Long ago the demonic beings known as The Horde were bearing down on the remnants of the Dragon Clan. Their leader, Tarrant the elder, used the ancient artifact known as the Serpent’s Orb to drive back The Horde and, in doing so, broke the world. The remnants of his people renounced their old clan and renamed themselves The Serpent after the orb and to foster a new way of thinking for their new world. A path of ambition, industry, and brutal feudalism.
Three generations have passed since the establishment of the Serpent Clan and the clan has smashed and shattered by their Lotus Clan advisers and Wolf Clan slaves. The last remaining heir of Tarrant’s line, Kenji, must retake the continent from the two remaining clans. Will you reestablish the well oiled machine and strict caste system of the Serpent clan or will you embrace the old traditions of the Dragon Clan and try to restore the broken planet?
Battle Realms was the first game released by Liquid Entertainment. It was held in very high regard at the time for being a real-time strategy game in full 3D. It was also praised for its East-Asian aesthetic and innovative unit development system — instead of spontaneously generating units at buildings units train at those buildings. Despite its critical acclaim it wasn’t well marketed and sales suffered. A stand-alone expansion pack was released known as Winter of the Wolf to middling reviews.
Battle Realms was released on November 7th, 2001. It’s competition was Stronghold (PC), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2), and Return to Castle Wolfenstein (PC)
Patching can make or break a game. And this game, before the patch, was nearly a broken mess. When I played it as a kid I didn’t realize what was wrong with it — I mean, I thought Bubsy was a good game when I was a kid so… It’s plain to see in the pre-patch version that the characters either do too much damage or don’t have enough health and would generally die before I even had a chance to use their abilities. The low health also made the story campaign more difficult as the death of a plot relevant character forces you to lose the mission. Checking over the notes some of the abilities didn’t even work in the game before the update. Liquid entertainment released a series of patches known as the Battlepacks and these did a great job at fixing the broken parts of the game. Right on, Liquid.
Battle Realms is a real-time strategy game with internet multiplayer, skirmishes vs the AI, and two story campaigns. There are four different clans you can play as who all have different strengths, weakness, abilities, and themes. The story campaign limits your clan selection and training abilities at first but unlocks to the full tech tree by the end. The basic goal of a skirmish or campaign map is to create an army that balances its strength and weaknesses and counters the composition of your opponents army.
Unlike other RTS games you have peasants who can build peasant huts which produce more peasants who can train at military buildings. Those units can train at other buildings to become generally better or more specialized. These unit can acquire battle gear at select clan building to further specialize their abilities — although not all battle gear is created equal. Fighting enemies generates the clans moral element, yin or yang, which can be spent on clan-wide upgrades at training buildings.
It’s something very small but I love how gold is not a resource in this game. Units are loyal to the clan, by choice or by fear, and are trained in rice and water instead of gold or something else.
The soundtrack is steeped in recurring musical themes between the different clans. I began to associate metallic chimes with the Serpent clan and whereas I began to associate the Wolf clan with chanting and exuberant shouts. To top it all off each song has a peace-time mix and a battle mix, switching between them as the battle rages or dies down.
Almost every unit has a secret passive ability linked to their character. Bandits, for instance, can scavenge rice and water off of enemy corpses and the powder keg sumo can spread salt across his comrades and reduce the amount of magical damage they take. The abilities vary in power and impact but I feel like they all give each unit flavor such as Shinja’s Ye of little Faith ability which lowers magic damage he takes — and suits his pragmatic and cynical disposition. Unfortunately these abilities were only hinted at in the manuals and some do not make themselves readily apparent in the game.
The animation in this game is quality stuff. When units are unselected they generally idle around and check their equipment and some even goof off. When you click them however they assume a battle-ready stance and are totally ready for your orders. This sort of attention to detail gives them all character.
The battles in this game are patently absurd. You’ll see a ginger Schwarzenegger wanna-be swing a giant wooden mallet against the armor of a professional samurai. It’s absolutely insane and I love it.
I really dig the art style and graphic styles, don’t get me wrong, but some of the models were made poorly. Ballistamen for instance don’t have heads. They just sort of have faces sticking off their necks. And the proportions of some models are cartoonish at best.
Some of the campaign maps are broken and there are a few that present a brick wall of difficulty. Enemy bases are generally built as actual towns and thus sprawl across the entire map and as such you need to scour the whole area to ensure that no structures are standing — if a single peasant escapes they may be able to rebuild. And anyone who has played the game remembers the siege of Serpentholm as a totally unfair 2 on 1 battle.
Battle Realms is a slim $10 on Good Old Games and I’d say that’s more than enough for the sheer experience of the story campaign and the pure gameplay. That being said GOG is working on providing servers to get multiplayer back online. Play with your friends! Get totally smashed by strangers on the internet — It’s great! If lightning shooting Warlocks or comically large swords played straight interest you in an RTS then this game might be up your alley.
Next Week: Armello