Amplitude's sci-fi fantasy empire builder certainly has the look, but does it have the goods to back that up?
Endless Legend is gorgeous. In terms of art style it's probably one of the most unique games I've ever seen, with a beautifully designed sci-fi fantasy world and an appealing minimalist aesthetic. While the mechanics of the game don't always live up to the same high standard as its world-building and writing, Endless Legend still offers a refreshing take on the 4X genre, with a misfit cast of factions full of variety and character.
Ah, the factions. They're almost universally great. Amplitude has borrowed liberally from typical fantasy tropes – elves, noble knights, norsemen, sorcerers, all-devouring monsters and so on – but given each familiar genre convention a thorough makeover. The Broken Lords are a bunch of honourable, courteous knights who just happen to consume the life-force of their enemies, while the Viking-like Vaulters are actually crash-landed survivors from an advanced, space-faring human civilisation. Along with the excellent art design this imaginative world-building gives each race a distinct personality,which stretches to their in-game mechanics.
Combat is almost entirely hands-off, and therefore not that interesting to play. Luckily you can auto skip it
Rather than a few different stat bonuses and the odd unique unit, each faction plays a drastically different game on the campaign map. You've got the nomadic Roving Clans, who can't declare open war, but can manipulate the economy and hire mercenaries to cause chaos in enemy provinces; the insectoid Necrophages, who consume the corpses of their enemies and can make absolutely no alliances with anyone (though amusingly, for a race of aggressive, carniverous insects they're very polite during diplomatic negotiations); and the bizarre Cult, who look a bit like Smough from Dark Souls, can only create one city, and rely on indoctrinated minor factions to fight their wars and gather their resources. All are full of personality and offer a radically different way to play.
Start a game with one of them and you'll find yourself with a single settler, a hero and a couple of military units. Once you've set up your city you can send your military force off to scout the surrounding area, finding new resources and clearing the region of any obvious threats. Each faction has a main quest that nudges you through the game, giving you various tasks to complete in return for raw resources, units and occasionally rare artefacts. These aren't particularly interesting or cinematic, but they do make settling in to each new faction a little easier. The writing does a nice job of filling in the strange history of the planet of Auriga and each race's goals and motivations, even if the quests themselves aren't all that engaging.
Your hero unit has its own skill tree and equipment, both of which you can fiddle about with. Crafting new equipment is a big part of the game; you start off with tier one iron gear, but finding new precious metals lets you outfit both your hero and his troops with more damaging weapons and more effective armour. There's some relatively simple unit customisation in the vein of Fallen Enchantress; though you can't change the core abilities of your unit model (say, a ranged warrior elf) you can switch their weapons out or give them trinkets to aid them in battle. In my first game I had a deadly force of longbow-wielding rangers who could skip about the battlefield and run rings around clumsy heavy infantry. Of course, these upgrades drain your resources, so you'll have to be careful about bottoming out your economy by pumping out a fantastically well-equipped army.
When combat starts your forces are shifted into adjacent squares, widening the battlefield and allowing for some very limited tactical manoeuvring. There’s little complexity to the fighting; you deploy your units, and you choose which enemy to hit. Then you enter the combat phase and actions are played out. It's not much cop to be honest. You can direct your troops to attack certain enemies, but you don't have much control over where they go, which can result in needless losses and frustrating defeats when a group of archers merrily wanders right next to the ogre wielding a gargantuan club. While there is some merit in directing units to focus on particular targets manually, most of the time I opted for the time-saving automatic resolution.
Luckily that's just one aspect of the game, and not one you'll have to bother with too much if you don't want to. This is more a game about building a sprawling civilization than it is about warfare. Simply exploring the world is much more interesting, largely because of the gorgeous landscapes. The lazy shift of the land as unexplored terrain is gradually filled in by your wandering scouts is one of the most satisfying and oddly relaxing little tactile details I can remember from any game recently.
When the harsh Winter season rolls around, your city's production takes a nosedive
In another nice touch that really calls for forward planning, the game is split into winter and summer seasons. Winter grinds production and movement to a halt as harsh winds and snowstorms pummel the land, which makes for some interesting strategic decisions but also just looks very, very cool. There's a bunch of interesting bits and pieces to discover in each region, too, from new resources and abandoned ruins to one of the game's several minor factions.
Minor factions act a bit like more interesting versions of Civ 5's barbarians, irritating little sods who scamper across the map in small numbers raiding cities and generally causing trouble. They've each got a home settlement; destroying it subjugates them (there's roughly a dozen, from dwarf analogues to demons and tundra yetis), while parleying with them can recruit them into your larger empire as long as you complete a short quest. You can enslave them by destroying them rather than negotiating, but you'll have to rebuild their smoking ruin of a home. If you're short on patience this is often the easier (and more satisfying) option.
Diplomacy and tech research options are both present and correct. The former offers a fairly predictable list of options, from declaring all-out war to demanding tribute or forging alliances. It's functional if unexciting. One thing I liked about the game's tech trees is that they're not linear; the game is split into several increasingly advanced eras, each of which has a bunch of new technologies you can research in any order. No grinding through an obsolete tech line just to unlock something you actually want. You can queue them up too, which leaves you free to get on with other business.
Endless Legend does get off to a bit of a slow start. The first turns pass in a slightly unexciting chug while you build your initial structures and wander around exploring your immediate area. It takes a while to build or research anything, so there are stretches, even late on when you've got your production sorted, when you're sat there idly drumming your fingers waiting for something to happen. Although you can fix this to some extent later on by assigning citizens to your production slots to speed up construction, the pacing of the game is just a little slow for my liking.
It also doesn't do a great job of explaining its various systems. Menus still seem like they're designed to look nice rather than present information in an accessible and user-friendly way. There's lots of small numbers, images and graphs that make relatively simple concepts initially baffling. Quests and objectives can also be a bit vague, and helpful tactics for managing your cities are often hidden away in tooltips. There is a brusque but welcome tutorial that keys you in to the core mechanics, but there's a lot it doesn't cover. These aren't crippling problems, if you're patient enough to get the hang of how things work, but it's an unnecessary stumbling block for new players.
Quests offer a nice sense of focus to each campaign, and generally aren't too intrusive if you'd rather do your own thing
It also lacks a really ruthless AI. Computer-controlled factions seem reluctant to take on even poorly outfitted enemies, which can occasionally leave you ticking away your production and economy without any real pressure. Despite playing as the aggressive Necrophage and doing my level best to piss off my neighbours, I never really felt too threatened on the medium to high difficulty settings. On the plus side the game avoids the infuriatingly warlike and treacherous AI factions of Civ 5, but it doesn't quite find the middle ground between those two opposites. Thankfully this is something that can be fixed re-release, and I'm sure Amplitude will give it a tweak.
Thankfully Endless Legend's super-slick art style and creative world-building largely overcome the game's flaws. It takes a while to get going; unlike the very best titles in its genre, it doesn't present complex information to the player in a concise and understandable way, which means it can sometimes be a frustrating experience for new players. Stick with it though, and you'll find an enjoyable experience that packs in a huge amount of replayability. It's the smart faction design that's the key – Amplitude has done a fantastic job of creating races that feel distinctly different from each other, each offering an interesting new take on traditional 4X gameplay. I don't think Endless Legend is quite the finished article just yet, but there's a solid and likeable core experience here that deserves your attention.
ENDLESS LEGEND VERDICT
Thankfully Endless Legend’s super-slick art style and creative world-building largely overcome the game’s flaws. It takes a while to get going; unlike the very best titles in its genre, it doesn’t present complex information to the player in a concise and understandable way, which means it can sometimes be a frustrating experience for new players. Stick with it though, and you’ll find an enjoyable experience that packs in a huge amount of replayability. It’s the smart faction design that’s the key – Amplitude has done a fantastic job of creating races that feel distinctly different from each other, each offering an interesting new take on traditional 4X gameplay. I don’t think Endless Legend is quite the finished article just yet, but there’s a solid and likeable core experience here that deserves your attention.