Elemental: War of Magic Review

Elemental: War of Magic is an ambitious 4x strategy game from Brad Wardell, the man behind the supposed “Gamer’s Bill of Rights.” Ironically, Elemental clearly violates Stardock’s own rules regarding the release of finished games and adequate performance on machines that meet minimum requirements. Now that is how you build trust.

The world of Elemental is a wasteland of ruined civilizations and fallen kingdoms. In this realm of medieval fantasy, you don the role of a magic-wielding channeler, charged with building your kingdom from the ground up into a dominating power. There are four ways to win, and whether you play through the story-based campaign or set the parameters for your own world in the generically named mode, New Game, winning will require military might, a mastery of all magic, the endurance for questing, or the diplomacy to enact treaties with all opponents. More than anything though, victory also requires massive amounts of trial and error.

The scope of Elemental is at least on par with that of the Civilization series, but far less welcoming. The breezy tutorial is garbage and fails to address the most basic functions outside of movement. The manual provides a wealth of information, but it is similarly useless due to the lack of visual context, convoluted in-game menus, and poorly explained chains of events. After guiding my characters to a town, I spent at least fifteen minutes figuring out how to get them back out; user-functionality at its finest.

Research is crucial to advancing your kingdom’s status, with well over 150 unlockable structures and technologies, including lumbermills, military training, and pubs for the tourists. You can mix-and-match your studies among civilized structures, magic, questing, tools for war, and numerous sub-choices. Research requires nothing more than time, with each advancement taking longer to complete. In what can only be a glaring oversight or a horrid choice of design, there is no way to tell what abilities or structures each line of research yields. Worse is that research only provides a ‘chance’ of producing results. Imagine, a carefully orchestrated plan and 50+ turns of careful maneuvering, all crumbling under a stroke of bad luck.

Combat has an auto-resolve feature, although you’ll want to zoom in and control your characters whenever possible to ensure they use terrain bonuses to their advantage and, hopefully, stay alive. Strangely, there is no option to create battle formations at any time, forcing you to waste precious turns repositioning archers and spellcasters at the rear, and moving slower melee combatants up front. Each unit has Action Points to be used on movement and attacks, although there is no logical explanation for how they are spent. What exactly is a fifth of an AP worth?

In no way was Elemental ready to launch (nor should it have with StarCraft II hovering about). I experienced multiple crashes, freezes, and disappearing sound effects on separate PCs with completely different specs. Even a cursory glance from a QA tester would surely reveal these problems. There are more issues that I am tempted to point out, but due to the poor menus and lack of instructions, it can be difficult to tell the bugs from the failures in design. Stardock didn’t even take the time to make sure the cloth map in the Limited Edition matched the in-game map.

All of this is wrapped inside of a laughably outdated visual style that has the appearance of mid-’90s computer art. The less I say about the ridiculously disproportionate and ugly character models, the better. It’s unbelievable to think that such a game could even begin to tax a fully Crysis-enabled desktop, and yet, even on medium settings, the slowdown is absolutely killer. On my notebook, which is used to edit large video files in 1080p, I reduced the graphical setting all the way and plugged in for maximum performance. I gave up that futile task after one enormously frustrating hour.

When not crashing, stuttering, or burdening you with menus, Elemental threatens to be interesting. There is an astounding array of options for customizing every facet of gameplay, from the clothing and abilities of individual characters to the machinations of entire empires. Even the integration of quests and diplomacy as paths to victory are alluring. Elemental: War of Magic could have been a micro-manager’s dream come true, if it not for its completely inept presentation.