Battle Realms, from first time developer Liquid Entertainment, is a real-time strategy game (RTS) with a Japanese theme. It is also, interestingly enough, almost the direct opposite of the last RTS I reviewed, Empire Earth. While Empire Earth was huge, with lots of playing styles and strategies, Battle Realms uses a much smaller scale. Now, being smaller doesn’t necessarily make a game worse, but Liquid Entertainment removed so many strategic elements from Battle Realms that, despite looking good and running smoothly, the game feels slight. There just isn’t enough going on to make it fun to play, or to give it a shelf life on your computer of more than a week.
Since strategy is the most important thing in an RTS, it’s odd that Battle Realms has so little. But consider all of the places where Liquid Entertainment removed strategy from the game:
1. The resources. There are only two resources in the game -- water and rice -- and both are in unlimited supply. So you only have to control one rice field and one body of water (including a well that you can build) and you’re set for the game. You don’t need to rush to control resources, and you don’t need to battle for resources.
2. The map. The map starts out explored, including the locations of resources. So there’s no difficulty in finding a spot for your base -- or in finding enemy bases since they have to be near rice fields.
3. The peasants. Peasants in Battle Realms do the regular things -- gather resources and construct buildings -- but there are two differences. For starters, peasants are produced automatically at peasant huts, so you don’t have to decide when to create them. Secondly, they’re what you use to create military units (in a system reminiscent of Starcraft’s Zerg race), so you can never have too many. That means the whole dynamic of deciding what percentage of your population limit you should dedicate to gathering resources is gone here, because if you find yourself with too many resources, you can just send peasants off to train.
4. The battles. Once battles start, you have almost no control of the outcome. Battles run about five times faster than they should, so things are just moving too quickly for you to control, and military units tend to jump and dance and spin during combat -- which is fun to watch -- but it means you can’t target anything, either. Plus, units really, really want to fight, so it’s difficult to get them to break off their attacks, and once they take damage they move more slowly. So battles tend to end with one side being decimated, and things like hit-and-run tactics don’t work.
So where does the strategy lie? Well, there are three areas: in picking a location for your base, in placing your defensive towers (since you only get four), and in deciding what military units to build. That’s not a whole lot, especially since you’re given a severe population limit (usually 40 or less), meaning you should always just select your best military units.
But Battle Realms has problems in other areas as well. Consider the clans. There are four clans -- the honorable Dragon Clan, the sneaky Serpent Clan, the magical (and yucky) Lotus Clan, and the rugged Wolf Clan -- and they each have over a dozen unique units, plus a handful of buildings. That sounds like a lot of variety, but even though the clans look and sound differently, they’re really just a slight variation on each other. For example, each clan has its own basic healer, archer, siege, and melee units, and, although the other units can be different, they’re just not enough to make the clans seem very distinct, especially since the buildings are almost identical and the training methods are identical. But, on the good side, the similarities mean the clans are fairly well balanced.
The two campaigns that come with Battle Realms are also reasonably bad. Either the Battle Realms engine doesn’t support much in the way of triggers, or else Liquid Entertainment chose to avoid triggers, and so the 14 missions in each campaign play like simple skirmish mode. You get a base, the computer gets a base (or a few bases), and you have to destroy every last computer controlled unit and building to win. That not only sounds boring, but it gets worse since this is one of those games where a peasant can sneak off and start building a new base while you’re destroying the old one. Plus, there isn’t any friendly explore option for units, and you can spend as much time tracking down that last enemy unit as you can playing the rest of the mission.
And that’s too bad because Liquid Entertainment tried to do some interesting things with the campaigns. For starters, there are some branching elements to the campaigns, so at key junctions you can decide who to attack or which allies to woo. Also, while in both campaigns you play Kenji, a descendant of the Dragon Clan, in one campaign you’re good and want to defend citizens and unify the clans, while in the other you’re evil and want to put citizens in their place and take over the clans. The contrast is interesting.
And Battle Realms has some other bright spots. It’s just that the game’s good areas are technical areas rather than gameplay areas. So I could tell you that Battle Realms has an extremely nice interface, that its graphics are pretty good, that Liquid Entertainment did an excellent job with the unit animations, and that the game ran great on my computer, even though my computer falls squarely in between the minimum and recommended system requirements. But how important are those things if the gameplay isn’t any good?
Well, not very. So, if you’re looking for a fantasy RTS, try Warlords Battlecry. If you’re looking for a fast-paced RTS, try Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2. If you’re just interested in a 3D RTS, then you can’t go wrong with Empire Earth. But don’t play Battle Realms unless you’re prepared to be disappointed -- or worse, bored.