Simplification in a complicated gaming world is an elegant thing, if done right. Often, focusing on subtle details over a flood of features makes for a title worth returning to again and again. Battle Realms is a perfect example of the "less is more" concept put to good use, and a fun game to boot.
As Kenji, exiled head of the Dragon Clan in a broken land that resembles ancient Japan, you return to once again reunite the people under your family's banner. Unification means defeating the splintered clans of the Serpent, the Wolf, and the mysterious Lotus. Along the way, allies and enemies will twist the plot, occasionally guided by your choice of providence to attack next. Battle Realms's story unfolds in an understated, but gripping manner.
The only two prevalent resources are water and rice, and the set population is usually 30+ instead of the normal 100 or so. What evolves from the simple economy and sparse number of units is less of a RTS game and more of a game about squad warfare. Gamers used to a "million men with sticks" or "tank rush" tactics will find the game frustrating. Conversely, strategists who learn the lay of the land and respect the pros and cons of each unit will find the nuances truly enjoyable.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Battle Realms is unit training. Peasants appear from huts and can build, gather, or train to become warriors in military buildings, but creation slows down as the populace nears its limit. After basic training, warriors can continue their studies, as in the case of an archer who learns the arts of hand-to-hand combat in the dojo to become a Dragon warrior, capable of melee or magical ranged attacks. Such a unit can train up to the ultimate, a Samurai, skilled with bow and sword. Additionally, Geishas can study the arts of healing to the point of sacrificing themselves to heal others. This deft move by the designers means a wide variety of units with only a scant number of buildings.
While Battle Realms has fewer types of buildings and units than RTS games like Empire Earth, the items are exquisitely rendered. The four different clan types have a unifying theme through their respective elements. As the Dragon Clan features buildings like a Dojo, Archery Range, and Bathhouse, the Wolf Clan has more of a barbaric feel to it. The Wolves Den, Quarry, and Vitality Gardens are all built of rock, exclusive to the Wolf Clan. Additionally, animations of characters waiting for orders are funny and crisp. Graphics are only blocky during close-up cut-scenes, but not to the detriment of gameplay.
The game has a few noteworthy limitations. Fights tend to breakdown into chaotic melees and even the stalwart Samurai get mowed down by towers. The lightning cast by the Lotus Clan is unbalanced, decimating forces with ease. Simple doesn't mean easier by any means, and the unit balance between clans could have been better. In multiplayer games, as long as a single peasant lives, rebuilding the army is not a problem, which makes for tedious drawn out battles at times. Finally, having various storylines to play for each group would have been nice, such as the rebellion of the Wolf Clan or the Lotus Clan's ultimate goal of stopping Kenji. Perhaps add-on packs will include more stories.
Sounds play a vital role in Battle Realms. When a squad enters the forest, birds shriek and fly away, often giving away their position. Other sound effects are excellent, the clang of a sword cleaving enemies or the meaty "thunk" of an arrow striking true are well done. Even the voice acting shines, which is an improvement on many RTS games.
Multiplayer games in Battle Realms, despite dragging on at times, are solid. A host of maps give gamers multiple places to hold a war. The skirmish mode, while not as challenging as a human opponent, also gives generals a chance to scout the lay of the land and a nice workout to brush up their squad strategies.
Battle Realms doesn't have the hundreds of units of Total Annihilation and Empire Earth, or the rocking soundtrack of the Command & Conquer series, nor the hype. What it does offer, however, is sharp graphics and sounds, a fine story, and exciting gameplay. Fans tired of the fanfare and hoopla who want a really good game should turn to Battle Realms as an exciting, viable alternative.
Graphics: The landscape is gorgeous, from the slopes to the rivers. The trees and wildlife come alive when the enemy comes near.
Sound: A game with decent voice acting! Battle sounds are chaotic and nicely realized. Little details in sound continue to surprise throughout.
Enjoyment: Lowering the amount of distractions in the game reveals a subtle geometry that beckons players. Multiplayer code is nearly waterproof and the maps plentiful.
Replay Value: More storylines would be nice, though the existing one is worth playing through. Multiplayer is good, but can be interminably long.
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