After finishing the campaigns in a month, I poked on and off at that series of “Divine Empire” scenarios for a full year before finally finishing all 21 of those as well. In addition, I played all 18 of those scenarios where this was an option with the Undead Hordes, the remaining three, which were the 18th, 20th and 21st, being played with the Empire (Humans). So certain details about the campaigns, or those specific to the Mountain Clans (Dwarves) or Legions of the Damned (Demons), may be a bit sketchy in my mind by now. But I did take some notes, so anything important should be covered, at least if I noticed it in the first place. I only played with mage lords though, so I won’t know anything specific to warriors or guildmasters.
I again find myself reviewing a game, and in fact a fantasy TBS game, that I can say I enjoyed at least to some extent, but finding it difficult to think of the specific reasons why. For a turn-based game it is, of course, crucial to create that “one more turn” feeling and Disciples does do that well enough, sometimes making me lose track of time while playing. Couldn’t play for hours in a single stretch though, due to a bug I’ll mention later, but when a scenario caught me, or I just wanted to finish it, I’d just quit when I needed to and then get right back again and again. Plus, I not only finished the campaigns in what for me is a pretty short amount of time, but also decided to go through that series of scenarios that’s actually longer than all the four campaigns put together and, while admittedly after a much longer amount of time, actually did so, which should count for something.
There were some interesting scenarios as well, for example the last one from the Legions campaign, or some of the last “Divine Empire” ones, though that unfortunately did not include the very last one. While playing the campaigns it was also pretty nice to see that the races required pretty different approaches, yet all could work once you figured them out. I mean, the Undead are supposed to be the hardest to play with, but after really struggling through the campaign I found that I had learned to play them so well that I preferred them for the “Divine Empire” scenarios, and it was while playing their campaign that I also won a scenario by conquering the enemy capital, even though you’d probably think that, despite the relative weakness of the units, the Empire would be best suited for that. Even did it while still being far from figuring out how to make the best use of the Undead, what units and advancements to pick… Which is in fact another positive aspect, the low number of different units that you can recruit being compensated by what happens when they level up, the significant improvements and the fact that their traits may even change significantly based on your choices, offering a sense of advancement that provides motivation to keep going through the early part of scenarios in order to reach those later stages.
But maybe the main thing that made me keep going was a sense of comfort, if I may use the term, given by the Guardian defending my capital city. Sure, enemy capitals are defended in the same manner and completely defeating an enemy is extraordinarily difficult, so they’ll always pester you to some extent, but defeating the enemy lords is not normally a requirement for victory and having this protected capital means that you can explore and keep your better units on the move without worrying that you may lose everything if an enemy slips past you. And the fact that resources are obtained according to who owns the terrain also largely does away with those silly moments seen in other games when mines or other resource-generating locations keep changing hands. Rod bearers can still do something about this, and using them effectively, especially early in a scenario, is crucial, but for the most part you can focus on exploring, advancing and achieving the objective.
If that’s pretty much all I can say in favor of the game, now comes the easy part, the negative aspects… Though I guess I could start with something that’s more of a missed opportunity, a lack of a potential positive aspect, because if it’d have actually bothered me I wouldn’t have gone through any scenarios after finishing the campaigns, if I’d have done even that, and considering the other issues I definitely wouldn’t have enjoyed it to any extent. I’m referring to the leaders and the combat. For one, leaders are weak, being somewhat comparable to level two units of their type at level one but then advancing very slowly, so regular units with a similar amount of experience will likely overpower them, one consequence of this being that it’s mandatory to choose the Leadership ability whenever it’s offered. But on top of that, there are little tactics involved in actual combat, having little to do except to simply keep attacking and hope the random number generator determining hits and misses won’t go too much against you.
Moving on, could get to the story next, which obviously caught my attention so little during the campaigns that I remember pretty much nothing of it by now, nor did I mention it in the notes I took. Still, at least that means it wasn’t in itself a negative aspect, and what atmosphere the game could create, in large part through the graphics, as aged as they are by now, did give the sense of a struggle and the need for survival, which can provide sufficient justification to go through fight after fight. On the other hand, the “story” of the “Divine Empire” scenarios seems to be nothing more than some lines of text thrown there largely as an afterthought, hardly offering anything positive in the sense of an actual story and being worse at providing useful information than, well, actually providing said information directly.
Speaking of those scenarios, a decent story would have been important not only to make it easier to put up with starting over time and time again, not even being able to take one leader and a few items from the previous scenario, as you can during the campaigns, but also to get you through those that pretty much share the same map, with only a few small changes. They did put some effort into the final ones, though the very last one apparently didn’t take the flaws of the AI into account and is therefore a complete joke, but before that point… Let’s just say it’s all right in small doses, which is why I took so long to finally get through all of them, giving up for months at a time because it was getting quite tedious to do pretty much the exact same thing multiple times in a row without even any decent story as motivation. Why couldn’t they have found a way to make this series of scenarios, which is basically the Gold Edition’s additional “campaign”, into one or more actual campaigns, I don’t know.
Since I mentioned the AI, it definitely won’t be winning any prizes. Sure, the game’s hard enough even so, and the AI also has advantages to make up for those failings, such as units automatically gaining some experience each turn or quite obviously knowing my armies, and possibly those in ruins as well, without spies, but seeing it consider wards and immunities as the same and waste attacks randomly attacking units with either is messed up, and it doesn’t even keep track of which wards get used up, so instead of attacking a warded unit again in order to actually deal damage, the odds seem pretty evenly split between it doing so, attacking another warded unit, and attacking one with immunity to that kind of attack, if all are present. It also seems to spread spells and summon attacks around if multiple leaders approach, often not causing enough harm to matter if it doesn’t have access to the powerful spells, and at times it even summons in the wrong place, having the summoned creature need to go around other armies to reach the intended target, or at times be unable to reach it at all.
Getting back to the advantages the AI has, there’s also one which I consider to be a bug, and that’s that it definitely keeps some of its gains, such as unit experience or advancements or summoned units, obtained after the end of the player’s turn if the autosave from the end of that turn is reloaded. However, such bugs go the other way for the player, since if you level up a leader at the end of a campaign scenario and then reload the starting save for the next one, you will not get to choose the new ability again. When you first start the scenario you will get the choice, but if you reload that starting save you won’t get it anymore, so you’ll lose an ability. Not sure if I tried it with reloading a regular autosave at such a time as well, as I specifically avoided doing that after noticing this bug. Then again, found the fact that you get to choose the new ability at the start of the next turn after a leader levels up instead of immediately to be quite unpleasant in itself.
Back to bugs, while I obviously can’t know whether this has to do with the version I played, from GOG.com, or with my specific system or anything else, the one I found most frustrating was that one that made me unable to play for more than about one hour at a time. The exact time varied, I think I saw as little as about 45 or 50 minutes at one point and maybe up to an hour and a half at another, but typically after a little over one hour the game crashed. Not sure what caused the variation, but the crash always happened when something moved on screen, meaning units on the map but also the animation of at least one of the Hordes’ “Dragon” damage spells, if not others as well, and I think always when it was my turn. Fortunately the autosaves meant that I never lost much even if I did forget to quit before it happened, though reloading an autosave did mean offering the AI some slight advantages, due to the other issue mentioned above, and it was annoying either way.
As for the little things, the sounds for the Undead sure are annoying, with the Banshee possibly being the worst. Believe it or not, this is the first thing I wrote in my notes about this game, the Hordes’ campaign being the second I played, and despite playing 18 “Divine Empire” scenarios with the Hordes as well I never got used to it. Nor did I get used to how long animations feel after a while, or to the focus being moved to the capital city at the start of each turn, or to each summoned creature that you happen to have taking its time dying before that. Getting a message for each item taken instead of a list if there are more taken at once also gets tedious, as does needing to move, including when buying or selling, items one by one. And it’d also be useful for the guard stance to be saved instead of only in effect for the current turn, so selecting the next leader would only cycle between those you mean to actively use.
In addition to that, diplomacy seems rather tacked on, not offering some useful options, and the descriptions of the lords only being listed there likely means they may not even be noticed. On another note, campaign scenarios won by transforming a certain percentage of the map seem odd, because you may well need to avoid winning too soon in order to level up your main leader or find the best items to take to the next. And having the area controlled always listed at the top of the screen but having to toggle between displaying the available resources and seeing the minimap is a strange, and simply bad, design choice… As is the lack of any sort of grid, to let you figure out how far armies can go, or that the attacker always flees on turn 11 of a fight but there’s no turn counter anywhere. And I do wonder how can they possibly justify making human archers more accurate than elven ones, and for that matter making the simple archer, a basic unit the Empire can recruit right away and which also attacks at a range, have the second most accurate attack in the entire game, becoming the single most accurate one when it quickly advances to marksman.
After all of that… Disciples: Sacred Lands is not a bad game, and the scenarios added in the Gold Edition do give you more to play if you so wish. It’s a simpler game than others in the genre, being pretty light on both tactics and RPG elements, but the Guardians and the way resources are obtained allow you to focus on what you need to do, and advancing your units and leaders and getting through difficult battles may be sufficient motivation… And it pretty much needs to be, since the story isn’t and there are plenty of reasons for frustration that you’ll need to put up with, including bad design choices and some bugs. But expectations, including about interface and features, and also about AI, were somewhat different back when it was released, so some leniency may be in order if played, and reviewed, now.