Slovakian developer Mayhem Studios had a pretty good idea for Empire of Magic: take a traditional fantasy-themed turn-based strategy game (such as Heroes of Might and Magic or Age of Wonders) but turn it into more of a role-playing game. That is, change the emphasis from armies and defending cities to characters and completing quests. It’s just that, for all the creativity that went into thinking up the game, Mayhem Studios seems to lack the technical know-how to put it together well, and, as a result, Empire of Magic is one of the buggiest, sloppiest games I’ve played in a long while. It is also, admittedly, fun from time to time, so keep reading if the premise sounds appealing.
In Empire of Magic you control a young mage named Artemian. Ill winds have been blowing through the land, with people disappearing and wild rumors afloat, and so your teacher sends you out to investigate. From those humble beginnings you fight some bad guys and find some people to help you out, and eventually you discover an Evil Plot is afoot where an Evil Wizard wants to Take Over the World. You, then, need to stop him.
The basic story is, of course, familiar, but that’s okay because Mayhem Studios did a nice job with the map designs. Empire of Magic doesn’t have a world map like other role-playing games. Instead it is divided into a series of levels. The single player campaign has 12 levels (including a tutorial level), and each level is colorful and hand-crafted (that is, not the product of an editor), and Mayhem Studios was good about filling up the level maps with things to do. So the levels are individually entertaining, and that helps to mask that collectively they don’t add up to much. Plus, I suspect most gamers don’t expect too much when it comes to a role-playing game’s story anyway.
Gameplay is about what you’d expect from a turn-based strategy game. Units have action points they get to spend each turn (for things like moving and training), units gain experience (and levels) as they fight and complete quests, and units can be moved together to form groups. However, unlike other turn-based strategy games, the groups in Empire of Magic are very small. At most three units can be combined to form a group, and only one hero unit (such as Artemian) can be in a group at any one time.
When two opposing groups meet up, a battle ensues, and it’s here that Empire of Magic really starts to differ from the likes of Heroes of Might and Magic. For starters, battles are much smaller in scale, since there can be at most six units involved, but Mayhem Studios also shrank down the battlefield so that it is essentially a single amorphous location. There isn’t any sense of where a unit is standing (so you don’t have to worry about things like line of sight or being attacked from behind), but it means the only things a unit can do in combat are attack, defend (to deflect an attack from another unit), and cast a spell. That makes combat sort of basic, but it also means battles are quick and easy.
However, where combat really differs from other games is how Mayhem Studios decided to handle action points. The action points a unit has available to it in combat come from the same pool it is allocated at the start of its turn. So if you take a group and move it until it runs out of action points, then that group won’t be able to defend itself if it is attacked during an opponent’s turn. It’ll just have to stand there and take a beating until the opposing group runs out of action points or breaks off the attack (or your group dies, which is more likely). Since the attacking group also always attacks first in combat, Empire of Magic wildly favors the attacking group. In fact, since you’re not allowed to recruit many units in the game, and since hero units aren’t especially more powerful than other units, being attacked in the single player campaign probably means you’ll have to load, and so the campaign can be seriously aggravating until you learn how to attack without being attacked in return. (Mostly this is a case of acquiring mounted units, which have a lot of action points, and learning the haste spell, which increases a group’s action points for the turn.) Thus, Empire of Magic isn’t a role-playing game where you just take your units and bash in the enemy. It requires patience, a lot of hit-and-run tactics, and a lot of loading.
I didn’t really like how combat works in Empire of Magic, but I eventually got used to it. So what really hurt the game in my mind is how buggy and sloppy it is. Empire of Magic is an import, so I wasn’t surprised at its poor voice acting and badly written text. But the game is just loaded with bugs and other problems, to the point where you have to wonder if it went through QA testing at all. And I’m not talking about bugs where if you have an unusual CD drive or graphics card you might have a problem. These are very obvious, repeatable bugs (including one that until recently prevented people from completing level eight) that should have been noticed by even the most casual of testers. Even now, with the game on its second patch, it still crashes a lot, and some people report not being able to play it at all.
The manual doesn’t help a lot, either. For some reason Mayhem Studios devoted over 15 pages to the people and creatures you can encounter in the game (including a truly bizarre entry for chickens), but then they neglected to write about how combat works, or what morale does for you. Eventually I got the hang of combat, but if there’s any point to morale, I have no idea what it is.
Despite its myriad problems, Empire of Magic still provides some fun. When a bug stopped me from finishing the campaign, I decided I liked the game enough to wait for a patch to come out, rather than stop early and write a review about the part of the game I’d already seen. (And note: for some games I’d be thrilled to encounter a bug that would shorten my playing time.) So I’d recommend Empire of Magic provisionally, and note that you might be better off waiting for a third patch, and that you should buy the game locally just in case it doesn’t work for you or causes too much aggravation, so that it’s easier to return.