The land is overrun by mercenaries and vagrant lords are on the prowl. As one of those lords, bereft of lands and lacking the capital to hire an effective fighting force, you must embark on a quest that is admirable in its efforts at moral ambiguity but ultimately lacks the necessary investment for the choices to impact the player. Legends of Eisenwald presents many challenges for those new to strategy RPGs but fails to expand on its solid foundation of hex-based combat and interactive yet relatively dull side quests.
If you come into this game hoping for a bracing romp through medieval Germany full of interesting characters with a few magical elements sprinkled throughout you will not be disappointed. Unless you are expecting to care about anything that happens to these people, that is. The problem is not the story itself, but a number of compounding factors that serve to effectively neuter the impact of the game’s dramatic moments.
"While the combat is fast paced and easy to get to grips with, the turn-based system they employ doesn’t allow for you to move without making an attack and reduces every encounter to a numbers game"
For one thing, the game’s music: while pleasant enough given the game’s setting, it tends to grind after a third major character is brutally murdered to the sound of someone ripping on a sweet pan flute solo. While this might be slightly hyperbolic, it was my thought process as I promptly muted the screen and cranked "The Rains of Castamere" to eleven. The camera too had problems. I constantly found myself trying to orient it so I could see where I was going and it proved a challenge; not enough to indicate that it’s broken but enough to frustrate the hell out of me. The time stop mechanic, which can be activated by the space bar, did help in this regard, however, and also made it possible to click on the many units scurrying, like ants, across the overworld.
Once you manage to pin an enemy down with the mouse it’s a smooth transition to the combat which is fast paced and fairly easy to get to grips with. Encounters play out on a hexagonal grid with three rows of fighters on either side. Priests and herbalists buff your squad while archers, crossbowmen and a range of melee fighters, from basic infantry to mounted knights, provide the beef. While this all sounds delicious, the turn-based system they employ doesn’t allow for you to move without making an attack and reduces every encounter to a numbers game wherein the only way to win is to increase your party’s level by grinding. For a purported strategy game, it's not a great situation to place the player in.
"If you persevere you are rewarded with a wide range of loot after each battle. . . as you and your units make your way down your chosen paths, more and more powerful gear will unlock"
Bandits and an assortment of other not so lovely rogues can be found roaming the map. Dispatching these enemies and questing around the realm earns you and your crew experience, which can then be applied to your character’s skill tree allowing you to saddle a horse or help buff your companions. Your squad can also level up, with different units having multiple paths they can progress down, and will need to extensively as they are reset or replaced a number of times throughout the campaign.
Of course if you persevere you are rewarded with a wide range of loot after each battle. This helps to fund your small squadron, keeps them in good health and helps to expand your miniature army. As you and your units make your way down your chosen paths, more and more powerful gear will unlock. Unfortunately this will not carry over between chapters as I found out, much to my regret. This indicates, to me at least, an ill-considered system of progression in which the game must dole out unlockables in order to keep the player interested while constantly providing checks to your strength to maintain some semblance of a challenge.
The constant back and forth is the crux of Legends of Eisenwald’s problem; I hesitate to use the term "rubberbanding" but that’s what it felt like. I have no problem levelling units, completing side quests or reading pages of exposition for the story, but I felt that the story and pacing was held back by the facelessness of your band of warriors and the seemingly futile task of levelling them up. While the main plot is entertaining and the combat does a lot of things right with an intuitive interface and a fast pace, it doesn’t do enough on a fundamental personal level to hook the player and encourage them to see it through.