Etherlords II Review


If you’ve been around fantasy gaming for at least a little while, then I can give you a pretty good idea of what Etherlords II is like by telling you that it is a mix of gameplay inspired by Magic: The Gathering (MTG) and the Heroes of Might and Magic (HOMM) games. Just hearing that a game draws its inspiration from these two worthy titles is enough to bring a tingle of joy to fantasy gamers. However, in reality Etherlords II is a good new/bad news kind of thing as it implements one aspect of play very well while falling flat in the other.

Screenshots
A wizard unleashes a spell.

If you want the good news first, skip ahead and then come back to this paragraph. Personally, I prefer to dispense with the bad news first and get it over with, so here goes. Etherlords II features two levels of play, strategic and tactical. The tactical component plays like MTG, with two wizards casting dueling spells drawn from a “deck” of spells. The strategic component plays more like HOMM, presenting your wizard with a large map to explore. It is in this strategic component that the game disappoints. While turn-based games such as HOMM and Age of Wonders present maps full of things to explore and with which to interact, the maps in Etherlords II are remarkably devoid of life. If you place your mouse over a building or object without any interactions, the cursor turns into a wagging finger telling you that there’s no way to interact with the item or structure in question. Get used to it because you’ll see the wagging finger a lot. Making things even more frustrating is the fact that you are not really free to explore on your own and choose your own way. The maps are in reality mazes that direct you from one encounter to the next in a carefully scripted sequence. You’re forced to talk to the next NPC in line or duel the next wizard without the choice to do anything else in between. The duels are fun as I’ll get into soon, but the NPC conversations are tedious exercises in fantasy clichés and extremely over-acted voice work. Since you’re essentially on a rail here, it makes you wonder why they just didn’t dispense with the game’s strategic map and make the campaign into a series of wizard duels. The strategic game is not a complete loss - you can earn new spells through dueling or finding shops which gives you the option to endlessly tweak your deck before going into a duel.  Since there is no penalty for losing a duel, there's always the opportunity to try a different strategy without destroying your wizard in the process.  Your wizard will also gain experience as duels are won, allowing your wizard to gain levels and the bonuses that come with them.  Watching your wizard grow in power has some of the same allure as it does in RPG games, it's just too bad that it all takes place in lifeless world.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s time to have a look at the game’s strong suit. If you’ve played MTG before, then you’ll be able to catch on really quick here. Each wizard has a “deck” or pool of spells that they can cast in an attempt to reduce the enemy wizard’s hit points down to zero. The duel is played in rounds in which each wizard is given the opportunity to cast spells, order summoned creatures to attack, or to attempt to block the attacking creatures of the opposing wizard. This sounds pretty straightforward, but there are actually a few catches here. The first is that casting spells requires mana. You’ll need to choose which spells to cast carefully as you won’t be able to cast them all. Each wizard generates mana each round, but in the first round each is only allocated a single point of mana. While the amount of mana generated increases as each round passes, you’ll need to pick the right spells to cast early on if you’re to survive until the later higher mana rounds.  You can't just try to hold on to a expensive spells waiting for the late game, though.  Should the duel last too long, "mana burn" will start occurring and will damage each wizard at the start of each successive round.