February 22, 2024
RTS and RPG melding together, on console, can it possibly work? The Finger Guns Review:

RTS and RPG melding together, on console – can it possibly work? The Finger Guns Review of SpellForce 3: Reforced.

I’ve tried for many a year to find an RTS on console that actually works. As you might imagine, it’s been a fruitless and rather depressing venture. Tactical and strategic gameplay happening in real time with crowds of different unit types barging into each other just isn’t a good fit for the imprecision of joystick controllers. Whether it be complete steaming piles of tragic turd like Stormrise or valiant yet still clumsy efforts like Ancestor’s Legacy, nothing can really quite stick the landing when it comes to a console transition.

With that in mind, SpellForce 3: Reforced (I’d been calling it Reforged right up until writing this review) is the latest in line to stage an output on the console battlefield. Our lovely FG host Rossko even earmarked this game for me a few months ago, knowing full well I’d throw myself back in at the chance for a good RTS meets top down Diablo action. Does this fantasy epic manage to erect a stronghold for the ages or has its pathfinding thrown it off the end of a cliff? Let’s dig our spells into it and find out.

Forged From The Flames

Let’s just get stuck in from the off. SpellForce 3: Reforced is for all intents and purposes a remastered, polished version of the original title released in 2017. It combines an interesting mix of RTS mechanics with traditional Diablo or Baldur’s Gate type gameplay. Think the camera of Helldivers or Alienation but instead of fun laser guns and missiles you have traditional fantasy equipment like swords, wands and bows and you’ll get the picture. It’s certainly an ambitious game, promising a 30 hour campaign, co-op, skirmishes, multiplayer and 2 fully-fledged expansions (though only if you purchase them separately/fork out for the complete edition, which feels a bit short changing, but there we are).

This shiny new edition has seen a lot of work go into a raft of gameplay improvements, tweaks to item drops and inventory, adjusted AI balance and even new modes in Arena and Journey options. Given I haven’t played the original release, I’ll be viewing this from a fresh pair of eyes and providing my thoughts on this edition as a standalone package as a result. Just know that straight up, there’s a lot of content from just the main campaign, skirmishes and other modes (probably upwards of 40+ hours) so at £34.99 even the basic edition is decent value for money.

Diablo In Disguise

While SpellForce 3 does have a strong emphasis on RTS gameplay, the majority of your time spent saving Eo will be in traditional top down RPG adventuring style. As Tahar, you’ll explore various locations and maps with up to a party of 4, tackling all manner of wildlife critter, humanoid opponent and quest dilemma. Formula-wise, it’s straightforward stuff – you’ll venture onto a new map location, run towards the “!” and “?” symbols marked on your mini-map, uncovering the fog of war as you go. Most locations are relatively samey and one issue through it’s chunky runtime is that you’ll return to most locations at least 2-3 times, which becomes repetitious and uninteresting pretty quickly.

As you explore environments, there’s loot, gold and quest items begging to be stripped from their owner’s cruel captivity. It’s encouraging to go off the beaten path at first, but by around hour 10 you’ll have most of the good equipment you need and gold becomes a non-issue. Incidentally, you’ll end up less incentivised to explore and I found myself just moving straight to the objectives after around the halfway mark. There’s plenty to find and with a wealth of side quests you can complete in each location, there’s ample reason to come back. Not all of it is extrinsically rewarding though, so unless you’re deep into the lore and or you’re an absolute completionist there’s little reason to really do all of the side content.

Naturally, as this is an RPG, you’ll fight off various enemies, gaining XP and levelling up your party members. Level ups are universal for all your characters, so there’s no need to worry about picking up a character later in the campaign and having them be under-levelled, which is a God-send. You select your own class and skill trees at the start, investing level up points into both passive and active abilities, as well as your primary stats (STR, DEX, INT etc). Synergising your abilities with your party is pretty cool and there’s enough variety in the different trees to make for some engaging decision-making.

For most of my journey I had an Elven archer acting as my healer, with 3 melee focused characters then guaranteed to be laying down the pain. My Tahar would curse the opponents while the Dwarven Isgrimm would boost the attack power of the squad, nicely undermining enemy defence and doubling my attacking potential. I never felt the need to swap out my party once I got settled, which is a shame, but frankly I didn’t want to mess up such an effective build. The combat largely happens automatically and your only real input is selecting when special abilities get used (which is often). It works nicely and it’s solid enough to hold the gameplay for a couple dozen hours, but the looting, combat and skill systems do pale considerably compared to something like Diablo. It’s an RPG-lite in many ways, which makes sense given this is a half-and-half affair. It’s like a customised pizza with two separate halves, both parties get what they want, but each ends up disappointed they don’t get as much on their half as if they’d just gotten a whole one to themselves.

RTS On Console, What Could Go Wrong?

While the RPG-ing makes up the bulk of the game, we’ve got to talk about the other significant portion of this hybrid experiment – the real time strategy. Much like Halo Wars’ evolution to the console space, it’s a largely stripped back and simplistic affair. During most main quests, you’ll be given control over a main building or capital to run your army from. The map becomes split into sectors which you’ll begin vying for control over against your opponent. Each sector can only support a certain amount of workers, so you’ll need to think about resources to prioritise. This is the idea anyway.

The reality becomes much more straightforward and towards the end even a bit bland. You’ll spend the first 5-10 minutes setting up your main base, taking 2-3 districts around you, absorbing the key resources (wood, stone, iron and food) around you until you can upgrade everything as high as it can go. Then, you settle in, build up a massive army of troops and go on a slaughtering rampage campaign to wipe out your pitiful opponent. It really doesn’t get much more in-depth than that. Now, I’m a turtler by nature, so this formula works fantastically for me, but it completely undermines any creativity or ingenious planning to overcome a cunning foe.

Largely, this is because your party heroes are so overpowered compared to regular units they can single-handedly defend your outposts (provided you move quickly enough use gates) while you laboriously build up your empire and army to decimate the enemy. You’re limited to basic units and structures for the first half, but the second portion of the campaign provides you access to stronger units that make this tactic even more efficient. I enjoyed it, especially in the early portions, but I realised by the end I was almost breaking the game by how efficient I’d gotten at establishing a base in routine fashion. As you have to start from scratch almost every mission, you’ll fall into a bit of a malaise at the start until you get to the good part of laying waste to the map.

There’s some variety provided through the three distinct factions – Orcs, Elves and Humans. Us regular homosapiens are balanced nicely for resource gathering, defensive strength and attacking ability, but excel at very little. Elves are more defensive-minded, with much more efficient resource collection, but you have to choose either collecting resources or having defence capability on your outposts for example. Orcs are, as expected, bloodthirsty and aggressive in nature – they suck at collecting stuff, but you can establish a horde of them quickly and they’re pretty powerful once upgraded. I’m a pretty balanced, boring dude, so I stuck with humans most of the way when given the option and got through on normal without failing once. The factions are distinct enough to be interesting, but they don’t do a whole lot to spice up the main loop. Plus, turtling is still the most effective means of success for all of them.

Tahard To Follow This Story

Now, I’m gonna be honest, naming my titular hero “Miles Tahar” (they have to have the surname) means I was setting myself up for an underwhelming story. I mean, what kind of name is that?! I digress. SpellForce 3’s narrative is very typical of the genre – a new plague called the Bloodburn is wiping people out indiscriminately. You’re a “chosen one” protagonist with a “special aura” about you to navigate. There’s a religious faction called the Purity who are-definitely-absolutely-definitively-NOT-the-bad-guys, even when they’re, you know, carrying out executions of all mages regardless of context. Naturally, there’s friction between cities, factions and peoples you have to account for and there’s oh-so-much exposition it’ll make your head hurt. Dragon Age: Inquisition’s influence is also felt through the story as you establish your own base where your collected party members will amble about and you can minorly expand as you pick up new merchants.

About halfway through the the story ramps up and there’s some solid notes established. Problem is, the majority is delivered through so much writing and dialogue, even for inconsequential characters and quests, that you may, like me, grow very tired of it. I’ll admit that by the end I was skimming most of the dialogue and moving on before they’d finished. Honestly, how many more times do I need to know that X bad person is bad. I get it, LET ME GO KILL THEM. Buried in this overwhelming amount of information are some decent little side stories and the mystery of the Bloodburn is a nice hook for the early game. The climax of the story concludes everything well and there’s a satisfying pay-off, so it’s not bad, it’s just very fantasy fodder at this point.

Most of the voice acting is on point and well done, which does help. Lord knows how the voice actors got through so much writing, shout out to them. Also, Geralt of Witcher 3 ilk has their voice actor make an appearance as an expectedly battle-hardened, grizzled captain of the guard. He’s awesome, because he’s Geralt.

You can make various choices during both main and side quests. For instance, you do extra quests to gather the support of all 3 factions instead of just one or you may have a more micro choice of whether to reason with someone or outright kill them. I used save-scumming to test out different choices and the results are largely the same, with a few late-game decisions impacting how much extra help you get clearing a couple of maps. If you’re here for brutal choices, moral grey areas to get your ethics compass ticking or anything especially deep, you’ll be a bit disappointed.

Overall, the story and narrative are serviceable. There’s way too much dialogue in places and they’re a massive hinderance during RTS sections as the game inexplicably doesn’t pause when talking to NPCs. Alas, my poor outpost is getting butchered but I couldn’t do anything to save it thanks to idiot peasant #456 not shutting up about Aonir’s Light or something. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t especially care for it either.

Tiara’s Breath… That’s Outdated

In terms of visuals, it’s hard to be too critical of SpellForce 3: Reforced as it is, after all, a game fundamentally from 2017. I mentioned earlier that the maps are repetitive and quite bland. There are exceptions in the Greyfell castle and Mulandir as your base of operations, which provide impressive scale to your adventure. The rest however, are mostly grassland areas, with cut-out models for buildings and an animation style that shows its age. Effects and unit design are pretty good, especially when you’re calling in an ice storm, fireball and skeletons from the ground all at once. Each faction has a unique style to them too, though the function of each building is virtually the same.

What’s less forgivable though, is that there are still a lot of visual issues. More than a dozen times I had a strange lighting issue where the centre of my screen would gib out with flickering panes of white plastering over the landscape. It only happened when in RTS sections, but it was seriously distracting, not to mention annoying. I had some clipping and pop-in issues at times and the pathfinding, while generally workable, would sometimes completely lose its mind and have my units spinning around each other like some drug-fuelled German bar.

Music fares a bit better, with some rousing tracks hitting at just the right moments in the campaign or in combat sequences. There’s motiffs that’ll play on loop in each area but they’re all pretty whimsical instead of an annoyance. Combat audio design is once again solid though it can get a little out of sync in the heat of a huge bust-up combining dozens of units at a time. It feels like there’s a theme of the game being decent to good in most areas but almost everything comes with a caveat or a problem, which is really unfortunate, as the experience itself has clearly had a lot of love poured into it. I just wish it had a bit more depth and less of the niggling issues that rear their ugly mug like an Orc in a brothel.

Truth be told, that’s how I feel about SpellForce 3: Reforced in general. It’s a good game but it’s saddled with issues that prevent it being as good as it possibly could be. I don’t begrudge the RTS elements being light, as this is somehow working relatively smoothly on console, yet it clashes with the power-trip of a traditional RPG. I enjoy the fantasy world its set in, but Eo is both repetitive and bland come the end, plus the locals never stop talking about nonsense. It has so many aspects of genres I fully appreciate, yet it left me a little disinterested come the end.

Of course, most of my 27 hours were spent on the campaign. I tried out a couple of skirmishes (of which there’s a bunch of maps and factions to choose from) vs the AI and there weren’t any multiplayer matches available for me to play. Having a co-op buddy would probably freshen up the experience quite a bit, so if you have a fellow fantasy adventurer to trek through Eo with you may have a more fulfilling time. The wealth of modes and options to play means that if you get into the loop and mechanics, you’ll got plenty to keep you engaged, especially if you pick up the two extra meaty expansions.

As it is with the base game however, it’s good. It’s not great, it’s not amazing, it’s not wonderful. It’s just good. The RTS mechanics mostly work, the RPG-ing is present and the abilities at your disposal are fun to mess around with. Does it all hold up for 25ish hours? Probably just about. I’d recommend it to those who really, really love either genre, but just know going in you’re getting a watered down version of both. Typical thing of trying to please everyone but gratifying no-one and all that.

The reinforcement of SpellForce 3 has without doubt brought some welcome strength to the structure, but the foundation is probably still a bit wobbly.

SpellForce 3: Reforced is a valiant effort to mesh RTS and RPG into a functional package on console. In theory, it shouldn’t work at all, but for the most part it succeeds more than it fails. There’s plenty of issues, whether it be the shallowness of the tactics for success, the visual oddities that plague your journey or the overabundance of burdening dialogue to cut through, but the essence of this fantasy game is good enough to shine through.

SpellForce III: Reforced is available now on PS5 (review platform), PS4, PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series S|X.

Developer: Grimlore Games
Publisher: THQ Nordic

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

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