Disciples II: Dark Prophecy Review

Disciples II: Dark Prophecy is the sequel to Disciples: Sacred Lands, a turn-based strategy game that earned a very loyal following.  The sequel features new artwork, units, and quests, but the gameplay has stayed essentially the same.  This is not at all a bad thing though, as players who loved the first game will enjoy the sequel, and gamers that missed Sacred Lands will get a chance to see what all the fuss was about.

Disciples II features the same four races as its predecessor: The Empire, The Mountain Clans, The Undead Hordes, and The Legions of the Damned.  The Empire are human knights and mages, The Mountain Clans a race of dwarves, The Undead Hordes are zombies and skeletons and the necromancers who control them, and The Legion of the Damned are all manner of foul demons.  The game provides a campaign for each of the races, which tells the story of the war between these races from each race's perspective.  Players can also choose from the numerous scenarios which come with the game, or design their own with the included scenario editor.  Each individual or campaign scenario will have a set of victory conditions which must be achieved to win.  There are a variety of victory conditions: protect a character, kill a character, capture a city, find an artifact, and more.  Some scenarios also feature triggered events which change the objectives or add new ones as play unfolds.

Before play begins, players must select their leader type - either warrior, mage, or guildmaster.  Selecting the warrior will allow your units to heal automatically each turn.  The mage reduces spell research and casting costs, and allows access to high level spells.  The guildmaster gives extra options to a faction's thieves, such as the ability to give an enemy party false orders, changing their position in battle.  This feature has an affect on the strategy used to complete a scenario, and adds to replay value by allowing players to try a scenario again using a different leader.

Players begin with a capital city and one or more heroes.  Heroes are used to create armies which can be moved around the map.  The heroes come in different classes such as knights and mages, each with its own set of specialty attacks.  Capitals, and any captured cities, act as sources of recruitment for many of the game's 200+ plus units.  The capital can also be expanded by adding special structures to provide the player with unit and spell upgrades.  Some of the unit upgrade paths split into mutually exclusive paths, forcing the player to make some strategic choices.  For example, do you want your healers to restore more health for a single unit, or heal multiple units for a lesser amount?  This is a nice touch which allows players to tweak their armies to fit the strategy they think will win the scenario.

Cities also exert a zone of influence over the surrounding land, and any any gold or mana resources which fall within this zone generate resources for the player each turn.  These zones appear on the map differently for each race: Lush green lands for The Empire, snowy fields for The Mountain Clans, dead forests for The Undead Hordes, and lava pits and flows for The Legions of the Damned.  It's a nice visual touch which lets the player quickly see who is benefiting from each resource and gives each empire a touch of additional character.

The zones can also be expand through the use of rods.  Rods are magical items which can only be placed by a specific class of hero for each faction.  Once placed, they will slowly convert the land around them to the player's control.  They are a good way to expand the influence of an empire or to deny key resources to the enemy.

During a turn, players move their leaders across the colorful and animated maps to explore, conquer cities, and investigate ancient ruins.  The maps provide plenty of things to explore, but are also home to armies of enemies and monsters.  Most of these remain stationary, but some initiate attacks with the player or roam the map causing trouble.

When combat occurs, the battle takes place on another screen with the units involved, up to six per side.  Combat is turn-based, with each unit acting in turn based on an initiative rating.  Units can attack, defend, or attempt to retreat from battle.  Once a side has withdrawn or been eliminated, the victorious units are awarded experience points based on the quality of foe defeated.  When enough points have been earned, a unit is automatically upgraded to the next higher unit class, provided the appropriate structure has been built in the capital.  Units that have reached the end of the upgrade path continue to accrue experience, and are rewarded with bonus statistics upon reaching the next level.

The graphics in Disciples II are very well done.  The unit portraits have a very unique look to them, and help to give the game its own special atmosphere.  Character animations on the map and on the battle screen are excellent, bringing the game's many interesting units to life.  The spell effects are particularly imaginative - you'll find yourself researching and casting some spells just to get to see what they look like.

Players who enjoyed the first Disciples game will not find an evolutionary leap forward in Disciples II.  However, they will enjoy Disciples II for many of the same reasons they played the first game and should almost all be quite happy with the game's latest incarnation.  Gamers who played any of the Heroes of Might and Magic games will notice a strong similarity between those games and Disciples II.  If they write off Disciples II as merely a derivative knock-off, though, they will be missing out on a good game.  Disciples II has stronger story and roleplaying elements than was present in the Heroes games, and any fans of those games are certain to really enjoy Disciples II.

One thing that Disciples II is not is easy.  The AI plays a tough game and players will often find themselves in battle with equal or superior foes.  In battle, the AI makes good tactical choices, singling out powerful but vulnerable units and concentrating fire on important foes.  

One of the best features of the game is the advancement of units.  Careful management of a leader and his army can result in a very formidable fighting force.  However, the loss of this force is usually absolutely devastating, and will almost always require a reload or restart of the scenario.  It takes time and a careful selection of battles to build a high level army.  Since there are a fixed number of wandering monster groups on a map, the weaker enemies can only be used to build up a single group.  New armies created later in a scenario will find themselves almost constantly overmatched, making their survival quite perilous.

A nice feature of the campaign game is the ability to select a leader to take into the next scenario.  This prevents the player from the need to groom a new leader from scratch with each new level.  Unfortunately, the leader does not bring along his army, requiring the player to groom a new batch of units.

In The End, This Game Hath Been Rated: 88%. A fascinating game that provides a tremendous amount of gameplay.  Players will find hours of fun melting away as they keep telling themselves, "just one more turn..."  It might not be entirely original, but it is a good enough game that it does not really matter.  It's difficulty may prove to be an obstacle to some players, though.

System Requirements:  233 MHz Pentium II CPU; 32 MB RAM; 8 MB Video RAM; 4x CD-ROM; 400 MB Hard Drive Space; Mouse.