One of my favorite games of years past was Disciples II. It wasn't perfect, but the elegantly simple battles, dark-fantasy atmosphere, and sometimes-maddening area control elements hit the perfect chord for me. Sadly, the nostalgic feelings for that earlier title make the shortcomings of Disciples III all the more painful. Somehow, Disciples III: Renaissance manages to recreate most of the aesthetics of that venerable series while completely failing to recapture the fun.
For those who have not had the pleasure of playing the earlier titles, the Disciples series is a turn-based fantasy strategy. Like its predecessors, the gameplay in Disciples III focuses on hero units and their small band of support troops. These small squads march about the map in a turn-based fashion, grabbing up goodies, fighting neutral troops scattered about the board, and (often) competing with enemy factions attempting to do the same. The artwork is quite good, probably the best part of the game, detailed landmarks, buildings, and creatures to admire. Admittedly, much of the art is recycled from earlier titles, but given the quality involved I have no qualms with this. The static pictures of the units are very well drawn, and while the 3D combat renderings aren't as strong, they are still decent.
The units themselves will be quite familiar to veterans of the series. Once again, players have at their disposal one of four leader types: a melee fighter, a ranged attacker, a mage, or a thief. The first three will probably see the most map-time, as they are capable of leading small squads of lesser units about the map. The thief is more of a utility unit, capable of spreading chaos on enemy units and softening them up before a full-out attack. If only it were actually necessary to utilize the subtle powers of the thief--but more on that later.
As battles are fought and experience gained, each unit gains levels in the tried-and-true fashion of RPGs. In the campaign, leader units have a limited array of attributes to increase, as well as a new Final Fantasy-esque advancement grid from which to choose skill upgrades. Most of the skill selections are simply increases in various attributes or the all-important added leadership slots, but a few interesting combat skills are sprinkled throughout. Basic units are given a much more simple upgrade path. Like in earlier titles, each basic unit will upgrade into more powerful units upon leveling. The branching upgrade path is determined by building the appropriate structure back at the home base. Choosing one branch on the advancement tree will lock all other branches for the entirety of a given map, so players need to carefully consider which type of units will be most helpful in a given scenario. As in past titles, these advancement paths are the same for each and every unit of that type in the game--each basic soldier will upgrade along the same chosen path, regardless of when and where they are when they advance. This simple branching choice of advancement has a certain charm, and is a welcome holdover from the previous titles.
What is unwelcome, however, is the changes made to the combat system. In the past, once a squad interacted with enemy units on the map, a simple combat screen would pop up and an elegant, uncomplicated battle would ensue. Rather than maintain that unique battle style, Disciples III instead copies just about every other recent turn-based fantasy game, and moves to a 3D battlefield. To make matters worse, Disciples III does the battle system quite poorly. The 3D hex-based combat screen is sprinkled randomly with some obstacles and some special power-up hexes. While it at first seems like this tactical map would add layers of delicious complexity to the battles, what we really get is longer, more tedious fights. The enemy AI mostly just takes a "get em!" approach, and so battles soon become laughably simple. The elegant two-rank battle system from previous Disciples titles was much more enjoyable, and actually more challenging.
A large part of the lack of any challenge stems from the enemy AI's antics outside of battle. The static neutral troops can mostly be avoided until players' units are strong enough to vanquish them, and the active enemy factions consistently make the worst possible choices. In fact, "choice" is probably the wrong word. In all but a few occasions, the AI units simply saw my units and attacked. There was no gauging of strength, very little softening up with spells or attacking with waves of squads. There was just all-out aggression. At very early stages of a campaign, before there's much chance to work up a strong army, the more-powerful enemy factions can be a bit of a challenge. Before too long, however, it merely becomes something of a miserable comedy as the enemy repeatedly throws wimpy armies away, time after time. Thankfully we're given the option of a "quick battle" button for each combat, a feature I used almost exclusively for most of the game. The area-control aspect has also changed, and not for the better. As before, each faction has a "creep" of ownership that dictates which resources are collected. Gone are the fragile rod-planters from before, to be replaced by fixed-point nodes of control. These nodes can be claimed by any leader unit. Once these nodes are claimed, a guardian unit spawns. These guardians are generally capable of at least slowing down the brain-dead enemy factions from reclaiming territory. So no longer is there a delightfully infuriating game of territory control, which was so much at the heart of the series.
The game campaign follows three factions, the Empire, the Legion of the Damned, and the Elves. Looks like players will have to wait for a possible future expansion to round out the Dwarves and Undead. Each faction gets a lengthy six-scenario story arc, although I soon found myself bored with my overly-powerful army marching virtually unopposed throughout the countryside. Each map is basically a puzzle, with a meandering path from start to finish with a few forking avenues for added flavor. The opposing factions are little more than speed bumps on the way to victory.
I could go on about the grating voice acting, hit-or-miss dialogue, and stale story. But instead I will wrap things up and simply reiterate my disappointment in the misstep the Disciples series has taken. There are far better turn-based fantasy games out there, including the previous titles in this franchise. Perhaps future updates will smarten up the enemies and bring back the fun, but for now I'm going to sadly shelve this game and move on to greener, and more enjoyable, pastures.