic direction (and acting, the acting is not good) over the past 8 years, it really just feels like being sucked back to the days of Warcraft 3. And those weren't impressive back in 2003.
The sound is just as one-note. It all sounds fine, but it never moved me in a visceral or emotional way. The score is comprised of orchestral tracks that are "epic". The sound effects of swords clashing and battle cries works, I guess. And you will constantly hear the terrible voice-over, which is occasionally funny in its woodenness. Very little positive can be heard from this game.
I can, however, praise Spellforce 2: Demon of the Past for its sense of fantasy. It almost feels like part of any random fantasy series that would tempt you on a trip to the bookstore, but would be inevitably placed back on the shelf because of its cheesy cover. Just like one of those books, it has a story and world that does nothing new with the genre: you play an elder of Shaikan and you have to gather the forces of good to defeat the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad Zazhut. What I'm saying is that it's more Dragonlance than the Second Apocalypse.
While the story is generic, it translates the fundamental elements of a fantasy series to the video game setting very well. Playing Demons of the Past is like finally picking up that book with the cheesy cover. You start reading, and it turns out it's the last book in a 4 part series. You are expected to have experienced its predecessors, and it bombards you with names of characters and places right off the bat. The way this information is conveyed is never confusing, just straightforward and boring. So you are compelled to know more, and it becomes an act of archaeology. Digging up the series' history for much-needed context. As a newcomer, jumping into the deep end was my favourite aspect of the story. Actually experiencing the quest to save Eo was not.
The love of the fantasy genre is readily apparent in the design itself — most prominently in the genre blending that Spellforce 2 is known for. As stated above, Spellforce 2 is an RTS/RPG, and this unique gameplay style allows it to mimic the sliding scale of battles common to fantasy stories. One moment, your avatar is alone, surrounded by a pack of ravenous foes carefully eking out every advantage he can from his spell list, barely hanging on. The next, your hero leads the charge into enemy territory with a massive army at his back. Demons of the Past facilitates that kind of emergent story-telling, hearkening back to the tropes that the fantasy adventure was built on.
More often than not, a game's mechanics get in the way of the story it's telling or world it's building, but Spellforce 2: Demons of the Past manages to get it right. It's unfortunate that the gameplay itself doesn't live up to its mechanical potential.
The game works exactly as expected but does little of interest. The RTS gameplay feels old, like Age of Empires (or maybe that's just my personal RTS touchstone). You have your worker dudes collect three different resources (stone, silver and Lenya) to build more structures, purchase upgrades and create units. Whether this is refreshingly classic or rote is up to you. As far as the RPG part goes, your avatar will level up and progress through their skill tree, unlocking new spells for combat, by killing things and completing quests. Loot is found by defeating enemies and exploring the map, so there is always a new piece of armour or a new weapon just around the corner! None of these systems are particularly deep, but you do get a good sense of your character progression.
The design of missions or sidequests is almost entirely unremarkable. When Demons of the Past is at its best, it actually works pretty well, but it still feels like lesser versions of older games you already love. Do you like micro-managing heroes while controlling an army? Go play Warcraft 3 again. Do you like some of the side missions where you only control your heroes? Play a game designed around that fact with much more interesting encounters like Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale. For a game that combines two of the most thought-provoking genres together, it is sorely disappointing that you are so rarely engaged or tactically challenged in combat.
Other than the campaign, which is a good 20 hours on its own, there are traditional skirmishes against the AI as well as survival mode and online play. Survival mode is horde mode, in which waves of increasingly difficult foes attempt to destroy you, and it is only recommended for those who heavily enjoy the game mechanics. It's a solid mode, but I was exhausted with Spellforce 2 after the campaign was finished. This is also why I never touched the multiplayer, although I'm sure it is exactly as I imagine it to be.
Even determining the relative value of Spellforce 2: Demons of the Past is a losing proposition, but if you're a long-time fan, then it seems like an obvious choice to get it. As a non-fan, I just wish that Demons of the Past had gotten out of its own way, because I did occasionally enjoy it when it wasn't tripping over its own two feet. If you like the RTS and RPG genres and love fantasy, I'd still say to wait for it on Steam sale. It might not be that good, but it certainly is Spellforce 2: Demons of the Past.