Rival Realms, an ambitious turn-based strategic fantasy game, relies on heavily used clichés, but implements them with skill. The plot is not overly innovative and features a clash between three groups: Elves, Humans, and Greenskins. Elves are weak in melee combat, the Greenskins, made up of orcs, gnomes, and anything green, are primitive and resilient, and the Humans are average in both magic and melee. Each race has a variety of 14 different units and a dozen base-building types.
Three distinct types of games allow the races to battle for victory. Campaign mode includes a total of 60 scenarios, 20 for each race. Custom games can be played as single-player scenarios using the Scenario Editor that comes with the game, and multiplayer games include a combination of up to eight human or computer opponents. Realms come into play during the multiplayer and single scenario games, since similar races battle against each other, while campaign scenarios require choosing a specific race.
One of the game's strengths is its handling of the inevitable "click and scan" tactic that can be nauseating when trying to command large numbers of troops spread out over terrain. Rather than forcing you to scroll quickly from one troop to another to give orders, which often penalizes you for having large forces, Rival Realms avoids the problem by assigning macros to groups. You define the groups and, thus, give commands in unison, even if all your troops aren't visible on the screen.
The interesting selection of characters includes spell casters, who can choose from an impressive collection of spells, and fire specialists who plant bombs, lay land (presumably through magic), and set traps. Thieves hide and can be invisible to enemies, while warriors appropriately wield their weapons in typical melee fashion. A total of 21 unique artifact items, divided into armor, damage, life, magic, and speed classifications, are available. Troops gain experience through combat and training and can advance up to five levels, with each level increasing the damage and durability of the unit. Special items are earned when they reach experience levels 1, 3 or 5.
Gameplay in single-player mode is quite similar to the free form of play seen in Gauntlet in that a party of heroes wanders around the countryside killing things. Most of the "quests" are really no more than point-and-click exercises involving killing the denizens and rescuing good guys. One useful advantage in managing large-scale troop battles is the sleep command, as troops regenerate quicker when resting. Unfortunately, if you're using only one hero, the session becomes tedious as you stare blankly at the screen waiting for him to wake up, healed from his nap. Combat doesn't require much activity on your part either, as heroes can be directed to auto-use their special abilities.
Troops don't receive instant training, and have to actually walk to a local training ground to improve skills. This makes sense and prevents an illogical series of events, wherein troops in combat suddenly and collectively improve. Creation of troops is made easier by the function that allows multiple troop creation at a single location. For example, ten peasants at a time can be trained in the castle, which eliminates the need for constant monitoring. Automatic task assignment helps management of time and valuable resources.
Unfortunately, there are some flaws in execution. Troops can get lost in passes and in trees and stand around in idle confusion. Monsters have a predefined threat radius, which can be predictable after time, thus, foes can be singled out and lured away from their comrades, who don't seem committed to pursuit. Movement of the characters is not smooth, due to a lack of sufficient frames of animation, and all too often, the sound responses don't match the action of a command. For example, the knight may shout out "Let's ride!" after receiving the sleep command.
Rival Realms gets a lot of aspects of gameplay right, but falls short in other areas. It's like a better-crafted version of the Heroes of Might and Magic engine, but with less spectacular graphics and even less of a plot. The learning curve is fairly easy, but the overall presentation isn't enough to establish the title as much more than average in the genre.
Graphics: Graphically, Rival Realms falls flat. It doesn't possess enough frames of animation to make character movement smooth. In contrast, the spell casting and combat effects are surprisingly good.
Sound: Unlike Kingdom Under Fire, there are no humorous voiceovers between sessions. This is peculiar, as the various troops are quite vocal when ordered into action. The voice acting is well done and appropriate for each type -- knights speak with bravado and wizards echo with mystery. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of variety in what they have to say, which quickly makes their audio responses irritating. The background music is uplifting and appropriate to a military campaign and is varied and upbeat without being distracting.
Enjoyment: Unfortunately, while the gameplay is solid, the graphics are not. Despite the flaws, though, Rival Realms provides a good balance between heroic adventurers and military tactics.
Replay Value: You can save anywhere and anytime in the game. One bizarre side effect of saving at the end of a level, though, is that the game restarts at a point immediately before the save when reloaded, thus forcing you to watch a few seconds of end-game animation before it moves on to the next level. The 60 scenarios provide plenty of gameplay and the scenario editor assures nearly unlimited play.
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