I haven’t been as active these past few weeks in my blogging because I’ve been busy with personal things, including things related to the book I published.
However, the main thing keeping me away from writing has been the topic of this post – SpellForce III, a recent gaming purchase that ended up being a sublime, addictive and beautifully told story behind an excellent game.
Grounded High Fantasy
The most impressive part about SpellForce to me was its ability to ground its high fantasy world to the point where it was quite relatable to the real world. SpellForce is based in a world called Eo, where it’s not just humans that have a rational faculty; but Elves, Orcs, Dwarves, Goblins, etc. There are a rather large amount of races throughout the world, and all with different cultures and traditions. Beyond the superficial differences, all of them are capable of reason to some extent, and like many other high fantasy worlds it makes for interesting differences in approaches to handling situations and seeing the world.
Where the game really grounds itself however is in the small groups and ideologies that run rampant throughout the world. You have cults such as the Purity of Light, who see using magic as a “sin” and await the return of the “All-Father”; exiled Elves called the Morhir who disagree with the traditionalist and religious ideas of the Finon Mir and left to make their own paths; and even individuals of different races who split off entirely from these groups, do their own thing and hit the road.
It’s highly relatable to real world contexts. Overzealous theists, atheists, cult members, doomsayers, traditionalists, liberally-minded people..Eo is full of different philosophies and ideals, and exploring and speaking with the many different types of people was a very pleasurable experience. Some characters were legitimately frustrating to chat to because of their views, while others brought a big smile to my face because – hey, I can relate! Yria, one of your companions, was my favourite overall, and her backstory once I got to it also hit some strong notes for me – but the rest of the companion cast with their backstories were also excellent and memorable.
It’s important that a game is relatable and grounded when telling a story and world building, as it brings to life a world that is actually believable. I haven’t experienced this kind of grounded RPG in a long time – at least since the first and second Witcher or even Baldur’s Gate II. It’s excellent, and I see myself actually playing through the game again solely because I enjoy the writing so much. That and much of the notes scattered around the world have plenty of information about other aspects of Eo, such as its history, famous battles and folklore.
A Well Paced and Exciting Narrative
Separate to the excellent and absorbing world building, the story of SpellForce III is also very good. It begins with you controlling four characters in a prologue which is also a tutorial mission for the game mechanics – but it ends by subverting your expectations and switching around the character you play as completely. You end up creating a custom character from this point and are a soldier of the Wolf Guard – an elite group of fighters who protect Greyfell, the largest city in Nortander and the seat of the crown. However, you start eight years after the events of the prologue, which culminated in a rebellion led by your father that killed thousands. While you are a soldier for the crown, many people look down on you because you are “the son of the Betrayer”. It’s irrational, but it’s believable – it is not uncommon for people to judge by superficial characteristics in the real world.
After getting your bearings and exploring the city of Greyfell (which looks incredible), you are sent on a mission to find out about a plague called the Bloodburn – a disease that has been randomly killing people off and seems to have no cure.
From here on the story gives you its first motivation – to find out what the Bloodburn is. It’s interesting, but the game paces itself and turns its head on you very quickly after this fact. I won’t spoil anymore of the story, but the way things open up and change is pretty remarkable and caught me off guard many times. The game goes from one motivational factor to several in a matter of hours, and culminates in a very detailed, well paced and exciting story that takes you to many different and interesting areas.
What is great about SpellForce is that it does feel like you and your party are a small fly in a large world. While it does end up culminating in something much bigger and you end up leaving quite a mark on Eo, you still ultimately feel small. In many RPGs I always get the sense that I am basically Atlas and hold the entire world on my shoulders alone – everyone knows me. In SpellForce, I wasn’t quite Atlas, but I held burdens that did have a large effect. Life goes on after that fact though and other, greater or lesser things end up happening anyway. Some people in Eo had no clue what happened because the world is so big, and that’s what I like about the story so much. It’s told in a way that yes, things are very dire indeed – but it’s not something everyone knows about explicitly.
The Fusion of RPG and RTS
What helps carry the story is the game’s RPG and RTS mechanic. SpellForce is a rare title in that it fuses both genres together to create a unique blend similar to WarCraft III, but with a lot more depth to it. The best way to describe the RPG elements is to look at games such as Baldur’s Gate II, where you have your custom main character and then companions you meet and have join your party, except that in Baldur’s Gate and other Infinity Engine titles, the party limit is six while SpellForce is four.
Apart from this, characters level up globally at the same time with experience being filled in a ‘party level’ – this makes it so that using any companion at any time will be fine, as they’re all on the same level. Every level gives you a skill point, and every second level gives you an attribute point as well, which can be put into either Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution or Willpower. Each of these attribute scale to different things and are required for certain weapons and armour, an example being ultra heavy and highly resistant armour usually requiring nine points of constitution. It is fairly self explanatory if you have played RPG’s of the same vein.
The skill points and system reminded me of the trees in classic World of WarCraft. There are three (or four for the main character) trees you can invest into, but you’re not limited to only one. Each tree has different passives and skills which scale based off certain stats or weapon types, and there are quite a few to choose from. For your main character you can select whichever tree you want at the character creation, ranging from Light or Dark magic, Elemental magic, Brutality (melee focus), Archery and Defense (though I think it is named differently, I forget). A total of three are required, and you can mix and match and create whatever kind of character you want.
With companions, they end up having their own unique trees, too, such as Yria, your first companion, being able to invest in a tree called Arcane Archery. There are quite a few companions you will get over the course of the game, and all of them have their own quirks and tricks that diversify the gameplay quite a lot.
Using the skills in realtime as well is quite easy thanks to the radial menu that pops up when highlighting over an enemy or ally and holding the ALT key. Doing so puts the game into slow motion and all the skills available to you can be selected in the menu. Furthermore, highlighting it over an enemy shows resistances as well, so it gives you valuable information with colour coding so you immediately know what they are weak or strong to and can utilize the right skills. It’s a little difficult to explain it in writing but in action it is very efficient and keeps the flow of the combat going. I get into a very focused state when in big fights, and it’s really satisfying queuing up and planning attacks out – again, it reminds me of Baldur’s Gate.
Finally, in addition to exploring caves, forests, dungeons and castles with your companions, you often get into bigger fights where you take command of an army, and here the RTS mechanic kicks in.
The fundamentals of the RTS element of the game are quite standard – build buildings for resource gathering (and there are several in this), build barracks or other buildings for army development, and create defenses to protect your base.
However, SpellForce removes the need to control your worker units directly. Instead, you have a certain number of available workers at your town hall who are then assigned to buildings for the buildings to actually function. You don’t need to max the output of the buildings but it’s necessary to have at least one worker in them for it to work. If you need more workers you need to upgrade your town hall to the next tier, which then unlocks more buildings to use, too.
It’s a really good system that lets you focus on fighting and less on macro. Heroes are already quite a handful for micro so adding on top of that an army is a bunch of work, so the resource and management system is an excellent addition.
However, SpellForce is also all about expansion, and the way it handles it is in “sectors”. Sectors are, simply put, different areas of the map that act as borders, in a sense. You can see your own sectors on the map quite easily with the border lines, and beyond those lines you can’t build anything for the workers in that area to use.
In order to receive specific resources for higher tiers or more food, you need to find which sector has those resources and build an outpost to claim it. Outposts are set in stone and can’t be moved, and in order to build it you need to have your heroes do it. Once built, that sector becomes yours and you can exploit the resources there. It is not easy defending them initially though – they have next to no workers at the start and need upgrading as well as towers, so it’s not a simple fire and forget endeavour. That and resources need to actually be transferred from sector to sector by carriages – so when upgrading a new outpost a carriage is sent from your main base to that sector, which then finally gets upgraded.
A number of things can happen here. Your carriages can get destroyed thus losing those resources and halting progress, or the outpost is attacked directly. That and, if that new sector is cut off because an adjacent one is lost, it can no longer receive resources as all sectors need to be connected in order to transfer between each other. It’s a really nice system, and while I barely had an issue fighting AI in the main story as they’re quite weak, in multiplayer fights would likely be very fast and frantic. It incentivizes aggression which I like, and turtling is next to impossible.
Finally, the combat itself is fairly standard. You build armies and increase your population by expanding and upgrading outposts, and there are different tiers of units that all have a counter to different things. It’s basically rock-paper-scissors and abilities that units have are all automatically done. It’s too simple in the context of a standard RTS, but the game is more hero focused, so I think streamlining this and sticking to a basic counter-based system while using your heroes powers to turn the tide works perfectly here – it lets you focus on the expanding and hero control.
And heroes, while initially not that powerful on their own, eventually turn into absolute monsters with better gear and upgraded skills. By the end of the game I was able to wipe dozens of soldiers out with my main character in a single skill shot, and beyond that other companions were able to instantly cast fireballs with no cooldowns; summon hordes of exploding zombies; cast blizzards on top of armies and smash into the ground to raze half a city in a single hit. The power creep of your characters is very apparent and it is absolutely awesome. The game was almost too easy for me by the end game.
Grand Scale RPG
The overall package culminates in a fantastic and incredibly immersive experience. I haven’t spoken much about its aesthetic points, but SpellForce looks amazing. It is, unfortunately, a little clunky in optimization and has some performance issues alongside some glitches and scripting problems, but these aside the sheer scale and density of locations is incredible. The cities actually feel absolutely enormous – your heroes are tiny compared to the buildings of Greyfell and everything is very proportionate. Even running through forests, you can barely see your units save for the obligatory highlighted outline of them, because forests are meant to be dense like that. It has so many little details as well, such as small animals going about their own business, scattered belongings, burnt out campfires, people going about their daily lives in towns, etc. The world building alongside this makes for an incredibly immersive experience. It’s very impressive.
Adding on top of this is the music. What a great soundtrack! The main theme brings to mind elements of sheer heroism and grandeur, while some tracks are composed for specific characters that bring to mind the tragedy of their past or ambitions. Apparently from my own research, the composer is an in-house one. Grimlore have an absolute keeper there if that is the case, as I think even though I have glowing praise for the game as a whole, the soundtrack is my favourite aspect. It is absolutely stellar and well placed in the game.
Barring some glitches and technical difficulties, I haven’t enjoyed an RPG as much as I did SpellForce in a very long time. The last one that I truly loved was Divinity: Original Sin 2, a similarly amazing RPG but for a number of different reasons.
I prefer this though. I have loved Larian’s work since the 2000’s and will continue to do so (Baldur’s Gate III!), but SpellForce 3’s world and aesthetic won me over versus Original Sin 2. Both amazing in their own right, but from a preferential point, SpellForce is the one I like more.
And only recently, the game’s standalone expansion Soul Harvest was released. I bought it immediately after completing the base game and am very much looking forward to sinking into its world once again.