Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
The Disciples series, originally designed by Strategy First, is back again with its fourth entry currently within Early Access by developer Frima Studios and returning publisher Kalypso Media. Taking a turn towards something new in this turned based building strategy compared to its predecessors, I’ve easily sunk over a dozen hours and can honestly say that I’m sure I’ve barely begun to scrape the top.
Now unlike the much more known Heroes of Might & Magic series started by 3DO and then picked up by Ubisoft for HoMM V and on, Disciples fell into a more niche category that unless you knew someone who played it or took a chance at picking up the box on a shelf? You could have easily missed it. What made this series different is that instead of gathering resources for giant armies, you raised the strength of individual units to fight for you. This brought more of a “personal” touch to the experience as you really didn’t want to lose anyone unless it really was a tough battle and then perhaps cried a bit even in victory.
Not having played the series in quite some time, I re-loaded Disciples II: Gallean’s Return (Dark Prophecy / Guardians of the Light / Servants of the Dark), Disciples II: Rise of the Elves and Disciples III: Renaissance. Having gone back through where the series has come from allowed for quite a comparison of how far the series has come. No longer the series that I used to spend entire weekends playing the campaign or going head to head with a few friends, gone are most of the turn-based elements of the world of exploration in favor of a real-time faster paced experience.
This move was perhaps one of the biggest changes to get used to. A lot of this series and those like it have relied for so long on the fact that units could only move so far per turn allowing you to deviously calculate your next move or frantically scramble to defend your main base. These elements are both actually now gone as our protagonist Avyanna moves around the world in real time conquering ore mines, wood mills and other resource sources as needed. Or at least, as what’s possible within her current army strength and your own strategic mind.
Along with this turn to a more real-time experience, Disciples: Liberation has also moved into a more RPG like direction with choices and consequences. Now instead of having a campaign based on scenarios, the campaign is based in chapters with your choices forming your path forward as well as your relationships with your allies. Are you friendly? Cruel? Power hungry? That’s up to you but just be sure to prepare for the consequences as some people will really not have the tolerance for your wit even if you yourself found what you said quite funny.
This was perhaps my favorite part of the shift in direction for the series. Falling more in line with the likes of BlackIsles, Interplay, Bioware, Obsidian Entertainment, Bethesda and more, the adventure that you find yourself within is a lot more hands on than simply moving an army or a force to be reckoned with across the map and then winning battles against crazy odds. Where do you want to start? What do you want to do while you’re there? How much do you actually want to do while you’re there? These choices are all yours as this adventure is all about how Avyanna is building up a force of her own with elements from returning factions such as Legion of the Damned, the Undead Hordes, the Elven Alliance and the Empire (basically humans).
Continuing on the twists of the series, Avyanna does have a home base in order to build new buildings and research new spells, but it doesn’t exist in any of the areas that you are exploring. Instead, your base of operations exists somewhere that can at all times be teleported to as long as you’re in the outside world and not diving underground or inside into a dungeon-like area. This base of operations lets you build structures in order to hire new units that can be leveled up and upgraded over time to be more useful to you.
Now there are three elements that I really enjoyed with this feature. The first, is that because Avyanna leads her own faction, you get to pick which buildings are put into place. Want a hybrid set of undead, demons and elves? Go for it! There’s nothing stopping you from doing this. The second element is that as there is limited space, you aren’t bound by early game decisions. Once you run out of place and want to switch things up, all you need to do is phase out what you don’t want and either phase something in or build it from scratch. It keeps with the level of customization and it doesn’t punish you for trying new things out down the line.
The third element that I really enjoyed is that unlike the previous entries into the series, if you lose your minions you don’t need to cry (as much) as long as you’re not deep deep within a dungeon. The reason is that because of the more open ended approach to the adventure, there are elements in place that allow you to hire new units and then train them up to Avyanna’s level as needed. This not only avoids having to try to keep new units alive while at low levels, but it also lets you catch up units that you may be keeping in reserve in case something does happen.
Combining the hirable units with Avyanna herself, and there’s one more element to take into account before heading into battle. Alongside the hirable units, any companion of Avyanna’s can join her in battle. Each of these units are much more powerful, contain incredible abilities and unlike hirable units, if they are downed in combat, they’ll come right back once the curtain has fallen on the corpses of your enemies.
With the real-time shift of the rest of the adventure, this latest in the series takes the hex based combat put into place by Disciples: Renaissance and refines it. This switch from the your forces on one side and the enemy on the other offered up a much higher stakes tactical game as you now had to worry about where all your forces were at all times such as with others in this vein like Black Guards (2) and Gloomhaven. Now instead of worrying about Avyanna’s level, her companions levels and her hired units levels, you also have to worry about where everyone is standing on the field so to both maximize your force’s capabilities and minimize your casualties.
Set up in an initiative order, battle takes place in rounds that give every unit the ability to act at least once per round short of counter-attacks and attacks of opportunity. Unlike your traditional experience though, characters, companions and hirable units all have two mana modules of differing or matching colours. What these mana modules do is allow any and all characters to move and to act. What the change in colours do however is allow for certain units to attack twice if they have the same colour of mana as long as they don’t move. It’s an extra layer in the strategy as it applies as much to your forces as it does to your enemies.
The rest of combat is “pretty easy”. Set up on a hexagonal board, each unit can move a certain amount of spaces per their turn and then either attack an enemy or perform a supportive action such as healing or increasing their attack or defense. From there, as it’s a hex based grid, you’ll have to be careful on how you line your units up as some spaces will not allow you to attack at a range as you will no longer be line of sight, while other positions can land you into the perfect flanking positions or the worst ones.
What I loved / hated about flanking is that you can technically flank a unit three times because of how the hex grid is designed. This allows for some rather neat “ambushes” if you hold your initiative for just a little while or if you play your cards just right and get lucky that the enemy moved right where you wanted them to. There’s a learning curve to get it right depending on your unit setup and which faction you decided to go and see first as it’s an open choice and I have no regrets having seen the Elven Alliance first. The hate would be sometimes you think something is going to be great only to find yourself double flanked and potentially rather dead.
If there’s one thing that I would have a complaint about it would be the speed of combat. Just about the rest works rather well from moving around the main map, teleporting to and from the main base, checking out your unit formations and equipment loadouts, but combat takes a long time especially against archer units that keep running away all of the time. I would like the ability to speed it up either to 2x or to 4x the normal speed as the increase in speed would not detract from the thrill of winning or losing. It would simply make things a bit smoother especially when there are almost twenty people on the field and each and every one gets at least one action.
Finally, a quick note for multiplayer, as it currently stands the option was disabled to try so we’ll try to take a closer look at that on full release as I’m quite curious how this new style will affect the player versus player approach that is listed.
- Will Disciples: Liberation include multiplayer? Yes. You can battle with a friend in two-player online skirmishes
So overall, even with the shift of the Disciples series with Disciples: Liberation to a more real-time and turn-based tactics RPG than the older entries of “player versus player” styles, it’s in good shape. The shift isn’t a bad one but as mentioned above, a few small tweaks could definitely help to polish this off even further regardless of if you decide to drop into this dark and intriguing world on the PC or on the consoles at the beginning of next month.Score: N/A for previews