The Disciples franchise is a series of turn based fantasy strategy games, with RPG elements. While not as well known as some similar franchises, it has achieved a cult following, in particular for the Disciples 2 line released in 2002, with the last expansion of original material for that game in 2003. Fans in North America have waited seven years for another true sequel to that game, and followed the chaotic development of Disciples 3 under the stewardship of a troubled publisher, through a change in developers, and through a vacuum of information in which long stretches would go by where the game's continued existence seemed questionable. Following a release in Russia last year, Disciples 3: Renaissance has finally made its way to North America. While it brings with it some of the same things fans loved about the last game and a welcome graphical upgrade, it also brings some changes with mixed results, and it shows the signs of its turbulent development process.
It would be difficult to tell you what the exact backstory for Disciples 3 is. It is told during a series loading screens with poor quality voice overs that only the most devoted player would have the patience to sit through, rather than clicking the start button to get to the action. It doesn't seem terribly important, in any event. It is in essence the same story as any of the many other Warhammer knock-offs, whereby you have the same assortment of stock fantasy racial factions and their assorted armies, locked in a state of perpetual warfare. This time around the playable factions include the typical medieval holy empire human faction, an elven race with twisted forest creatures, and a demonic race. Other factions encountered as adversaries (but not playable, as in previous games) include an undead faction, and a dwarven race, in addition to some minor independent factions like mercenaries, bandits, and orcs. After a number of Disciples 2 expansions that made more races playable for that game, some fans may be disappointed to see that there are only three playable this time around. There is, however, already a Disciples 3 expansion in production that will reportedly add a new campaign for the undead faction.
Disciples 3:Renaissance is rated (T) for Teen.
Gameplay - 60 / 100
The Disciples games are in a similar vein to the tried and true formula of other turn based strategy fantasy games, like the Heroes of Might and Magic series, although with some distinctions that give them their own individual flavor. Players fight their way across a large map in a series of turn based tactical battles, assisted by powerful spells, conquering or defending cities and discovering treasure, while collecting resources, and researching new troop types in their cities. Rather than managing or purchasing troops as stacks of similar units, however, each unit is an individual that gains experience with each battle, and levels up into a series of progressively more powerful unit types, depending on what buildings you have chosen to build in your capital. Choosing to research one troop line often denies you the use of another, so players must make decisions about what troop types best fit their playstyle, and which suits their strategy against the enemies they are facing.
Walk softly and carry a big stick. Or Walk with big men who carry even bigger sticks, and make earthquakes when they stomp the ground. Either way.
Leading these troops are a number of different types of recruitable hero units. While the leader types vary from faction to faction, the roles tend to be along the lines of warrior, wizard, ranger, and rogues (which are now fully fledged leader types, rather than unique units as in the previous game). Gone are the rod-planting leaders from Disciples 2, whose job it was to spread your faction's terrain influence. Spreading your race's unique terrain type, which gives you ownership over any resources under its influence, is now accomplished by capturing a number of strategic points on each map. Once captured, troops can be garrisoned at these points, in addition to the special guardian unit each point gets that grows more powerful over time.
Leaders are highly customizable, with numerous slots for armor and equipment, as well as stats and special abilities that can be improved or unlocked when leveling up. Unlike in the previous game, more than a single leader can follow you from mission to mission in the campaign, with their earned gear and abilities intact, however, they must be purchased anew on each mission, and they grow very expensive the higher in level they get. In addition, each faction gets a unique signature hero during the campaign, which follows them to each mission at no cost.
Fans of the previous games may find mixed appeal in this. On the one hand, if you can afford them, any leader can be brought from mission to mission. In practical terms, though, the prohibitive cost of importing a veteran leader means you wont see them until the mission is well underway, and most of the scripted story events on the map won't trigger without the unique main hero, so players who fancy trying to use a different leader type as their go-to guy during the campaign, rather than the main character, may be frustrated. While it is possible to play through the campaign using only the main hero, it does make things quite a bit easier with a couple other leaders. In any event, there is an experience cap per mission, so past a certain point when your hero is no longer leveling up, it only makes sense to train some alternates.
Disciples 2 featured a highly abstracted combat system, rather than the chess board grid of similar games. While this system wasn't exactly universally praised, it did give the Disciples games some distinct flavor of their own. For better or for worse, this system has been scrapped in Disciples 3: Renaissance, and fully tactical hex grid combat has been implemented. The game now plays much like other games of a similar nature. Unfortunately, it isn't quite as good in this regard as some of the other games it is superficially similar to, like some of the HOMMgames,or Kings Bounty:The Legend.
To its credit, Disciples 3 does do a good job in maintaining the feel of the combat and unique units of the previous game, even in a grid that now allows full range of movement, unlike in Disciples 2. It should also be noted that Disciples 2 was never praised for having great enemy A.I., and the same is true of its successor, but the new tactical hex map highlights some of these weaknesses in more glaring fashion. On the tactical grid, advancing enemy troops seem easily occupied by any unit you put in their face, and seldom aggressively pursue fragile (but vital) rear line targets, even with a clear path to them. There is a cover system put in place designed to provoke attacks of opportunity on units attempting to move around units that are supporting each other, but the mechanics are confusing, and it never seems to work the way you want it to. Each map also features some bonus tiles designed to give a tactical advantage to any unit occupying them. While the A.I. will make use of them, especially if you do something particularly boneheaded like stand right next to an empty double melee damage bonus square, the player is able to make far better use of them, and quickly learns how to manipulate the enemy around them.
On the overland map during the campaign, the A.I. seldom makes an effective rush on one of your cities. It can occasionally successfully capture one of your strategic points, but that is mostly by virtue of the A.I.'s tendency to appear seemingly at random along the edges of the map, making the ability to make logical decisions about where to garrison limited troop resources, difficult. This is really only a concern until the special guardian unit has leveled up to the ability to summon other units. Once it gets this ability, the computer army is simply incapable of seeing past the summons to the real threat, buying the guardian enough time to fry everything in sight with powerful area attacks, unless the enemy force possesses overwhelmingly powerful units.
The result of all this, is that there is seldom a challenge in most of the relatively evenly matched battles once you spot the A.I.'s blind spots. The only real danger tends to come when the player still has a fairly weak army, and they are confronted with an enemy party that simply outclasses them, or contains a unit with an especially dangerous ability. This actually tends to happen frequently outside of the campaign, on one of the skirmish maps. The computer can come at you quite early on with a powerful force that can be very difficult to defend against. This can all vary with the faction, however. For instance, not every faction is as capable of easily healing its units as others, and can wear down in the field, requiring battles to be fought with minimal error. Still, for the most part, your heroes, who grow incredibly powerful over time, coupled with good use of spells and consumables, should see you through the tougher early mission battles.
In addition, there seems to be some special abilities that your heroes can learn that are far out of balance with others. For instance, just on the Empire side, the main character can learn to transform almost any enemy unit into a far weaker unit for three turns, meaning you no longer have much to fear from some of the most dangerous enemies in the game. The mage hero can learn to summon powerful golems at will, which will tie up the bulk of the opposing army while you burn down their army in relative safety. Either of these abilities could easily be considered game-breaking.
This paints a bleaker picture of the game than it deserves, however. The game does do many things right, and even some things better than the games people will inevitably compare it to. The RPG-like level progression mechanics of the Disciples games remain a high point. There are lots of things to play around with in customizing the abilities of characters, and people who like to feel like they are always progressing, will find lots of stuff to like here. It's easy to get caught up in the rewards system, making your army and heroes more powerful with every battle, and seeing the differences played out in tactical combat. You are always gaining something, from a new army unit that has just leveled up, new stats or abilities for your leader, or a cool new piece of loot or armor to show off on your hero.
Graphics - 77 / 100
Games of this nature rarely, if ever, sport cutting age graphics from a technical standpoint, and Disciples 3 is no exception. However, compared to other games of its type, the graphics are decent enough, and certainly a welcome upgrade over the low resolution 2d graphics of the previous game, while still maintaining that game's signature dark gothic style. The dark, muted palette and nicely detailed obsidian interface may seem a stark contrast to other games of the sort with their bright colors, and creature designs bordering on the cartoonish, but it has a distinct appeal of its own. The battle map (once you speed up animations from the default snail's pace and disable a camera mode meant to add drama to the events that unfold but generally only confuses the action) is functional, with nice atmospheric touches like falling leaves, and able to be rotated at any angle. The animations are adequate to good, and the creature designs remain in the same interesting style as the last game. The possible exception to this might be the rather unfortunately clad Empire mage-leader, who, as opposed to the typical robed wizards in the game with billowing white beards, can only be described as a man-witch.
Sound - 60 / 100
The sounds encountered during gameplay are typical for a game of this sort. The music is adequate, but forgettable. The voice over during the into and loading screens is fairly poor and lifeless, but reasonably painless, as you don't tend to spend much time there. Thankfully, most of the dialogue delivered during missions is presented as text only, which you get a sense, is something of a kindness in this case. While there's nothing to write home about, the sound is about par for the course in games like these.
Value - 77 / 100
Judged on the sum of its parts, Disciples 3 delivers good value. At a $ 39.99 price tag, it provides a campaign for each of the playable races, each one likely to take many hours, depending on if you likes to explore every inch of the map or not. In addition there is a hot seat mode that lets you play either against the AI, or other players, under a number of configurable conditions, on an assortment of pre-made maps.
However, the value is tarnished a bit by the presence of a good number of minor bugs, glitches, and translation issues that show a general lack of polish. While the Steam version of the game avoids some of the serious technical issues that buyers of the disk version have reported, and are awaiting an incoming patch for, there are still a lot of little things that while not game-breaking, can serve to irritate. Some aspects of the game don't seem to work quite as they're supposed to, and some items don't function as intended, or as labeled. As in many games translated into English, there are also numerous little quirky translation issues, although to be fair, this is common to a number of other games in this genre that fans generally accept to be good games.
On the bright side, the series has a good history of releasing new content expansions that address previous issues, and one is already on the way. There is a case to be made, depending on your tolerance for such flaws, that even with the reduced price tag, it would be worth waiting to see how many of these things can be taken care of by the expansion, and worth looking for the original game on sale.
Lasting Appeal - 95 / 100
Even without factoring in multiplayer, Disciples 3: Renaissance has a lot of re-playability derived from exploring the different races, different army builds and strategies, and the different ways to level your heroes. Even with the same hero type, choices can be made on whether to make him into an offensive powerhouse, or making him into an unkillable defender, capable of tying up the enemy army while your own troops make short work of theirs. The hotseat multiplayer is likely to be too slow and cumbersome to appeal to any but the most hardcore fans, but such is often the case with turn based games.
Pros and Cons
- Lots of options for players to customize heroes and troops
- Distinct dark gothic fantasy visual style
- Some pronounced A.I. weaknesses, and balance issues
- frequent minor bugs, glitches, and translation issues.
Disciples 3: Renaissance is a graphically updated version of a well-trodden formula. It does nothing new to win new people over to the game, nor does it seem like it was ever trying to. It seems aimed squarely at fans of the genre, and of the series in particular. It suffers from some distinct A.I. weaknesses, numerous glitches, and translation issues, but so do many games of this type, to one degree or another, including previous games in the Disciples series. While it can't be recommended over something like 2008's quirky and entertaining King's Bounty:The Legend, if you're a fan of this type of game, chances are you've played that already. If you are a big fan of increasingly rare fantasy turn based strategy games like this, and take pleasure in min-maxing stats with detailed RPG-like mechanics, or are a fan of the last Disciples game, you may very well like what Disciples 3: Renaissance has to offer. You might, however, consider waiting for it to be on sale at some point down the road after a few patches, or waiting for it to be bundled with the upcoming content expansion.