A good genre offering with some innovative touches, but undercut by cliches and an unmemorable setting.
Posted by Rob Zacny (September 02, 2010)
Elemental is at its strongest when treated with the same finicky attention to detail and sense of ownership with which people regard RPG characters. The traits and statistics that kingdoms, heroes, and units possess are not trivial window-dressing, but play a major role in shaping strategy. Elemental might offer a variety of pre-made races and units, but it's a better game if you take the time to create exactly what you want. This is a strategy-RPG, and neither element should be ignored. Especially because neither half of the game is strong enough to stand on its own.
The character and unit creation screens also offer a couple early warnings about the problems bedeviling Elemental. While the art style is generally quite handsome, with watercolor hues and pen-and-ink outlines, the character models are repulsive. People in Elemental look like they were stitched out of the same mixture of burlap and leather that they must also unfortunately wear. They noticeably detract from the game's otherwise clean, storybook appearance.
More seriously, customization involves a trip through several badly designed menus whose effects are neither predictable nor sensible. Typos abound, items are mis-labeled, and some buttons reveal broken code.
These two themes abound in Elemental: discordant notes in an otherwise pleasing presentation, and menus that frustrate clear intentions. In character creation, this is a nuisance. It's far more annoying in the awkward and visually wasteful diplomacy menus, or the character inventory screens.
Simple tasks in Elemental are never as simple as you might expect, and it lets you down in odd ways. The mouse cursor gets hung up on elements of the command bar, or you will click to build on a square only to have the game randomly assign the job somewhere else. After a play session of any significant length, the game begins to slow to a crawl. Little things like this make Elemental much more of a chore than it needs to be.
Your game begins with your hero standing next to a tile of Fertile Land, but most of the surrounding countryside is desert, dotted by resource tiles like forests, ore deposits, and magic crystals. As your kingdom grows, however, and more land falls under your sway, it begins to reflect your influence. Good kingdoms will see green overrun the deserts and the retreat of the monsters, while evil kingdoms will trade their Mad Max desolation for a little Mordor.
There are two forms of growth in Elemental that exist in tension with one another. The first form happens through city expansion. City improvements like housing and workshops must be placed on the strategy map, adjacent to another part of the city. Resource tiles are unusable until the city sprawl finally connects to them. The advantages of having a huge city with access to several resource tiles is that it can multiply the effects of those resources, especially because certain powerful upgrades are only available to the largest cities.
On the other hand, this can be too many eggs in one basket, and it takes a long time for a city to reach across the map and snare some distant resources. It is faster and safer to start a new city than it is to wait for a megalopolis to encompass all the resources you covet. However, such a course will likely place a cap on growth for your primary city. This makes city management one of Elemental's recurring conundrums, and it provides a rewarding sense of achievement when one of your cities reaches a high settlement level and adds yet another multiplier to research or wealth.
This theme, balancing the advantages of concentrated strength against the safety of dispersed power and speed, repeats with heroes and unit creation. Elemental is full of characters you can hire to lead armies and provide bonuses to cities, and they become super-units at high enough levels. However, heroes only acquire experience through combat and adventuring, they take a long time to cultivate, and all of that investment is wasted if they get killed. It's very hard to have more than a couple strong leaders at a time, since safe experience-gathering opportunities are limited, but it's dangerous to have one major leader and then a horde of low-level characters.
Likewise, soldiers can be kitted out with any armor, weapons, and items available. Yet the more gear they carry, the longer training takes. Cheap cannon fodder will be killed before their numbers come into play, but walking tanks are too expensive to comprise an army. With heroes and unit alike, the question always centers on acceptable risks and good planning.
Everything ties back to technology research, which repeats the RPG theme by tracking research levels across five categories. So you might have a choice between researching level 6 civics or level 2 diplomacy. However, the techs themselves are not tied to levels. They arrive in whatever order you select, and the next technology is always harder to get than the last, which again places a premium on anticipating your needs.
It's a pity that Stardock let so many of these good ideas down with other parts of the game. In the first place, the turn-based tactical battles are not very enjoyable. There are a limited number of tactical possibilities when two armies line up and march at each other across a battlefield the size of a shoebox, and they have been exhausted by a number of other games. Elemental's tactical combat is old before it ever loads.
Furthermore, battlefields are almost universally dreary and dun-colored, and the animation here seems slow and labored. There is noticeable lag between the moment an order is given and the point at which the corresponding action follows on-screen. The units are disconcertingly miniscule, which makes even epic clashes look like a Lilliputian pub brawl. Fortunately, the game never seems to punish decisions to auto-resolve an encounter.
A bigger issue is Elemental's surprising lack of imagination. Magic is commonplace and uninspired. I was crestfallen when I cracked open my spellbook and saw my choice of fire dart, haste, and arcane armor. These same spells have appeared in every game of this type going back to Heroes of Might & Magic . If you know this genre, you can predict almost every spell included in Elemental.
This is simply not a richly imagined world, which would just be a minor quibble if it did not actually affect the game in some obnoxious ways. The first way that comes into play here is the execrable single-player campaign, which is nothing but a hellish series of fetch quests and side quests. The second way is the assortment of quests you find during the main game. They also serve as dreary XP-harvesting chores. You can ignore this stuff, but experience is so crucial to hero-development that this is hard to do.
Then there are the enemy factions, who help ruin diplomacy. All the factions blur together thanks to a combination of awful nomenclature and generic appearance, and the entire diplomacy system is predicated on the serious miscalculation that anyone would remember or care who is doing what to whom.
Let's start with the names. Each faction, sovereign, city, and hero receives some sibilant, consonantal salad of a name. So you have to remember whether it's Kraxis on your eastern border or, um, - Well, this is the very problem, isn't it? I've been playing this game for days and days and I have no idea who any of these people are. It would help if ruler and kingdoms had distinct personalities, but they're as much a blur as their names. When one of them sends you a threat, the only name visible on the screen is the sovereign, further confusing matters. So is Yelnor the leader of Resoln, or Pariden? Actually, is Yelnor even a ruler, or is it a country and the king is named something else? Oh well, whoever he is, he seems pretty angry, so you'd better protect your thriving city of Issianux before the army at Lajaiuf comes pouring across the border.
Not that it matters, since it'll probably come down to killing either way. The AI was generally pretty hostile on even moderate difficulties unless I made good relations a major priority.
Wars were odd, though. More than a few times, I caught enemy sovereigns out of their territory with nothing but a few soldiers protecting them. Even the most powerful empires were prone to this suicidal general phenomenon, which left me feeling nothing but anticlimax on more than one occasion. You gear up for a major war, then your army trips over the enemy king and ends up destroying his whole empire by killing him in one pointless skirmish. It's not universal, and I lost some savage wars, but in general the AI does not do a particularly good job of prosecuting conflict. I found that the AI could throw one good punch, and then it was done.
Ultimately, I like Elemental a great deal more than I admire it. It's not a particularly distinguished strategy game, tactical combat is a wasted opportunity, and it neither tells a good story nor suggests the possibility of one. I might wish that Elemental blended genres in a way that transcends them, but instead it succeeds only as a niche product for those of us who bear an irrational affection for the always flawed, frequently frustrating strategy-RPG genre.
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