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Review: Fantasy General

Kept meaning to play Fantasy General ever since grabbing it back in 2017, when it was given away for free, but the turn limit was scaring me away… Until I saw it listed in the “time travel” thread for 1996 on the GOG.com forums and decided to finally go for it after all, managing to finish it with fewer difficulties than I feared and enjoying it more than I thought I would as a result. Even finished the expansion, which sounded truly daunting at first but ended up seeming probably less difficult than part four of the main campaign, albeit after accepting to settle for winning the scenarios in a “good enough” way, without wiping out the enemy after the first one.

The first positive aspect I made a note of after starting the game was the music, the soundtrack being one I can just listen to even outside the game, and it’s also included separately in the version I played, from GOG.com. And that’s a good thing even if you just want to make sure you can keep listening while you play, because the music tends to die at times in the game, so in that case you can turn it off in the game and just play the files.

But what truly matters is the gameplay, and it does let you get carried away through the battle, for better or worse. The fact that, even though you can save and load at any point, I often tried to go through scenarios start to end in one sitting or, if I didn’t, it was mostly because I had to quit the game to do something else, should be proof enough of that, considering my need to do things “just right”. There were some situations when I did save before what seemed like a turning point, and others when I made use of a save made because I had to quit after a number of turns in order to not restart the scenario from the beginning if things went bad, or simply because plenty of times the right thing to do seems to be to try a battle once, get an idea of it, and then have a proper go at it the second time around, but I often did restart in such a situation and can’t say I was too bothered by that, which again is saying something.
One thing that helps a lot is that units, with the exception of mechanical ones until or unless you gain the ability to repair them, can recover. Most regular units are actually squads that take damage in the form of injuries or kills, with the injuries healed by resting for one turn while not next to an enemy or by magic and kills being replaced by recruiting while next to a friendly town without an enemy also being in the immediate vicinity, while in case of heroes and the other units that are also single entities it’s even simpler, all damage being considered as injuries. That means you can press forward and fight hard without needing to sacrifice your units, and doing so is actually necessary, considering the importance of experience.
This balance between pressing forward and preserving units is already a major tactical element, but there are many others, tactics, and therefore the player’s skill, truly making a difference. The manual offers the necessary information, but the road between theory and practice is always long, so you’ll be learning as you go along and will see the difference once you apply what you have learned. Admittedly, some tactical aspects become less relevant when the units involved are more powerful, and the few units with the Raise Dead ability will let you get away with a lot once you’ll get them, late in the game, but even then that may be counterbalanced to some extent by the need to care for a weaker replacement or volunteer unit. Overall, while it was likely thanks to the strength of my units that part five of the main campaign seemed much easier than part four, good tactics will always be necessary in order to obtain a good outcome, so a victory with no or at least no unacceptable losses, which is the only kind that counts, seeing as units carry over, remains an achievement throughout the game. And I’ll also mention here that Burel’s Wall stood out for me, needing to attack an entrenched enemy making for an interesting and different kind of battle.
Still on the topic of the actual battles, seeing the estimated outcome for an attack is definitely useful, at least to get a general idea. At times it can be way off, but there are certain situations when it’s more likely to be off, such as when support is involved or when there’s a significant difference between the experience levels of the units, so you can take that into account on your own before deciding what to do. And the fact that you can undo moves allows you to check multiple possible attack options, and maybe also get some idea of what you may need to defend against on the enemy’s turn, before committing.

On top of all of that, there are decisions to be made between scenarios as well. That includes choosing which units to purchase and how to allocate the magical items in order to have the best possible army, considering the available funds and slots, but in the longer term the research aspect is crucial, and that involves allocating funds, separately for each unit type, and therefore balancing between gaining access to better units sooner and having enough left to actually make use of that research, by upgrading or purchasing new units, and also to replace lost units, plus the small amounts needed to replace kills by recruiting during battles. And, with the possible exception of light infantry, all unit types have their uses, so you can prioritize according to the strategy that works best for you, but a varied army will always have benefits. What’s more, in some cases even different units of the same type may have their own uses, so immediately upgrading all units, assuming it’s possible, may not be the best idea each and every time. That’s obviously the case for spell casters, each of them having a completely different purpose, but it can apply to some other units as well.

Otherwise, it’s good to be able to toggle showing hidden units, and also AI moves. As far as I’m concerned, the turn limit leaves no room for searching for enemies, so having everything visible at all times is necessary so the game won’t be absolutely impossible, but those who want the insane difficulty added by the fog of war can leave it on the default setting. Anyone who manages to beat the game like that deserves some sort of award though, as far as I’m concerned.

Since I mentioned the turn limit, let me just say again that it sucks! Yes, I managed to deal with it and enjoy the game in spite of it, and the scenario descriptions tend to offer justifications for it, but it’d have been so much better to not have it and be able to play at my own pace, use my preferred defensive tactics, outlast the enemy, train my units as well as possible and make sure I’ll always be able to completely wipe the enemy. And it’s also the turn limit that makes the random number generator have a much more significant impact, since there’s less time for things to even out during a battle.

Speaking of that, on top of the RNG’s heavy influence on each attack or spell, there is randomness in maps as well. Even in case of those that seem to be quite fixed, with named locations of interest, the starting locations of enemy units can vary, which can make a huge difference. But other maps seem quite generic, with the type of the locations of interest, as in town or reward location, being determined randomly at the beginning, which will obviously change things even more. And the rewards received when you capture a reward location are also random. A few have some special effects that are specific to a particular scenario, and it’s possible that those are fixed, but otherwise when you capture such a location anything may happen. You may find a random amount of money or a random magical item, the unit may be improved in a random manner, a random unit, ranging from regular volunteer units to generic heroes to named heroes, may join, but you may also find nothing or a random enemy unit, sometimes even a particularly powerful one, may appear, this sometimes happening in combination with any of the other rewards.
Not sure whether it’s good or bad that if you happen to capture a reward location when you kill the last enemy unit and a new enemy unit appears from it, you still win immediately, even if the enemy is no longer wiped out at that point. But what’s definitely bad is that, if you start with a reward location, you need to let the enemy take it and then regain it in order to get the reward.

Since I mentioned magical items, it’d have been better if you’d have been able to allocate them to units during a scenario as well, not only between them, but what’s worse is how easy their are to lose and how hard they are to gain, seeing as whenever a unit carrying one is lost, so is the item. So you lose any magical item carried by one of your units if it’s killed and don’t gain any if you kill an enemy unit carrying one, so with the exception of the few that are obtained at the end of certain scenarios, the only way to obtain one is to have the RNG decide to give it to you when you capture a reward location. And you also lose any magical items carried by any generic heroes that leave at the end of a part of the campaign.

That brings me to another issue, which is that your army is weakened at the end of each part of the campaign, so the beginning of the next part brings quite a difficulty spike. It’d have likely done so anyway, seeing as you have to deal with a new enemy, with new powers and new units that you need to adapt to, but also losing units at the same time makes it worse. And while all regular volunteer units leave, so you can at least plan for that to some extent, and those units also can’t be given magical items, so they won’t take any with them, sometimes one or more of your generic heroes will also leave. It’s possible that it’s not random, the weakest ones being chosen, but I’m not at all certain of that and either way you can’t know before the scenario exactly which one or which ones will leave, also taking any magical items they’re carrying.
Still on the topic of your army getting weaker, something you’ll need to deal with on a regular basis is the fact that new recruits are inexperienced, and for the units that aren’t single entities, kills are automatically replaced at the end of a scenario. So, while during a scenario you may choose whether to recruit in order to replace the kills, restoring the number of attacks but possibly losing a level or maybe even more, at the end of it that happens automatically, even if sometimes you may prefer to keep the level at the expense of the number for a while.

Moving on to UI and design choices, it’s all too easy to accidentally end a unit’s turn, or cast on the wrong one if walking and flying units share a hex, so on top of being able to undo moving, you should also be able to undo ending a unit’s turn, including resting, and casting on a friendly unit. But the UI in general makes the age of the game obvious, perhaps more so than anything else, requiring some getting used to if you want to play the game now. There were moments when not having the current turn and the turn limit displayed at all times was a bit annoying, and it also struck me as particularly strange to see what should be settings mixed with the other buttons, while on the other hand many UI slots remain unused in the deployment phase, when the left side could have easily been used to display the list of units that are yet to be deployed, allowing you to select them in the order you wish without switching to another screen each time.
A problem that quite clearly has to do with how this version runs, under DOSBox, is that the map scrolls pretty much instantly if you move the mouse to the edge of the screen, so you can’t move to a certain spot like that, needing to switch to the tactical view for that purpose. What doesn’t have to do with this specific version, however, is that if you do switch to that view and then switch back without selecting a location, the view doesn’t return to where it was before you switched, but instead goes to the center of the map, which is even more annoying when combined with the scrolling issue.
Still on this topic, needing to choose the next area to attack based on name alone, since you can’t go back and try another after you click to read the description, is a bad design choice, as is the fact that you can’t know which areas you’ll still be able to attack if you don’t choose them the first time and which will no longer be available. Yes, at least when it comes to the choice itself, you can go ahead, end the deployment phase without deploying any units, load your save made before you clicked and try again, but that’s tedious and shouldn’t be necessary. And it’s also unnecessarily tedious to load a game between scenarios, the button not being available then, so you must return to the main menu if you want to load at that point. In addition, I don’t know whether this has to do with this version or not, but the manual states that the details of a saved game should be displayed, yet that area remains empty.

Otherwise, seeing as the game is hard enough as it is, I’ll list the fact that the AI is decent but won’t win any prizes, particularly when it comes to making good use of magic, under miscellaneous negative aspects. I’ll also mention here the fact that the color scheme for the terrain in part five looks rather bad and that, while a lot can otherwise be seen if you check the detailed information for a unit, the movement method, open or closed, is strangely absent, being only available in the manual. And the only thing I really have to say about the expansion also goes here, and that’s that I’d have preferred it to start with more advanced units, though in some ways I understand why that isn’t the case.

Overall, Fantasy General was a great game when it was released and remains a good one to this day. There are a few poor design choices, the RNG may be too powerful, the turn limit is infuriating and it shows its age in particular when it comes to the UI, but when it comes to the actual intended gameplay, the tactical battles themselves, it’s still enjoyable and likely to make anyone interested in the genre get carried away, the importance of tactics and therefore player skill leads to a satisfying feeling of accomplishment when you win, or even advance in a significant manner in a scenario, and for me the fact that units can and should be cared for and preserved is another important positive aspect. It may be found lacking in various aspects when compared to newer games, but if I could finish and actually enjoy it despite the turn limit, which I’d normally see as a deal breaker, it must still be well worth playing.

Later edit: The GOG.com version of the game was updated on October 11, so two weeks after I wrote this, and the changelog claims that the scrolling and audio issues were fixed. But I reviewed what I played at the time I played it and didn’t try the updated version to see whether those claims are true, so the review stays as it is otherwise.

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