Developer: Mind Over Matter Studios
Publisher: Nordic Games
Don't even think about buying Spellforce 2: Demons Of The Past if you're not a die-hard series veteran.
It's a standalone expansion to a niche game that released eight years ago, and to their credit, Mind Over Matter Studios make this crystal clear from the off. The tutorials are choppy low-resolution videos of the tutorials from the previous expansion. An unhelpful intro cinematic plunges you straight into the last chapter of the impenetrable story, a battle for world survival involving the terrifying demonic villain Zazhut and a dark elf named... Craig?! That's not exactly the most imaginative hard fantasy name I've ever seen, though since my heroic avatar is called "Dealspwn," I suppose we should stop throwing stones in this glass house. If you don't already know how to play and what a "Shaikan" is, there is nothing for you here.
Never mind though, because Demons Of The Past isn't trying to win over new converts, rather it's an attempt to tie up the storyline before what we hope will be a reveal for Spellforce 3. As such you can expect another 20-30 hours of RTS and RPG hybrid gameplay, wherein you'll experience the best and worst of both genres throughout some truly enormous maps. Resource collection, unit building and sweeping strategy goes hand-in-hand with character development, sidequests, inventory management and dialogue galore. Spellforce fans will be in their element, though arguably even they will have to curb their expectations to fully enjoy what Demons Of The Past brings to the table.
Premise-wise, what you need to know is this. Zazhut is bad. You are a Shaikan, a veteran warrior with dragon blood coursing through your veins. Go save the world. It's actually a fairly simple and hackneyed fantasy setup, but constantly falls back on references and long-winded cameos that only make sense if you've religiously followed the series. The dialogue and voice acting is middling to say the least, but there's plenty of it for those who need to know how the saga ends.
Spellforce and its sequel pushed the idea of hybrid RTS/RPG gameplay (for the record, I enjoyed the original), acting a little like Warcraft III mixed with more traditional isometric roleplaying experiences. As mentioned, Demons Of The Past really does offer the best and worst of both genres.
When it works, you'll build your infrastructure and wield powerful fantasy units with simple streamlined controls reminiscent of Age Of Empires; setting up massed assaults or patrols all while exploring the deep lore and powering up your heroes in true RPG style. At best it's magical, offering the hectic high-level tactics of an RTS with versatile customisation and compelling characters. This more intimate approach give you more stake in the storyline as the campaign throws ever more challenging opponents your way, making battles feel personal and important.
Unfortunately the two gameplay styles are often at odds with each other. Picking out specific targets for hero spells and abilities is nigh-on impossible in cluttered pitched battles (I'd kill for an active pause mechanic), making it difficult to prioritise foes or heal allies before they fall. The interface is clearly focused on streamlining the RTS side of things, but proves uniquely irritating for handling the RPG aspects, especially since it doesn't let you target character portraits with spells. Pacing bogs down with cutscenes and lengthy fetch quests, while the focus on a single hero often sees your Shaikan teleported off to pastures new... leaving their support forces isolated deep in enemy territory and forced to trudge back to regroup. If not die in ignominy.
The sheer size of the maps is both a blessing and a curse. Expansive environments tend to be packed may be plenty of sidequests, but units take an age to trudge across the terrain, leading to an inordinate amount of downtime. Poor quest signposting and objective descriptions are also an omnipresent issue, frequently leaving you unclear on what exactly you're supposed to be doing and how you should actually go about completing a mission, some of which are spread over multiple maps. I'm all for a lack of handholding, but spending 45 minutes traipsing through repetitive scenery just to find one last dawdling enemy holdout or sack of grain is not what I signed up for.
Neither is an instant-fail stealth mission, which is one of the most off-kilter and stupid diversions I've ever seen.
Demons Of The Past is best described as inconsistent, then. The core experience may be a satisfying gameplay fusion, but so many annoying flaws drag it down. Enemy AI is bizarre and fickle; either passively waiting for the slaughter or doggedly pursuing you for hours. The difficulty curve resembles a breakneck rollercoaster; overwhelming players with an insanely tough first mission that stops newcomers from learning the ropes, before dipping and plateauing with some nasty irregular spikes. Aforementioned signposting woes and obtuse mission descriptions sometimes make it unclear what you need to do next, or even if you've actually fulfilled an objective requirement! Seeing as it's also running on a decade-old engine, the visuals are also wildly erratic; with improved shaders, lighting and detailed character models making the rest of the game look worse in comparison.
Then we come to the bugs. Following a full campaign restart due to a lack of audio, I was then kicked in the teeth by a defensive section that spawned waves of undead skeletons simultaneously rather than staggering their advance. Restart! Then I was unable to open loot chests, requiring yet another reload. A later mission required me (and many other players if the Steam forums are anything to go by) to defend NPC workers as they constructed a Ziggurat, yet they decided to wander off and build other stuff for no apparent reason. Nordic and Mind Over Matter are planning to fix these issues quickly, but we can only review what we're given.
What annoys me most about Demons Of The Past is that all of these issues come down to polish, or the lack thereof. There's a good game in here. I can see it, and at times, play it. Demons Of The Past offers plenty of content and raw value for money, not just limited to the campaign, but also in terms of skirmishes, sandbox mode and multiplayer options.
But every time I almost manage to find a groove, another stumbling block or bug hurtles out of nowhere. In terms of the scoreline, we'd be looking at a 5/10 or much higher if I could guarantee you a stable gameplay experience. Hardcore fans in need of closure only, I'm afraid.
- Core RTS/RPG fusion can be rewarding
- 25+ hours of content, missions, modes, sidequests, cutscenes and character development for sub-£20
- Surprisingly impressive story - at least if you understand it
- Can be click-heavy and frustrating (needs an active pause mechanic)
- Terrible mission signposting, schizophrenic pacing
- Inconsiderate and overwhelming for newcomers and even lapsed fans
- Unpolished: both in terms of visuals, AI, gameplay and production values
- Bring bug spray
The Short Version: Spellforce 2: Demons Of The Past brings the eight-year saga to a close, so might be worth breaking out the rose-tinted specs for if you're a longtime series fan. But if you're not, don't go anywhere near it.
A lot more polish would have gone a long way here.