The non-Sovereign units consist primarily of humans outfitted with a vast array of weaponry. Researching the Warfare tree unlocks better and better armor and weapon options, as well as the option to generate squads of units in a single training run. These units are highly customizable, allowing players to mix-and-match weapons as cost and training time allow. I found that the customization was not nearly as entertaining as I at first thought it would be, and often found myself just letting the computer outfit the best default warriors I could buy.
Hero units wander the map and can be hired on for a price. These units, while not as powerful as the Sovereign itself, can be quite useful to an empire. Often giving the empire a bonus to resources or knowledge, these units also can level up their attributes and be outfitted with weaponry as the Sovereign. Even so, I often tucked these units safely in a town to protect their empire bonus rather than unleash them on my enemies.
The Sovereign unit is the most powerful in the game, and permanently losing the Sovereign is a game-ending defeat. Initially the only magic-using unit in the game, the Sovereign gains ability score improvements as it levels up through combat experience. Also given the ability to be outfitted with the best weapons available to an empire, the Sovereign can often single-handedly tear through enemy armies with the proper use of spells and attacks. If players want a little extra magical firepower in their arsenal, they have a few options. Sovereigns can sacrifice a bit of their magic ability to imbue other hero units with spellcasting abilities. Sovereigns can also choose to marry one of the hired hero units, and will subsequently produce up to four magic-capable children, each of which will eventually be controllable, magic-using hero units. At least on the lower difficulty settings, a magic-using family supplied with one or two of the more devastating spells can chew through just about every other army in the game.
Combat, being at the heart of any 4X game, makes a few missteps in Elemental. Once enemy armies meet on the map, a battle screen pops up. Players have the option of picking a quick resolution or duking it out on a tactical combat screen. For a game in which combat is so important, the tactical combat screen is quite poorly done. The uninteresting grid is populated by the opposing units, often standing in football-line ranks across the field. Each unit can move a few squares and then unleash a basic attack. Magic-using units, or those with ranged weapons, have a few extra options, but for the most part combat is quite dull. The units themselves are not at all interesting to behold on the tactical screen, and the special effects of attack and spells are disappointing. In fact, many times the spell effects failed to even show up when used, just one of many technical issues infecting Elemental. In addition, the controls for the tactical combat are shaky at best. I often mis-clicked my units into the wrong position, or had a spell cancel itself before I could target.
And here we get into the heart of the problems with Elemental--the technical issues. Elemental is one of the shakiest release games I've played in a long time. With frequent game crashes, numerous typographical errors, graphical glitches, and a shoddy user interface, Elemental just felt like it could have used a little more time before release. In its defense, there have been three patches in the few weeks I've been playing, and each patch did improve things markedly. I will not venture into the minefield discussion of games being released too soon here, but suffice it to say the initial release did not live up to my expectations.
And while some things have been tweaked with the patches, some of the aspects of Elemental just require a bit of time to accept. The graphics in particular are a bit of an acquired taste. With a cartoony, almost cell-shaded look, one could describe the overall graphical experience of Elemental as "simple". Or, if one is a bit less kind, once could sum up Elemental as "beige". The entire map begins almost colorless, and the various points of interested just fail to stand out. A great expanse of tan spotted with dully-colored resources is all that greets a new player. Sure, this fits in with the idea of a land blasted by magical cataclysm, but it also removes much of the immersive aspects of the game. And, eventually, towns will cause the surrounding land to green up (or blacken into char), adding some spice to mix.
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