So this week I'm actually covering a game that isn't perhaps the most engrossing thing to come from the D&D license, but I still kind of dig it. I guess.
Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance is (mostly) a war sim game where you control a fiefdom jostling for an empire while a giant rock monster prepares to take over the world in the midst of all the chaos. It's kind of like a 4X fantasy variant on a Koei sim, only instead of that ambitious scamp Nobunaga you're a half-elf duchess in a chainmail chemise. Which is pretty much in the same ballpark, really.
Birthright sets itself apart from all the many, many fantasy war sims that presumably exist but I can't quite seem to recall right now (hey help me out here. Besides the two fantasy war sims you gifted me that I ought to be playing instead; I know about those) with two additional gameplay modes that really do more to distract from the core wargaming than enhance it. The first is a real-time strategic battle simulator where you can move troops around a grid field and out-maneuver the enemy's forces with Sun Tzu-esque cunning and a keen knowledge of.. well, all right, you can win any battle in the game with just archers. Not even a lot of archers either. I'll explain later. The other mode is a 3D first-person RPG that superficially resembles Doom and, inexplicably, features turn- and dice roll-based D&D combat. More on that later too. And boy howdy do I have a lot to say about that trainwreck. Talking of which, let's get this rolling:
Is It a War Sim? Is it an RPG? You're Birth Right! The lore of this world essentially begins with the fallout of this massive badass war between the Gods and the mortals siding with them, with puffy up there on the top left being the dark lord Azrai. All the Gods (including Azrai) died in this war, imparting their divine essence to the surviving mortals in their charge. The coalition of good humans, elves and dwarves and flexing idiots all gained a various amount of divine power and this directly factors into the game's whole "right to rule" aspect, where the more divinity you have in your bloodline, the stronger your claim to the Iron Throne (no, not the one in Westeros) becomes. Much of the game's mechanics revolve around how strong one's bloodline is. Then you get Azrai's followers, who all invariably became horrible immortal monsters. Good for them? Now that we're all caught up on this game's weird excuse for how a bunch of D&D wizards and thieves are running kingdoms, welcome to Birthright! These are the fiefdoms we can choose to rule. The territories without names are either too important to the story to be left in the hands of human error or are led by the adorementioned horrible monsters. The game will helpfully inform you of each region's rulers, its holdings and territories going in and - most importantly - how hard the game will be to win and what kind of focus you ought to be taking. Military is easy enough to figure out, but pacifists might be better off taking a route that involves peaceful trade and diplomacy, sneaky espionage or focusing on accruing magical energies and using that to fling realm spells everywhere. It's really quite a versatile game. I went with these guys because dwarves are cool and being the isolationist Baruk-Azhik makes for an easy time of things when talking nice to people isn't your forte. This dubious bunch are your advisers, who you can discuss state matters with at the beginning of each turn. They'll simply give you the scoop on what's been going on between your last turn and the turn to come. Stuff like troop strength, new alliances, new adventures and how close everyone is to winning the game. Useful info but not essential, especially early on where you only have a tiny corner of the world to worry about. Because we want to take things slowly while we get our bearings, we're immediately declaring war on our neighbor Chimaeron. Wait, what? Well, the thing is, Chimaeron is ruled by one of the Awnsheghlein, those monstrosities I mentioned before. Pure evil demigods don't make for good neighbors, generally speaking, so we'll just stomp the poor monster lady out, take all her territories and THEN start to strategize for our long-term plans. While getting a winning score via military victories is a relatively fun and fast way to the crown, you do kind of skip over a lot of the other sim stuff that makes this game memorable. These are what the battles look like. While the top screen looks busy enough (though perhaps not right now), all the action is down there on that grid on the bottom right. The idea is to move troops around the 3x5 grid in order to engage the enemy and maneuver troops to stage fun tactical stuff like flanks and pincer attacks while ensuring a beleaguered troop has somewhere to fall back to if things go sour. Troop types with a Charge stat can do extra damage by moving towards an enemy troop, while archers can target any troop on any of the four adjacent squares. There's also stuff like terrain to worry about, and if at any point one side has less than 1/5 of the troops on the field, they automatically lose (it counts as being routed). Of course, that huge infodump I just unceremoniously left all over your monitors was largely moot, as it's simply a case of having as many archers as possible and peppering anything that gets close to pointy annihilation. If an enemy troop moves to intercept your archers, you simply move the archers out of the way and keep on Scanloning the fuck out of it. Whoever thought ranged units could be so deadly? The French at Agincourt? The Light Brigade? Maybe those guys. After the very first turn of the game, we receive this news. Man, good thing we didn't start as those guys. So now it's time for more of the technical stuff. In order to acquire a new territory, you must have an investiture which basically involves making our regent as the de facto head of state in this province. We can do this because we already killed everyone here that might oppose it (though the enemy regent can still try). Like many liege actions, this requires a resource named "regency": You earn regency every turn, alongside gold, and the amount you get is dependent on your bloodline strength. The reason it's important is because having a lot of it means you can fudge dice rolls even more in your favor, like above. Spending 7 extra regency (the action has a base cost of 1 gold bar and 1 regency) has made the chances of Ruorkhe becoming my territory 90% likely, up from a shaky 55%. Because the regents and their lieutenants are all capable warriors of the various D&D classes, they can also involve themselves in battles. The Chimera has deigned to deal with us directly, and because she's a fairly powerful mage we'd best be wary. Or we can just shoot her a lot with archers until she gives up, i.e. the option I went for. Similar to Investiture we have Contest and Rule. Contest allows us to destroy or downgrade a rival's holding in a province, while Rule allows us to increase the level of one of our own holdings. Holdings are vital for all sorts of reasons, but they boil down to four basic categories: Law, which you need if you plan on taxing that particular province; Guilds and Temples, which will raise a lot of money for you; and Source, which does the same for magical power if that's how you're going about things. As with Investiture, all these things will cost you mucho regency if you want to ensure the dice roll right for you, so get stockin'. This little graph is a visual representation of how much everyone hates everyone else. We saw earlier that Ilien got wiped out on their first turn like a bunch of amateurs, so they've got a big line through their name. The web of allegiances and enemies can be quite interesting, if only because if gives you some idea of who might be a little too busy to deal with a large dwarven army suddenly marching into their lands, let's say. Hypothetically. But enough of this Machiavellian warmongering sophistication, it's time to go to a castle and hit bad things until they go away. The "Adventure" mode, perhaps Birthright's most critically derided feature, is an RPG-like mode your regent and lieutenants can frisk themselves away to and have a bit of fun tearing up some stronghold and emancipating it of all its treasures when they get bored of matters of state. Kind of like a vacation, in a way. The Emperor's Crown quest is actually one you should do as soon as becomes available, even if you don't particularly care for Adventures, because the quest item adds a huge amount to one's regency income (and overall score). Welcome to your not-Doom! The goal of every Adventure is to either procure some item that is usually locked away behind a chain of at least four keys (because that was apparently the thing back in the mid-90s) or defeat a boss character. You'll even occasionally encounter the Awnsheghlien, who aren't easy to deal with up close. The combat in Adventure mode is this weird third-person turn-based automated combat system where you simply select one of the attack icons (or go on the defensive) and wait for your numbers to kill whatever it is you're fighting. It's like a much simpler version of the combat in Baldur's Gate. It's also not particularly fascinating to watch. Because I selected a kingdom with both a regent and a lieutenant with high levels, this fort's smattering of goblins (who all speak in broad Jersey accents for whatever reason) and ogres aren't exactly a force to be reckoned with. More like a force to be laughed at. How would one describe a dwarven laugh? LIke a deep guffaw? In true Doom style, you have this helpful mini-map that tells you where you have and haven't been. The crown was subtly hidden in the center of the giant room with all the round plinths out in the open. Those crafty goblins! Once procured, you can actually keep searching the place for treasure you might have missed - the Adventure only ever ends when you say so. We say so. "Mundane" items are stuff like swords and cutlery and crockery and buckets and all sorts of really benign furniture you can just purloin because it's loot and loot is awesome. Anything that isn't a mundane item is something your adventurers can make use of, such as a potion or a magical item. It's generally not unheard of to walk away from any Adventure with a huge haul of useful stuff, if you search carefully enough. Unfortunately, none of it can be sold off with the mundane items - it's just for making the next adventure slightly easier. Occasionally the nebulous forces of "Chaos" will drop monsters on your territory. It's just like the roving barbarians of Civ or the wandering monsters of Master of Magic. Spiders are badasses when it comes to quickly charging hapless infantry, but guess what they ain't so hot with? If you said arrows, you might already be a strategic genius at Birthright. This is a thing, where if you force an army to retreat and there's nowhere for them to go, they vanish forever. This includes enemy regents, like the Chimera just now. So long Chimaeron! Turns out three heads wasn't better than one after all! No wait, I can do better: "I'd be lion if I said the Chimera didn't get my goat, so I'm glad I could viper from the face of Anuire"? Intermittently, the plot will suddenly decide to check in and you'll get some cutscenes that depict the Gorgon (the boss of the evil Awnsheghlien monster guys) scheming away. After so many turns, these plans will come to fruition and he'll suddenly conquer half the map. You'll need to get a move on reaching the winning score before he can at that point. And here's how Baruk-Azhik is doing after nine turns. All that extra territory I absorbed from a certain dead lady monster has put me way ahead, just short of the Gorgon himself. The score is affected by what holdings and territories you own and who your allies are (including vassals). We also get a sizeable score boost for that Crown we found just lying around unguarded. War and trade and diplomacy will all contribute to the score, so it's up to the player and how they choose to conduct themselves that'll be the key to winning the throne.
And that's Birthright in a nutshell. Or a Brief Jaunt. Whichever works (I should've called this feature "In a Nutshell", dammit). It's not quite Crusader Kings or anything as in-depth as any of Paradox's other joints, but it's an interesting game with an interesting setting that perhaps spreads itself too thin with its entirely superfluous adventures and war combat. An ambitious yet flawed title, I think would be a fair way of putting it. Check it out if you get the chance, though its current placing on GOG's community wishlist would seem to suggest that GOG might get around to adding it sometime next century. Look for it then, my future cyborg brothers and sisters!
And with that, I'm off to fill more monsters with dwarven crossbow bolts. It's about time that race got some payback after the dwarficidal bloodbaths of Dwarf Fortress. Today, vengeance rides a tiny pony!