Developer: Cyanide Studio
Publisher: Cyanide Studio
What's more surprising than rebooting a practically extinct tabletop wargame into a painfully average videogame? Commissioning a sequel, that's what.
Not willing to let the dormant Confrontation license go back to sleep after last year's forgettable effort, Cyanide Studios are returning to the Aarklash universe with another isometric strategy/RPG hybrid that clocks in somewhere between Icewind Dale and Dawn Of War II. Once again, you'll lead a small team of combatants through some expansive maps, battling against scores of dark fantasy enemies in real-time combat with an active pause mechanic. Having received little or no fanfare and releasing right on top of GTA V, I fully expected Aarklash: Legacy to be yet another pointless waste of time.
Cyanide saved one surprise for last, however, and it's a big one. Aarklash: Legacy is... good. Rather than rehashing Confrontation, the inconsistent French studio has fixed almost everything that didn't work last time around, and have released one of their best games to date. At a price that, this time, won't break the bank.
Right off the bat, Aarklash: Legacy takes a more interesting angle than its predecessor in terms of story and setting. Rather than fielding a generic force of 'good' knights fighting off an equally conventional 'evil' enemy (yawn), you'll assume control of four debt collectors in the employ of a corrupt money lending organisation. Like Aarklash's version of Wonga.com, I suppose, except their bailiffs include a nightmarish genetically engineered golem, hard-bitten wizard and lupine healer who enjoys cutting debtors to ribbons with her vicious chakram.
After a routine collection job goes wrong, our 'Quorr' find themselves in the middle of a political minefield, betrayed by both sides and forced to cut to the heart of the matter with extreme prejudice. It's a much more nuanced, complex and mature take on the universe, and provides some uniquely professional characters who are just here to do a job, not fight for some ridiculous ideal. Though some stilted vocal performances drop the ball from time to time, Aarklash: Legacy manages to present a compelling tale, and a good reason to keep on fighting.
Which is, of course, what most of us are here for. Aarklash: Legacy will live or die on the strength of its tactical RPG-infused combat, and I'm thrilled to report that it's absolutely sensational.
As mentioned, old-school Infinity Engine games or Dawn Of War II players will quickly familiarise themselves with the basic setup. Viewing the action from above, players select and move their four units like a traditional RTS, dragging to select them and clicking on a destination. An intimate camera makes the action resemble a Diablo-style ARPG at first glance, but when battles are joined, you'll need to carefully juggle the right targets and active skills to win out against some seriously long odds, using an intuitive interface and right click commands.
This basic framework works well, but it's just the tip of a surprisingly sharp claymore. The action can be paused at any time with a jab of the space bar, letting you queue up complex stacks of attacks and actions for each individual character to perform before seeing the results play out, intervening when necessary. Unlike most fantasy games, though, Aarklash: Legacy's heroes refuse to be pigeonholed, and instead come with a totally unique set of combat roles, skills and drawbacks. Your tanky golem, for example, expends her own HP to power her abilities, requiring you to keep a close eye on her vitality as she aggroes opponents on the front line. The mage blasts out spells without cooldown, but is supremely vulnerable to control skills from rival magic users. Every skill has a weakness or sting in the tail that needs to be planned around on the fly.
Naturally, then, you'll need to rely on your bestial healer, but she's a law unto herself, shrugging off the clichéd set of healing spells you'd expect from a fantasy game. Her basic healing ability heals up the first thing it hits, requiring you to keep your forces within line of sight or move her onto the flank, while her more advanced spell infects an enemy and only triggers after 25 seconds, meaning that you'll need to plan several minutes ahead. Even more excitingly, she can't regenerate mana, and instead has to inflict grievous wounds on her own allies to regain MP mid-battle. Considering that these are just the starting four characters, who are eventually joined by another quartet of nuanced combatants, even the smallest skirmish becomes a tense and rewarding puzzle in its own right.
Ferocious foes make the combat even more engaging. Your enemies, especially the tougher elite units and bosses, deploy a variety of devastating attacks and buffs that have to be logically circumvented or taken on the chin. If a radial attack is incoming, you can opt to pause the game and move all your forces out of range. Or attempt to aggro them with a shielded tank. Or interrupt them with a skill of your own. Should enemies shield or heal themselves, you'll need to think about ways to level the playing field and pick off priority targets as the battle rages on. Aarklash: Legacy retains the compelling moment-to-moment gameplay of an ARPG, and is all the better for it. The challenge quickly ramps up to punishing levels, sometimes unpleasantly, but difficulty can be changed on the fly as a last resort.
You'll miss the tense and tough battles when your team blunders into a puzzle, though. Perhaps in an effort to shake up the pacing, Aarklash: Legacy sometimes bogs players down in some dull, overlong and all too frequent puzzle sections that feel totally out of place in this tactical experience. Mission accomplished, I suppose, but the pace goes from exciting to tedious as opposed to constantly keeping us on our toes.
Though still not as fleshed-out as a dedicated RPG, Aarklash: Legacy does reasonable job of giving players a say in how their forces develop. Some skill upgrade trees, free respecs and a solid levelling system let you tailor your troops to your personal tastes or to match the situation at hand, while a simplistic inventory system grants access to a few stat-boosting pieces of jewellery. It's a shame that your four new recruits start out at level zero, requiring some tedious babysitting and power-levelling to get them up to speed (experience that could just be used to make your starting party even more powerful), but for many players this will be a fun extra strategic element in and of itself.
Graphically, Aarklash: Legacy is much more attractive than Confrontation, which is due more to the colour palatte and art direction than a major technological step up. Aarklash is much more visually rich and vibrant this time around, with bright, clear characters brought to life with smooth animations and attention to detail. It's a world you'll want to explore, vivid and exciting, and full of artistically interesting things to take down in hard-fought scuffles.
That said, I do need to have a quick moan about the female characters' nonsensical clothing. Though three of the starting quartet are consummate and ruthless female professionals, they inexplicably still sport impractical gear into combat. The magician wears a strapless unitard and high heels. The brutal wolf maiden models a leather bikini. Hell, even the genetic golem abomination wears an iron bra. Was this pandering titillation really necessary, Cyanide? Wouldn't these professional debt collectors wear heavy armour? Stop breaking my immersion! A personal gripe, but one that annoys me every time I see it in fantasy games. At least they do all have a unique silhouette that makes them easy to pick out in pitched battles, and their pleasingly no-nonsense personalties don't make any attempts to stoop to the same level.
There's no denying that some lengthy load times can crop up every now and again depending on your hardware configuration, and that perhaps that combat still isn't quite visceral enough to stand tall with the genre's heavy-hitters. Replay value is also at a major premium due to the lack of a skirmish mode or multiplayer, though at least Cyanide wisely chose to launch at a £15.99 price point rather than failing to deliver a £29.99 product. The fact that we can compare it to the likes of Icewind Dale and other genre classics is impressive enough, frankly, and we hope that Cyanide realises that they have a surprise gem on their hands. Next time, how about a little publicity?
- Engaging, fast-paced tactical combat
- Unique characters, combat roles and abilities
- Visually exciting and impressive
- Some dull and boring puzzles from time to time
- Lengthy loading times depending on your hardware
- Stilted voice acting, RPG customisation is still simplistic
The Short Version: Aarklash: Legacy isn't just better than it has any right to be, rather it's an impressive strategic RPG in its own right. Nuanced intimate battles and versatile character abilities make for a rewarding and challenging experience, delivering moment-to-moment thrills alongside more cerebral tactics.
If you're a fan of the genre (or waiting for Rockstar to bring GTA V to PC), don't ignore this surprisingly epic confrontation.