Friday, July 6, 2012

Disciples 2 Review

Disciples 2 is a Turn-Based Strategy game released for the PC in 2002 and was made by Strategy First. The version I'm reviewing is Disciples 2 Gold, which includes all the expansion packs. This review just focuses on the Gallean's Return content, though (that is, no Rise of the Elves expansion stuff).



     Disciples 2 is a flawed, imperfect game. It's not glitchy in the least, but it's cumbersome, the mechanics lack finesse, and gameplay-wise is inferior to certain other TBS games released at the turn of the century. But there's a little something that makes Disciples 2 special; it's striking atmosphere and style. But I'll get to that in a bit. First, let's look at the mechanics.


     Disciples 2 is very functional, I'll give it that. Let's start with the units. You have hero units (which are generic, but considering that most cost 500 gold, you won't see too many) that can take other units equal to their leadership amount and explore the map. Each party has 6 slots (3 front rows and 3 back ones), which means you can have a maximum of 6 units moving around at once (there are some units that take up a front and back row slots). Units gain experience from battles and level up, upgrading to a more powerful or more versatile version of themselves (providing that you built the necessary structure in your capital first, that is). Most units have two upgrade paths, which makes for some nice variety. For example, the Empire's healer units can upgrade to become either Priests, who heal more damage, or Clerics, who heal all party members at the same time. I've always loved that kind of thing in games. Not so much for the RPG elements, mind you, but because of the different kinds of strategies it provides for. There's a catch, though. You have to spend obscene amounts of gold to buy the buildings that allow your units to upgrade, and you have to do it before they level up. Also, when you choose an upgrade path, you have to stick with it; if you want one Sorcerer, than all your Cultists will become Sorcerers. This highlights what is simultaneously the best and worst aspect of the strategy in Disciples 2, the planning.


     Disciples 2 is centered entirely around the planning. This is a good thing because, you know, it's a turn-based strategy game. You have to plan on what kinds of parties you're going to have, what kinds of unit combinations to use (more back attackers, or more sturdy front line units, for example), which parties will go in which direction, how and with what speed your units will regain their health (only Warrior Lords and towns provide health regeneration), and so on. This is a game where, if you don't have a plan of some kind, you are going to die, slowly and frustratingly. This is a game that you really have to put some thought into, and that's good.

A good example of poor planning.
     But I also said that the planning is one of the worst parts too, right? There are two reasons. The first is that Disciples 2 is very unforgiving. If you make some small errors here and there, then things are going to be harder for you later on, but not insurmountably. Make a big mistake, though, or even a "medium" one, and chances are you're screwed, either for the rest of the map (in which case you have to load a save or start over) or the next 10-20 turns (which is a lot). But the reason that poses a much bigger problem is the lack of control and information you have. Let's start with the easy stuff, i.e. the non-combat aspects. Disciples 2 has Fog of War, so you can't see areas you haven't explored. Cool cool. But unfortunately, everybody has very little movement in Disciples 2. Or rather, everything takes too much movement. For example, moving through water takes much much more movement than usual, even for the flying units (they just receive less of a penalty). You moved a rod planter (who can only take one unit with them) into unexplored territory? Yeah, you can expect an enemy who you didn't even know was there (because of the Fog of War) to sweep in and assuredly kill her. The result? You just lost 300+ gold, which takes 6 turns to regain at the normal rate. That's the kind of "medium" mistake that can kill your chances if you're not careful.

Reviving and healing either of these armies would take well over a week (game time) on any map.
     So what do you have to do? Advance slowly and cautiously in all directions with your comparatively strong hero units so your weaker support units don't die. But heroes alone cost a ton, and with the cost of building the units for their parties, it's simply not possible to explore everywhere. The only option you have? You have to pick a direction, hope it's the right way (remember, you can't see anything you haven't explored, so you don't even know where your objective is), and deal with the consequences if it's not. In other words, you have to depend on luck, or face an often severe handicap. Let's also take a look at locations, like Ruins or Haunted Castles (they're all just generic locations on the map, mind you). Locations almost always contain gold and usually really helpful items, both things that provide a huge advantage (especially the gold). So attacking the locations is typically a move you want to, or many times have to, make. Only, you don't know what's in the location. If there are lots of back attackers, for example, then your mage hero is screwed. The only solution is to buy a thief first, then move them to the location (hoping they don't die along the way - thieves win combats about 1/100 times), then have them attempt to scout it (chances of success are quite good though), all just to know what's in the dang thing. But that all takes a lot of time. This normally wouldn't be a problem, and isn't always, but a lot of the campaign missions have events, such as the giant boss demon coming to kill you, that happen on certain turns (usually within 30), plus the enemy is sending their own parties against you at the same time. That's why "medium" mistakes costing a few turns can be so crucial. And if you lose your main hero? Forget it, start over. That's why the luck parts are so very frustrating; you have little to no control and often no information concerning the often player-killing events that pop up.

I was actually thinking of Asteroth, but you don't want to run into one of these guys unexpectedly, either.
     These are honesty fairly minor issues, though, at least when compared to the sometimes infuriating combat. Every unit has initiative and damage values, so let's start with those. These would be fine if they weren't so darn obscure. See, the average initiative is 50, being what most front line fighter types have. So to avoid confusion, you'd think there would be some kind of tiebreaker system when two units have the same initiative value. Instead, the unit that goes first is determined arbitrarily. This instantly makes several critical battles hinge on luck. If you really need to stop an enemy hero so you don't lose, but your units need to go first to have a chance, then your choices are reduced to saving, then loading if you don't go first so you can't win, then loading again, and again, and again, until you get it. Or you can not do that and just lose miserably because of bad luck. Damage also has the same problem. Unit's information sheets show set damage amounts, but the exact damage dealt varies with no patterns. When a unit is close to death (let's say 28 health) and an enemy can almost kill it (let's say 25 damage), they have a tendency to deal the little extra necessary. The problem is that again this isn't done in any kind of set way. There have been several battles I've lost because enemies had 1 hit point left after an attack. See, luck is the one thing you don't want to have weigh too heavily in strategy games. They're all about planning out your actions, and if you can't rely on constants it often becomes a nightmare. Now, some variation is fine. Things like critical hit chances are totally okay in games. They add a bit of unpredictability to the game, and planning for the unexpected is part of the fun. Not everything will go exactly as planned, and dealing with the resulting difficulties is often what makes winning so fulfilling. But when too much is unexpected, it just becomes un-fun. No matter how many difficulties you overcome there's always another, and sometimes you get beaten for nothing that your strategy could have reasonably accounted for. Disciples 2 isn't the worst offender in this regard, not by far. The luck factor isn't so bad that it makes this game regularly un-fun. But it certainly points the game in that direction.


     Something that alleviates the problem is the AI. In most games, a predictable computer player would be considered a bad thing, but in Disciples 2 it actually helps. Enemy parties and formation will usually act in one of only a few ways during combat and exploration. Once you figure those strategies out, you can plan for them accordingly which often eliminates the problems that arise from luck. And since the enemy won't always act the same, but will instead take one of several options, it doesn't totally take the fun out of it. All in all, the gameplay is actually pretty fun, despite being flawed. A traditional approach to strategy, with more streamlined mechanics and a difficulty that comes mostly from dynamic enemies, would probably have made for a better and more enjoyable game. But even so, Disciples 2 manages to remain addictive and, as I said, quite functional (as in, it works really well for what it is).

Addictive enough that I still enjoyed playing after the 300th battle, let alone the 100th.
     Still, with a system that is decidedly average for how complex it is (the complexity is the best part about it), Disciples 2 would hardly be something I'd consider "good." Luckily, though, this game has amazing atmosphere and style to it. Let me explain the setting a little bit. Disciples 2 is set in a medieval fantasy setting, with orcs, dragons, mermaids, dwarves, undead, and so forth. What makes is stand out is that it takes this and gives it a "grimdark" (as it's known colloquially) spin. Furthermore, Disciples 2 manages to give it the serious tone it deserves, without trying too hard. And that's the big thing; unlike a lot of other grimdark games that make a very obvious attempt to be serious and as a result fail to achieve the intended atmosphere *cough*DawnofWar*cough*, Disciples 2 supports its atmosphere effortlessly and with a lot of elegance. Things aren't overdone or drawn out. When you capture towns, for example, somebody usually gives you some information about a map or story element, which strongly implies (but doesn't outright tell) that everybody is dealing with horrific hardships and death, but that's the norm. Bandits and orcs infest the countryside, and enemies run rampant through the lands. It's pretty darn obvious that everything is on the brink of either collapse or widespread fracturing. People seem ready to give up at any second. This applies pretty much equally to all races. The Empire and Mountain Clans are ruled by mentally unsound leaders, and the gods of the Undead and the Infernal Hordes have been defeated since the first game. The resulting atmosphere is heavy, depressing, and, well, dark.

Dark, literally and figuratively.
     This is extremely well supported by the art, and that's something I'd like to point out about all games. Graphic/art design is significantly more important than "quality" art or graphics. It's not about what you can do, it's about how well you use what you have. And Disciples 2 honestly has great art, but the art design makes it so much better. The first awesome thing it does: portraits all look grainy and are done in a very dull, color drained palette. What does this accomplish? Well, first the graininess makes everyone look kind of dirty, like they just came from a battle or have been living under harsh conditions. Only, since you are currently fighting a battle, it makes it so they seem like they fought in the past, and they are still fighting and will have to in the future. Just from one detail, a very slight graininess, it seems like the inhabitants of this world are fighting a hopeless war, without any end in sight, and that they have been doing so for a very long time. The drained palette is a less subtle but no less effective tool for giving the game a dark, moody atmosphere. There are no bright, cheerful colors used here, and the effect that has is instant.

The Undead. About as drab as it gets.
     The music also contributes excellently. In my Fallout review, I said that the music in that game could almost be better described as "ambiance." That applies even more so to Disciples 2. Indeed, some of the tracks don't even contain instruments of any kind. One is just a minute and a half of indistinguishable gargling and gnashing, and it sounds more like demons than you'd even think is possible. Other tracks are more traditional but no less atmospheric. Much (in fact, probably most) of the music is done on stringed instruments, with lots of low, flat notes, to the point it sounds like a dirge. It really has to be listened to to be understood, so I won't go into it any more. The short version is, the music matches perfectly with the atmosphere of the game.

     What makes all this so cool is that Disciples 2 includes a little feature to stop you from killing yourself/quitting the game; a single ray of hope. Even though you're fighting a losing battle no matter which side you're on, it always feels like things will work out if you just beat your enemies. It's apparent in the artwork; you can see the possibility for (or a past indicative of) a more light-hearted fantasy world from the bright, healthy trees and the gorgeous locals. It's apparent in the music; though depressing and grim, you can still hear hints of the idyllic fantasy world included. It's certainly clear in the missions. It you just win, if you just achieve your goals, then it seems like your problems will be solved. It also makes its presence known in the story. If this one issue can be gotten around, then things will go back being normal. What's so cool is that Disciples 2 can do this even for the world-blighting demons or the evil undead. No, you don't feel like you're playing as "the good guys," but you do feel a certain level of vindication. It's like, "Okay. So all these other races are trying to kill me, and many of them are kind of evil too. I...don't feel too bad about this." Also, due to the way the story is set up, you're never really forced to question the "rightness" of your side. Basically, all I'm trying to say is that the game does a pretty good job of getting you on your races side. What all of these elements add up to is a dark, serious, medieval fantasy style, which is really cool and quite unique.


     There's one last thing that I want to look at before I finish up. The campaigns in Disciples 2 are the real "hooks" of the game, though they are certainly not perfect. Part of the reason is that campaigns are really long. They're each <10 missions, but they feel like they're well over 20. Missions, whether they're part of a campaign or standalone, are always won by achieving specific objectives, as opposed to just "conquer the other player(s)." See, each race's capitol is guarded by a super unit that attacks everyone immediately and usually kills them in one hit. So basically, capturing an enemy's capitol is impossible. This is both good and bad since it makes the mission goals feel unique, but also makes them a little convoluted. With several missions, you have to go all over the map, or to the complete opposite side of it. In order to get everywhere, you pretty much need to have high level units, which means you have to "grind" (as the term goes) for experience. And since most of the missions end with a big fight, it makes you wonder why your objective couldn't just be to capture the enemy capitol. The overpowered guardians also have the unfortunate effect of making standalone missions very limited, since they need to have specific objectives instead of just free for all fights. Like I said, it's also got good parts, so it's a bit of a double edged sword. The main reason the campaigns are so good, however, is because of the story. Disciples 2 actually tells a pretty good story, all of the events centered around one person manipulating everyone. What's so cool in how it tells it is that each race's campaign shows more or less the same events, but from totally different perspectives. You need to see what was happening with the other races at the same time, which makes you want to play the other campaigns. It's actually one of the better stories, and certainly one of the more interestingly told stories that I've seen in a strategy game, so it made the campaigns (all ten thousand of them) stand out nicely.


     Disciples 2 has a lot of problems that inhibit it. The mechanics and rules of the game could and should have been much more streamlined and less vague, and it should have been much less punishing (keep in mind that I was playing this on the "normal" difficulty). That said, the game is a marvelous stylistic success, and it's not like the game is devoid of fun; it just limits itself needlessly.
     Plot/Narrative: The story in Disciples 2 is a little more unique than "bad guys are taking over the planet/country, go stop them," and is told in a really cool way from multiple perspectives. It lacks some grip in the individual campaigns, but once you play all the campaigns you can really appreciate it.
     Gameplay: Flawed, but still fun. If rebounding from mistakes and/or bad luck was easier, the AI more dynamic, and the system a little less cumbersome and more understandable and easy to use, than this game could have easily rivaled the reigning emperor of TBS games, Heroes of Might and Magic 3. As it stands, though, Disciples 2 is still fun and addicting in its own way, and the game system is certainly competent. Good, solid gameplay.
     Visuals: Even from a non-stylistic perspective, the graphics in Disciples 2 are quite excellent. The unit animations are fluid and look nice, and the art is gorgeous. I would have preferred it if there were fewer "flashy light" attack animations in combat and more realistic, "gritty/bloody" attacks (to fit with the atmosphere better), but overall they certainly don't provide anything to complain about. When one factors in the excellent style enhancement of the art, the visuals become some of the greatest you'll find in a game that's a decade old.
     Sound: There's not too much more to the sound in Disciples 2 after the music, and that's usually not a good thing. Don't get me wrong; the sound effects and (very limited) voice acting aren't bad, they just aren't anything special. The music, however, makes up for this extremely well. The background music in this game perfectly matches the style, and really reinforces the depressing, grim setting and atmosphere of the game.
     Game Content: Disciples 2 Gold has some very good campaigns, but more than that it has lots of them. Disregarding Rise of the Elves, there are 8 campaigns total, along with 17 standalone missions, plus custom game capability. Considering the length of the missions and their replay value (which isn't amazing, but is acceptable), this is pretty good. There are also two difficulty levels above "Normal" if you're a masochist you like a challenge. The most disappointing thing is the lack of Options in the "Options" menu. Graphics are relegated to "High End" and "Low End," and though not much more is really necessary, it would have been much appreciated

Overall: Disciples 2 is a good game. It's not perfect, but it manages to provide enjoyable TBS gameplay and is a wonder of a success stylistically. If you like games that "feel" really unique and tell a story well, this game is a good bet. If you're looking for super polished and refined gameplay, you'd probably be better off getting Heroes 3, but TBS and fantasy fans should still enjoy Disciples 2.

Got feedback? Be it suggestions, requests, criticisms, or even <gasp> compliments, I read it all, so go ahead and post a comment!

6 comments:

  1. I remember buying this game some time ago though mine was Disciples II: Dark Prophecy. I guess Gold edition contains all of the titles mentioned in the cover shown? Looks like the game has a really huge content.

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    1. Yeah, Disciples II Gold comes with all three expansions. Total, I'm pretty sure there are 13 campaigns, along with a whole slew of singe scenarios, plus a map/campaign creator. So yeah, considering the length of the missions, there is a ton a content (honestly, probably more than I'd ever play).

      Thanks for dropping by, Kai!

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  2. "There have been several battles I've lost because enemies had 1 hit point left after an attack."

    I'm currently playing through Devil Survivor 2 on the DS and this happens entirely more than I would like. Also, I love reading you go on and on about the atmosphere and aesthetic of the game. Not enough people do that and just skip straight to 'how many pixels or polygons does the game have'.

    Definitely going to try and pick this up when I get the chance, because I apparently love playing borderline unfair games.

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    1. Hey hey, I just ordered Devil Survivor 2 a few days ago and I'm supposed to get it next week! I love these coincidences.

      "Also, I love reading you go on and on about the atmosphere and aesthetic of the game. Not enough people do that and just skip straight to 'how many pixels or polygons does the game have'."

      That's good to hear. I'm actually a little worried that I spent *too* much time talking about the stylistic elements, but I've always felt that disregarding them in the review and just accounting for them in the ratings is a poor way to deal with them. So it's very nice to know that people appreciate it.

      Haha, yeah! Honestly, once you get the hang of it, this game isn't too hard (at least on the normal difficulty), but a high level of patience definitely helps up to and past that point.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  3. >I'm actually a little worried that I spent *too* much time talking about the stylistic elements,

    It's REALLY hard to overdo this, because the style is the first thing you get. Before the gameplay, before the controls, before all that kind of stuff. I mean, hell, some games are ALL about the style (along with having some damn fine gameplay) like TF2 or Gotham City Imposters. I mean, TF2 wouldn't be as iconic as it is without Valve giving it this complete '60s vibe, y'know?

    Also, good luck in DS2. Word of warning, though. That Nicea death website? It's pretty damn accurate, so be careful.

    And telling me that the game isn't too hard is just going to make me play on a higher difficulty because I've apparently got some kind of crazy masochistic tendency.

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    1. It certainly is quite important, of that I have no doubt. Games like Fallout and Deus Ex are also great examples.

      I will remember that when I get it!

      Ah, I see. You're one of *those*. ;P Well, if a game is good, I find myself coming back over and over again even if I have no hope of beating it, so I guess I'm in no position to talk.

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