Fantasy Wars (PC) review
"What's refreshing is that the word 'strategy' isn't just in the genre's name out of some long-forgotten tradition: it must become the lynchpin of your game should you ever dream of progression."
Fantasy Wars isn’t the straight-fowrad turn-based strategy it initially appears to be.
It’s easy to get caught up in the bright and almost playfully-constructed graphics full of verdant green fields, forever-spanning blue skies choked with candyfloss clouds and homely villages sporting thatched roofs and comfy cottages. It’s easy to label the colourful pallet, the vibrant pastels, as childish, the character models as simplistic. It’s easy to watch the victorious units pump their fists in the air and yell “Yay!” each time they down a foe and decide that you don’t have a particularly difficult task ahead of you.
And that pitfall is the only easy thing about Fantasy Wars.
There’s something almost sinister about how the simple presentation suckers you in to this false sense of security, but there’s something a lot more sinister about how the opposition takes a malicious glee in engaging you in numerous wars of attrition. Engage the first stage of the human campaign to take command of Derrick Pfeil’s small mercenary army and find a small stretch of land littered with a few interspersed towns, a ruined cathedral and a large fortified city.
Few of the scaly bastard’s number are found wandering aimlessly around the map; they’re huddled in tight garrisons around defendable landscapes with their strongest units holding the key positions. In this opening stage, you’ll find smaller villages that you can loot for gold or find survivors of the orc occupation to add to your troops, but your target is barricaded capital. It’s crawling with goblins.
Rooting occupied cities is no easy undertaking as their occupants waste no time entrenching themselves in and refuse to be drawn out. They’ll happily take swings at anything situated around them, but enemy armies force you to lay siege to these defended outposts, and force you to lose a lot of troops doing so. Your starting army of Derrick on horseback, an archer, a scout and a few militant peasant gatherings will not find this an easy task and you're forced to work to their strengths. Archers need to pepper targets from afar while scouts employ their segmented movement skill to sneak in close, hurl spears at their flanks and scurry away unharmed. But pitchfork-wielding peasantry suffer more casualties than take kills against well-positioned opposition, so you need to send in better armed militia units or Derrick himself to finish the job, saving the serfs to mop up the fleeing remnants when their lines are finally broken.
At first your targets are goblin looters and unorganised orc mobs, but as you force your way deeper into opposition territory, you’ll encounter fiercer fighters such as wild trolls, airborne zeppelins and goblin marauders riding hyenas. To counteract this, you need to take especially good care of your forces. Successful units in battle become prone to RPG-like level ups that not only increase their base stats, but allow you to grant them a new skill, be it better armour, competency on difficult terrain like swamps and hills, or give them new and interesting ways to kill things. You can grant Derrick a way to boost the morale of those around him, give archers a powerful counterattack ability that allows them to flood foes with arrows before they get the chance to attack, and empower scouts with increased competency in forests, grounds that would normally detract from their defensive standing. This allows you to really customise your army; give defensive skills to your front lines and make enemy charges break against a shield wall or add even more personal stealth skills to your already shadowy scouts, making them well-armed ghosts.
But that wouldn’t be enough against increasing hostile forces, so you're also given the ability to upgrade your ranks between missions. Peasants can become spearsmen or swordsmen and archers can pick up a crossbow; this is a great way to try and keep your already-levelled forces alive. Those scouts that have climbed to level two can be promoted to rangers, allowing them even more increased stealth and mastery of guerilla combat, or a yeoman horse unit, letting them keep their scouting skill but granting them steeds for improved moment. Your army also swells with new units, be them brought or recruited, with each new addition showing improvements over the last. Be it tamed giant eagles that attack ground targets from the sky or huge weapons of war like catapults, each new rank takes a step over those they replace.
What’s great about Fantasy Wars is how you need to learn and use the individual skills of each and every unit under your command. The high-flying eagle makes a great biological radar of sorts which helps you detect targets all the easier. Imagine posting one to accompany your advanced scout platoon as it creeps through thick forestland, trying to root out the enemy you know is going to be guarding a nearby dilapidated church. With their huge movement and sight range, they can move ahead of ther pack, easily revealing enemy positions while staying safe from harm unless the enemy have archers in their ranks or if the eagles swoop down to attack those below them. Thanks to their abilities, you spot a small convoy of bull-riding goblins trying to sneak around a winding road on the outskirts of a dense woodland, trying to take by surprise and snap at your main force's heels. With their plot and position revealed, hidden archers pummel them from afar while rangers appear out of the dense forest like ghosts and employ poison-tipped weapons to infect the riders they fail to kill then vanish as if they were never there.
Though, obviously, these new or upgraded units do not come for free. To employ them, you need purchase those not recruited in-game between missions for the gold you manage to loot. Most of the smaller towns offer up a pittance of around 20 gold, unless you happen to liberate a town the orc forces have been using to store all their ill-gotten wealth. A more reliable way to increase your coffers is to obtain favourable rankings in each mission. You do this by completing the stages in a set number of turns, the quicker you root the enemy, the better medal and rewards you obtain endstage. A bronze medal will grant you a respectable cash sum, but a gold will give you more as well as an artefact you can bestow upon the unit of your choice to grant them special skills or even fresh units comprised of shiny new classes.
However, getting the big rewards is never an easy task and after the first five or so levels, the challenge is dialled right up, making a difficult game suddenly diabolically fiendish. From here on out, you may find yourself replaying turns or whole levels repeatedly as you try to work out the best way to progress with pace through the stages while keeping the bulk of your troops alive. Help will arrive in the form of new heroes, such as a holy knight who inflicts greater damage on opposing generals than standard units or a robe-wearing mage fresh from the magical academies with the ability to hurl magical fire-blasts at any visible target on the map regardless of distance. You'll need all the help you can get, too, because for every person that revels in Fantasy Wars' back-breaking difficulty, another three people will be turned away.
The game is unapologetic in the old-school approach it takes in everything it does, and, in doing so, captures everything that makes turn-based strategies great. What's refreshing is that the word 'strategy' isn't just in the genre's name out of some long-forgotten tradition: it must become the lynchpin of your game should you ever dream of progression. Only those willing to plan ahead and root out weaknesses will find themselves commanding their once ragtag collection of pitchfork-waving miscreants into a professional army, a slayer of house-tall trolls and become the savour of humankind.
Then, once completed, realise that only one out of the three campaigns available have been seen off.
If you've no interest in saving humanity, you can play as the orc hordes and wipe them out instead. And, even once that's done, an unlockable dwarf and elf army awaits the command of a dedicated general. Fantasy Wars is a game that just keeps giving, and while the intense difficulty will be a thorn in the side of many, it's also the reason that victory is so exhilarating. Because seeing your enemies break and flee before you, leaving their capital in a burning husk behind you or rescuing a occupied fort from deranged mobs is not a forgone event -- it's a constant uphill battle.
Fantasy Wars remembers and does justice to a gaming age when these traits were hallowed. It's an experience tailor-made for those that remember it fondly; it's a potential morgue for those that don't and a brand new experience for they who battle to overcome.
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