Imagine throwing the major pre-gunpowder empires in history into a grand free-for-all. The Japanese would have samurai and ninja, Vikings would have axethrowers and berserkers, Normans would have crossbowmen and knights, and so on. Now imagine adding in random demon lairs that attack human settlements. This is the setting of Seven Kingdoms, an RTS with several fairly deep mechanics, including unit loyalty, economy balancing, and a great espionage system. Its sequel would go on to refine each of these, adding more civilizations and the ability to play as the demonic races of the Fryhtans. Both have a deep complexity that keeps me playing when other RTS games start to feel too shallow.
Unfortunately, I am reviewing neither of these games here.
Seven Kingdoms: Conquest appears, at first glance, to be a continuation of the first two games. It adds a storyline in its campaign, which adds realism to the world so that instead of being thrown all together, the races are divided into epochs (i.e. bronze age, iron age). Said storyline is as nonsensical as you might expect, although I’m willing to ignore a poor story if the game itself is fun.
Conquest adds a more cohesive research system, wherein research is restricted by building (rather than a centralized “tower of science”). It also adds a more complex diplomacy system, whereby you send diplomats to opponents’ kingdoms or to neutral cities in order to convince them to join your side. Abilities are given to individual units, similar to those found in other, more humdrum games such as Warcraft III and Starcraft.
Unfortunately, Conquest also removes every feature that made the Seven Kingdoms games worth playing over other RTS. Gone is the loyalty system, which had great little complexities (for example, extremely powerful warriors expressed reluctance in serving under incompetent generals). Removed is the commodity-based economy, which necessitated relocation and fierce protection of resource-rich land – replaced with a simple gold-per-minute “mine” building that can be built anyplace. Natural unit progression, in which units would increase in combat and leadership ability over the course of battles or training, was taken out in favor of using a special resource to “promote” units individually.
Even the great espionage system, which allowed a weaker nation to gradually bribe or assassinate its opponents’ most powerful generals, was exchanged in favor of a bland “you have X spies in this city so you can do Y” system. In Conquest, the most powerful economy will always belong to the player who controls the most cities; no longer can a large nation which ignores natural resources begin to run out of money and face the betrayal of its armies.
Enkidu may be able to damage multiple enemies with one attack, but he lacks a “Make me forget I played this game” spell.
As I played this game, small details started to wear me down. The early-game is incredibly slow, due to the “gold per second” system. Research is on a “per building” basis! Researching enhanced mine production needs to be done for each individual mine, for example. Unit abilities determine the majority of combat, making micromanagement king in a game that otherwise avoids complexity. Each civilization has several units it can use, but since each individual game only takes place in a single epoch, every human civilization will have the exact same set of units to draw from. This makes the game both look and play bland.
There are other minor issues – no “attack-move” exists, you must either move your troops into combat and “stop” them, or attack a single unit with your entire army. Promotions are powerful, but to use them properly you have to promote units one by one, which becomes tedious.
This isn’t to say there aren’t any good features to this game. The music is nice, and the game looks pretty good. Some of the units are cool-looking, though I haven’t seen them all; by the time I can afford the top tech tier, I have already beaten the map because waiting for resources is boring. Having the ability to assign a unit ability to a single hotkey and use that hotkey with an entire group is a useful feature, and one that would’ve been welcome in Warcraft III. Having three nations for each epoch is pretty neat, even if they are the exact same race with palette/model swaps.
In the end, I am an angrier and more cynical person for having bought this game without first looking through reviews. I didn’t bother merely because Seven Kingdoms was, during its time, fairly niche. No doubt if SKC received bad reviews, it was due to the poor taste of the reviewer, or a lack of decent voice acting, or something minor. I have only played three scenarios of this game and, dear readers, I am sorry but I cannot stand to play the next map, much less finish out the campaign. According to the website, the campaign goes into the modern and future eras (another departure for the series), but there is absolutely no mention of this in the manual, and those epochs are not playable in skirmishes.
I have put down other games after hardly starting them: Lords of the Realm 3, for example. That game felt like I might eventually run into a redeeming quality. I can think of no feature that can manage to redeem this game. If it were on its own, it would be merely mediocre; as a sequel to two of my favorite real-time strategy games, it makes me unhappy to even think of the game.
In an effort to figure out who was actually responsible for this game (since Enlight does not even list the game on their website, and the manual only lists the publishing, marketing, and QA teams), I had to look it up on Gamespot. Lo and behold, I found an interview with the lead designer – Infinite Interactive made the engine for this game. Early in the interview, this designer says “Seven Kingdoms II was… a brilliantly intricate game” and then goes on to say their goal was to “really tone down the micromanagement that was present in previous versions, because that is definitely the way that modern real-time strategy games are progressing”.
I wonder if it has occurred to Steve Fawkner that this is the reason there isn’t a really stunning RTS game right now? I find the modern, hero-filled, detail-free RTS to be shallow and unsatisfying. Perhaps next I’ll try Sword of the Stars.