There is an awful lot to like about Disciples III. There's a rich story, deep and detailed background to explore, and some of the finest art we've seen in a game outside of the Final Fantasy series. Plus is a PC strategy RPG, so it's always nice to get lost in some great gameplay.
Except for the one thing - Disciples III doesn't have any. To cut straight to the chase, the experience of starting up the game's so-called 'epic' campaign following the hour or so of reading on the game's history and setting was one of the most disappointing gaming experiences in recent memory.
It's almost worth leaving it there, but we have pages to fill, so let's get to recounting this epic tale of fantastic disappointment.
In the beginning
Disciples III is an old-fashioned game. It's the kind of game that in the days of gaming yore would have likely come with a cloth map, the odd metal figurine or some other bumpf. You can tell that from the size of the manual, and from how much of that manual is taken up by backstory for the game.
It's over 90 pages long, and the first 20 of that is history - the kind of impenetrable, dramatic and overtly derivative history that just makes us want to re-read Tolkien's Silmarillion just to see that kind of thing done well. There's only so many times we can read lines like "They planted the seeds of greed and malice in the hearts of men, which, in turn, led them to struggle first with each other, and then - with the other races of Nevendaar".
In fact, it's so derivative of Tolkien's own creation tale - God empowers lesser beings to create world, lesser beings show off, God gets angry, world gets screwed over - that we're sure the old Professor is spinning in his grave.
But there's nothing wrong with derivative works as long as they're backed up by something more solid, as we say in our Warhammer feature earlier in the issue. But that's where Disciples falls down, and it falls hard and fast very early in the game.
We got our first idea that Disciples was going to be bit of slog in the tutorial - never a good sign. Ideally any game tutorial should offer a gentle introduction to the tenets of a game, its mechanics and setting, and see most players ready to dive in.
This tutorial just left us wondering, slightly confused, about how we were meant to progress. There are videos, and small quests to do in the top down game-world, but the order in which to watch or do is made all that clear. But we stumbled through it, and our confusion turned to mild alarm at just how little there is to the game.
The gameplay basics of Disciples III aren't just simple - they're rudimentary. You choose a character from one of three 'classes' (though don't expect any kind of customisation options), then get to move him around the world map from encounter to encounter. Oddly, you need to extend movement points to get from A to Z, though we're not sure why - movement in the gameworld is turn based, but it's not as if you've got anything other than moving to do. You move, you pick up stuff, or you encounter badguys and go to a tactical map.
In the first quest of the campaign you've got to recover some mythical star that's fallen to earth or somesuch; you leave town, head into the wild and encounter all kinds of goblins, orcs and elves trying to stop you. Along the way you can claim territory by placing Border Guardians, which in turn will block any other wandering nasties.
Apart from how depthless this part of the game is, the other big issue is how boring early combat is. Each tactical map is a hexed grid with a few interesting spots like fallen logs that block movement or random hexes that deliver an attack bonus. Each character on the map - good and bad - moves in a given initiative order and delivers their attacks... but that's about it! There's no depth - archers stand still and shoot, warriors simply move up and swing swords; sure, it's easy to learn, like Chess, but completely lacking in any inherent complexity. This is compounded by an AI that seems as likely to get lost in movement decisions as it is to actually attack.
There's a whole lot of other systems to manage, like building new bits onto your home castle, but even these are an odd combination of boring and complex. And why can't you skip the short film of, for instance, your magic tower being built - that's five gaming minutes I'm never getting back, that's for sure. It's like every other sub-system in game - without depth.
And yet, there's the oddest thing - I have been going back to play the game. I'm not enjoying the game, per se, but the art is some of the best fantasy art we've seen, reminiscent of some of the great Japanese fantasy artists, with a touch of Alan Lee thrown in. It's wonderful stuff, and sadly wasted on this game.
Maybe we need to see if we can hack the game files to get access to it all - it would certainly save us the joyless task of actually playing Disciples III.