If the Spellforce series is new to you, then prepare to be baffled and slightly amused. This series has been going for a while now, and no effort is made to ease new players into the narrative. Upon plunging into the game you are hit with a mountain of expository dialogue in the form of a soliloquy from one of the game’s main characters, an almighty warrior called... Craig. The plot is so extruded and the dialogue so stilted in its delivery that it would do no-one any favours to try and recount it here; suffice it to say that you are the legendary hero of heroes, tasked with ridding the world of the big bad du jour (a demon called Zahzut) by marshalling the forces of the land under your banner.
The series sells itself on being a unique RPG / RTS hybrid, which is certainly true, but the problem is it does neither particularly well. It sounds like it should work, but the reality is that paying heed to one side often means neglecting the other, especially when time is of the essence. The RPG side marries a convoluted, tedious story with some pretty woeful voice acting, and while the RTS side appears similar to other archetypes of the genre such as Age Of Empires and Warcraft, the interface is clunky and unintuitive and gameplay strategically inept in comparison. Many options and menus are never explained fully, and while a set of tutorial videos are included, unless you know where to find them you’ll likely miss potentially game-changing elements altogether.
In addition to the single-player campaign, the game can be played as a more-or-less straight RTS in multiplayer, but one with much less depth or entertainment than, say, Dawn Of War 2 or Starcraft 2. Five factions are available to choose from: the regular humans of the Realm, the Pact’s dark elves and other abominations, dragon-blood infused warriors the Shaikan, the assorted orcs and trolls of the Clan, and the new demons known only as the Nameless. With your hero and a handful of workers, you must build up your base by gathering resources (stone, silver, and something called lenya) and prepare for war. The usual skirmish modes are available to choose, as well as an interesting survival mode where your selected hero starts at the lowest level and face waves of attackers, slowly leveling up and gaining resources. The devs have also thrown in a map editor for the community to add to those already included.
Main characters gain XP defeating enemies which can be spent leveling up on a skill tree in the usual manner, learning new abilities and spells available from a hotbar at the bottom of the screen. Items like armour and weapons can be bought or taken from your fallen foes, which you will want to avail yourself of; despite their lesser number, your heroes do most of the heavy lifting in battle. Regular minions, while replenishable, are far weaker than their champions and are essentially fodder against the tough-as-nails opposition. Even on normal difficulty, forces can easily be wiped out if you’re not careful about placement and use of special abilities.
As mentioned this series is long in the tooth; Demons Of The Past is the third expansion of the original sequel Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars, still using basically the same engine, and it has not aged well. Most character models look acceptable from afar, but zooming in shows an abundance of blocky textures and angled faces. Users of older machines who don’t want to tax their hardware may find the lack of graphical intensity appealing, but anyone with even a remotely recent gaming rig is going to be sorely disappointed. Despite its antiquated engine I still encountered a fair share of glitches and moments of slowdown, including one mission where a failstate was triggered but the game failed to inform me, leaving me to wander around a bit unable to progress, before finally reloading the mission myself. Likewise when starting a new quest your main character is magically transported to the appropriate location, but your travelling companions are not. Enemy AI is sketchy at best, with some following you to the ends of the earth, while others fail to react to your presence at all.
Voice acting aside, the soundtrack is generally quite decent, with ominous medieval-sounding strings and trumpets issuing clarion calls. Orchestral crescendos ring forth on the completion of objectives in a pleasing and congratulatory manner. The wailing and gnashing of combat can drag after a while, but this can be turned down or off altogether.
There’s a lot of content here, with a sprawling campaign and varied multiplayer modes, but ultimately it’s not worth the slog of what amounts mostly to tedious battles and glorified fetch quests. The devs are catering for the fans in this release, wrapping up loose ends and ensuring every second line of dialogue is a reference to a place or character from the previous expansions, but this makes it almost impenetrable for new players. Veterans of the series will understandably be invested and want to see the conclusion of over six years of story, but it’s hard to recommend this to anyone else. It feels less like a satisfying conclusion and more like old, stale DLC, despite being ostensibly a standalone title. Fans of sweeping grandiose narrative, portentous dialogue and all the requisite RPG trappings would be better served with a series like Dragon Age or The Witcher. New sequel Spellforce 3 has been confirmed and may offer a fresh start, but unfortunately this one’s just for the fans.