SpellForce 3 has been a long awaited sequel to many fans of the titular series and genre hybrid, which has mixed strategy and role playing so well, that I’m willing to regard it as a spiritual successor to Warcraft. Yes, different developers, publishers and so on. I’ll be perfectly honest with you, as always. I never played SpellForce 1 or 2 and I have yet to purchase them on Steam. Their time shall come but you can rest assured that given the gap between 2 and the present title, new players to both the gameplay and lore are well accommodated by Grimlore Games.
A dev team which hit the ground running, without exaggeration. SpellForce 3 is their Steam debut, while being published by THQ Nordic which had to resurrect this fantasy franchise after the untimely demise of SpellForce’s creators at the “gentle” hands of Electronic Arts, in 2013. Phenomic Game Development gave proverbial birth to SpellForce 1 and 2, so for that reason alone, I bored you with all these details. The masterpiece I’m reviewing today, wouldn’t have been possible without the source material, after all.
I truly mean it, when I say that it matters not if you already played the first two titles in the series. SpellForce 3 is in fact a prequel to the title which sparked the entire franchise. You wouldn’t bump into spoilers or miss out any past yet still crucial details, even if you wanted to. A smart choice by Grimlore no doubt. In the gaming age of visual remasters and unnecessary reboots, being original is ever harder to come by. I’d take a prequel over the aforementioned releases, any day of the week. Especially a game whose story and characters are supported by a rich lore that doesn’t feel either forced nor copy/pasted from countless tropes or genre counterparts.
To give you an example, there’s a scenario that you can play before even starting the campaign (and its obligatory prologue). Before you’ll be introduced to the main characters that are shaping SpellForce 3’s vibrant world, you can interact even with the story’s antagonist. Unbeknownst to players, obviously. It all felt amusing in the end, once I realized that the considerable efforts undertaken during that scenario and in spite of a simulated resistance from would-be foes, it was just a clever ruse helping out the enemy side all along.
This title thrives on plot twists and it managed to pleasantly surprise me with this small, but significant detail. I’ve had my fill of high fantasy settings that are as predictable as my next meal. There are three playable races within SpellForce 3, but the singleplayer campaign shall focus on the exploits of the Nortander Kingdom, which is dominated by humans. In Skirmish Mode, you have full access to the army rosters of Elves and Orcs as well. Back to the humans, their majestic capital of Greyfell reminded me of King’s Landing and its Red Keep.
Both are a sight to behold and the attention to detail is staggering. Most RTS titles lack that narrative or even architectural depth that you normally find in RPGs. Also uncommon until this stylistic hybrid, was the option of forging your own protagonist through a character creator screen. Male, female and various classes which shall influence the combat abilities, but you can’t really choose the other playable races at this stage. So your campaign hero shall be human and part of an elite fighting unit within Nortander’s Royal Army.
Even though you are among the ranks of the Wolf Guard, the story insists upon your origins and they are quite ironic. As the progeny of a traitorous leader which nearly destroyed the kingdom, you are viewed with suspicion, fear and especially contempt by many of your brothers and sisters in arms. In won’t be easy to ingratiate yourself, but fate has it that a new chain of events will offer just such an occasion. Without spoiling anything, this fantasy world is once again in turmoil, after it was slowly recovering from a devastating civil war which was waged between mages and non-magic users (more precisely, religious fanatics) that nearly crippled the realm.
Mages lost this conflict and are now hunted down and imprisoned/tortured/executed by a cult of zealots which have the support of nobility and the Crown. Yes, the mysteriously powerful dragon-riding Queen, somehow views magic as a threat instead of a useful tool for rebuilding the long lost glory of Nortander. This subplot seemed at least partially inspired by the Chantry vs. Circle of Magi struggle from the Dragon Age series. It was only natural for me to role play as a mage in SpellForce 3’s campaign and fight this injustice from within the system itself.
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The gorgeous visuals found throughout SpellForce 3 are the direct result of a custom and proprietary graphics engine, developed by Grimlore Games to power their projects. A comprehensive map editor along with modding documentation, should offer the perfect opportunity for skilled enthusiasts to share their own ideas, materialized as SpellForce 3 mods. Naturally, running the game maxed out at a resolution of 3840×2160, proved to be challenging, since I also seek out a stable frame rate. I ended up with the “2K compromise” and never noticed anything below 60fps, no matter the size of the digital battles unfolding before my eyes.
Just to my liking, SpellForce 3 is screenshot galore through its easy to hide HUD, at the simple press of a button. Took over 100 screens so far and linked the majority on my Steam profile as well. Plenty more shall be added in due time, since there’s no shortage of breathtaking scenery or set pieces to immortalize. Even if I wanted to find something to complain, I can’t. A smooth and beautiful experience across the entirety of my playthrough. It’s one of those still rare titles that can make good use of a GPU’s VRAM capabilities, even if they surpass 6GB.
I didn’t expect sounds of any lesser quality than the visuals and SpellForce 3 didn’t disappoint me at all. An epic soundtrack that made me seek out the individual songs on YouTube and professional voice acting for all characters, no matter what small role they have to play within the campaign. AAA standards from all points of view. As a fan of epic OSTs, I am glad that I found a new video game that can give movie soundtracks a run for their money. A small sample below. Excellent job, Grimlore!
The gameplay is combat-focused even if it involves a modicum of base management. I was more than happy to notice that it’s not a dreary model of churning out villagers to chop down the trees and strike down iron ore, while having to “babysit” them as well. The process is both straightforward and automated. You erect several key structures to gather the required resources for the troop-yielding barracks, and the builders/carriers/gatherers don’t need any further instructions other than appointing them to the building in question. Think “The Settlers” series or the more recent “Northgard”. Raising a decently-sized army has a mandatory support role, since the bread and butter of those high fantasy battles are showcasing the true power of heroes. These special units have access to an inventory, skill tree and can interact with loot or various objects and points of interest across the maps.
The control scheme allows for a lot of customization, while a quick menu for activating abilities and changing formations can either slow down time or pause it altogether. Tactics are important, since mindlessly charging during a boss-tier challenge will only result in the loss of your units. Fortunately, the heroes “learned” a thing or two from the Protoss. Godstones are supernatural portals which can both instantly transport and revive fallen commanders, in a limited capacity. Better than to rely on this mechanic, simply pay attention to enemy types and their numbers. Even a level maxed out hero sporting the best gear available, can get overrun. Rank and file troops are a “meat shield” if you will. You can heal them as well through White Magic spells, while the healing potions are reserved for the heroes. Flanking and attacking from multiple sides are keys to an easy victory.
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RPG elements aren’t just limited to the aforementioned features. Characters interact with each other and with the world they inhabit. You have dialogue options, side quests to complete (or not) and freedom of choice in how you further the storyline. Merchants are carrying both upgraded equipment and the blueprints which shall allow the construction of advanced structures as well as damage bonuses to the already recruit-able troops. Exploring your surrounding may yield much needed resources or pieces of loot that can be sold for profit. It all gets “reinvested” into the battle maps whose bases of operations act similarly to a formula found often in city builders. Expanding the base far from it’s HQ, requires the control of additional outpost nodes. You know the drill: move in your troops, eliminate the enemy and build the new expansion slots.
There are no flaws to SpellForce 3’s story or its gameplay. If you’ll get bored by the campaign and just desire battles and constant action, you can jump right into the thick of it, through the Skirmish Mode against the AI or Multiplayer battles against capable human players. I have no idea if there will be DLCs to the base game, but SpellForce 2 had quite a few. I’m glad that despite more than a decade between them, the new sequel has managed to surpass all expectations and deliver a product that’s a serious contender to Game of the Year awards, in both strategy and PC exclusive categories. Stylistic hybrids are the future of PC gaming, after all. What the Total War series achieved by mixing RTS with TBS, SpellForce 3 managed in a similar manner with RPG elements. It showed me the large impact that role playing can have over my favorite genre, strategy. This is truly a title worthy of my ever growing collection!
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.