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Etherlords Review

Lost in the Ether

Etherlords Feature

It’s not that including in-app purchasing options in a game necessarily makes it worse. It’s not even that being a little bit pushy with premium content is automatically to the detriment of a product that gives you the first taste for free. But, as in the case of Etherlords, it’s when a game does these things without a certain return on investment that things start to fall apart.

And it’s a shame in Etherlords’ case insomuch as, conceptually at least, there’s an interesting mix of combat and strategy to be found. Your aim is to fight through a series of turn-based 3v3 battles, earning currency named ‘Matter’, which can be used in Etherlords‘ secondary world building feature.

Each stage tasks you with uncovering certain elements of the environment, for example ten trees or six mountains, achieved by spending Matter to reveal slates in the world. You unearth new characters to use in battle along the way, and after each objective is complete you fight a boss and move on.

The combat visuals are perhaps Etherlords‘ most impressive feature. Character designs pull from a variety of gryphons, goblins, ogres, fairies – and frogs that shoot mosquitoes out of their faces – like in Bioshock, but mosquitoes… and from the face.

There’s an array of buffs and debuffs typical of fantasy combat, each one chundering luminescent iconography into the atmosphere. Purples, greens and golds fill the air in a pleasant medley of colour as fairytale monsters duke back and forth. Each of your troops has one special move that charges over a few seconds while characters auto-attack each other. Once the bar charges, you can choose which of your three specials you want to use.

While there’s some tactical consideration to be had in the composition of your squad (e.g. one healer, two damage), combat is basic. Really basic. You wait for your bar to fill up, use an attack or buff, and repeat. From there on out it’s a maths game: do your enemies’ stats outweigh yours? Things wouldn’t be so black-and-white if you were afforded more control over the combat, but you aren’t.

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Special moves you can choose, where they end up you can’t. While plenty of battles simply pass by regardless, this proves immeasurably frustrating in key fights. There’s nothing quite like embellishing a character’s stats over several turns, only to unleash its fury upon an already moribund foe. Of course, it would be easy enough to arrest this and provide fuller control – but then, of course, there’s reasons why that isn’t the case.

As with many microtransaction-driven games, there’s more than one currency. Ether can be earned in-game reasonably quickly at first. You can use this to level your fighters up (by fusing other lower-level monsters into your best ones) or to buy an extra life if you run out. Crucially, Ether is also used if you mess up the world-building bit.

You’re afforded a limited number of turns to spend Matter and uncover the world; if you go over, you can buy yourself more time with Ether. The tiles you can uncover are dictated by a randomly generated slate that will only fit in certain slots, so luck of the draw, as it were, is a crucial factor. If you’d prefer to save your Ether for other things, you can use Matter to re-roll the generated slate, theoretically giving you the option to never use Ether for building worlds. Of course, you can buy Ether with real money to save time.

While I’ve never designed any kind of algorithm, I’m confident in saying that the slates you need, in certain levels at least, can take an excess of re-rolls to come by. You can hop back into battle fast enough and grab some more Matter, but then battles aren’t really any fun. They’re pretty, sure enough, but each one – and you’ll take part in hundreds – feels nearly identical.

It all adds up to a thoroughly grindy endeavour made worse by the sad fact that this is all by design. The only thing worse than bad design is, I suppose, bad design – by design. Not once, in hundreds of battles, did I ever swing the tide with a tactical masterstroke or stack the deck in my favour with a last minute character switch. None of this is coincidence.

Etherlords is a pretty but innately insubstantial game crafted with the explicit purpose of encouraging micro-expenditure. EA’s Ultimate Team or Blizzard’s Hearthstone are just two examples of games that give you enough to want to invest in the project. Essentially demanding that you have to spend cash to make timely progress is a business strategy – not game design.

In 2014 we should be past this and, frankly, this approach makes Targem Games’ rote, misguided jaunt barely worthy of review.

TheGamersHub Score
Reviewer: Leo McCloskey
+ Pros

- Pretty battles and spells

- Fights roll from one to the next quickly

- Plenty of content

- Some cool-looking monsters


- Cons

- Doesn't explain mechanics well

- Intrusive in-app offers

- Feels geared to generating money

- Pretends to be a social experience, when obviously isn't

- Too many to mention...

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