Aarklash: Legacy is Cyanide Studio's second swing at the Confrontation table-top war-game setting, but does it offer a decent experience?
Aarklash: Legacy is the latest title from Cyanide Studios, for the uninitiated, Cyanide are the studio who brought Bloodbowl to the PC along with a slew of RPG and strategy games, some of which failed to live up to expectations. Aarklash: Legacy on the other hand, has little expectation or hype associated with it, as the second game to make use of the now defunct Confrontation table-top war-game setting, following 2012's imaginatively titled 'Confrontation'.
Aarklash is a real-time with pause strategy RPG, think Jagged Alliance: Back in Action or Icewind Dale with a dash of Dawn of War II stirred into the pot and you're not too far from the mark. Set in the Confrontation universe, the player is tasked with leading a mercenary company named the Wheel Swords, as they find themselves trapped in hostile lands with enemies closing in from all sides.
Knights in shining armour are the least of your worries
The world and story are presented in what we'll charitably call an 'enthusiastic' manner and effort is made to ensure each of the eight characters feel like they have unique personalities that reflect their role on the battlefield. The reason I say enthusiastic, rather than accomplished is that there are varying degrees of success here. While characters are distinct, the voice acting and writing are patchy at best, with dog-faced healer lady Wendaroo in particular invoking a grimace each time she deigns to open her mouth. While the game starts you off with four characters, it's not too long before you have all eight Wheel Swords, and there's a nice dynamic between them in cut-scenes.
But lets face it, you're probably not here to watch eight mismatched mercenaries set off on a jolly adventure. The real draw of Aarklash: Legacy is the combat system that hearkens back to the Infinity Engine games, where spells and attacks take place in real-time, with a pause system used to reposition characters and queue up abilities. While you can attempt to control things in real-time, to have any real success you'll need to make heavy use of the pause key. As it turns out Aarklash: Legacy is a pretty brutal game, where failing to dodge an enemy projectile can spell doom for your Quorr (roughly translating to 'group of four') of Wheel Swords. Things quickly get complicated too; enemies channel powerful abilities and you need to decide whether to taunt them, steal away the buffs they bestow to allies, focus down serious threats quickly or reposition your units to avoid dangerous attacks. The difficulty curve ramps up very quickly and even fights that look like a stroll in the park can quickly be turned on their head by reinforcing enemies appearing from seemingly nowhere.
A forsaken misty tomb, is there a fantasy RPG that doesn't have one of these?
Status effects, damage types and ability categorisations all come in to play as well, and while each of your units only has four abilities, they can be imbued with further effects through the skill trees as they level up. One source of frustration is that newly recruited units begin at level 1 and soon after you have a full roster you'll be forced into using inexperienced troops to fight a new set of enemies. It's a case of thinking you've finally got a handle on the perilous combat and developed a few good strategies, only to have the rug pulled from beneath you. While your Wheel Swords are distinct and have a degree of customisation in how they develop, each is limited to a rather specific role, you have limited options here and there's little room for poor decision making. It's worth noting that skill points which are allocated to abilities can be refunded at any time for free, so you're never locked into a bad build, the downside of this is that this can lead to trial and error as you try to determine the optimum build, or adapt to new threats.
While combat is the real focus of Aarklash, there are a few other elements that come into play. Each character can be equipped with amulets, rings, earrings and relics to further augment their statistics. It's a slightly disappointing system though, as you equip items that bump a few key statistics here and there without significantly altering your character. The lack of cosmetic changes and lacklustre item effects dull any thrill you'd normally associate with looting and equipping your mercenaries. A very basic crafting system comes into play as well - when you trash an unwanted item a gauge starts to fill, once you've thrown away enough useless tat you're rewarded with an 'epic' item, those inverted commas again express the underwhelming nature of your bounty.
Human Mage Nella debates whether those barrels are potentially filled with juicy treasures (they aren't)
Other ancillary tasks come on the form of irregular environmental puzzles. Early examples include the RPG staple of clicking on some statues so that they all face the same way, but soon progress into other thrilling tasks, such as rooms where the floors teleport your character around and you have to figure out how to escape. Later, you'll find rooms where you have to press levers in the correct order in order to progress. If this is a little painful to read, then that feeling is amplified while playing, the puzzles are predictable and feel like an afterthought, designed to lend variety to a game which would perhaps be better off focusing on its strengths.
It should be fairly obvious at this point what the strengths of Aarklash: Legacy are – a diverse cast of characters and a deep, complex combat system. Yet it remains a difficult game to recommend. I found Aarklash to be a struggle; battle concepts are briefly explained, but the intricacies of the combat quickly overwhelmed. Your characters don't feel particularly powerful and some abilities are so specific as to be entirely useless against the majority of the foes you'll face. Add to that enemies appearing from nowhere to aid their allies and you can find yourself faced with the game over screen all too often. While I consider myself a veteran of strategic RPGs, frequently I found myself frustrated by Aarklash and annoyed by the lack of depth to many of the systems that support the combat - looting and equipping characters has ever felt so much like a chore, while the puzzles you'll face are an unwelcome obstacle, lacking entirely in originality or ingenuity.
AARKLASH: LEGACY VERDICT
It should be fairly obvious at this point what the strengths of Aarklash: Legacy are – a diverse cast of characters and a deep, complex combat system. Yet it remains a difficult game to recommend. I found Aarklash to be a struggle; battle concepts are briefly explained, but the intricacies of the combat quickly overwhelmed. Your characters don’t feel particularly powerful and some abilities are so specific as to be entirely useless against the majority of the foes you’ll face. Add to that enemies appearing from nowhere to aid their allies and you can find yourself faced with the game over screen all too often. While I consider myself a veteran of strategic RPGs, frequently I found myself frustrated by Aarklash and annoyed by the lack of depth to many of the systems that support the combat - looting and equipping characters has ever felt so much like a chore, while the puzzles you’ll face are an unwelcome obstacle, lacking entirely in originality or ingenuity.