The world of Ardania has expanded quite a bit since Paradox Interactive acquired the Majesty property a few years back. More specifically, it has expanded the most in the last few months, first with the release of Defenders of Ardania and soon with Warlock: Master of the Arcane. Depending on your attitude towards the spin-offs, it’s a good time to be a Majesty fan, especially after having to wait so long for even a sequel. Master of the Arcane – which has one of the most forgettable names in gaming history (you’ll find yourself looking it up in an hour, trust me) – comes to digital platforms later this month for the local equivalent of $19.99 USD.
While Defenders of Ardania was a mildly successful take on the tower defence genre, Master of the Arcane takes a leaf from the book of the latest Civilisation games. In fact, the similarities are almost uncanny. You look after your cities, expand your influence using settlers and battle, and try to keep more powerful kingdoms at bay using the powers of diplomacy. If you didn’t know better, you might be playing a mod of Civilisation V and, for people happy with Civilisation and without the inclination to drop money on something that’s not a million miles away from it, I’d suggest just downloading one of the many fantasy mods available for that game.
While it might sound otherwise, I’m by no means suggesting that this similarity is a bad thing. On the contrary, the Civilisation games are fantastic and had Paradox developed a terrible rip-off, which would have hidden in the shadow of its better, I might have managed to find time to eat, drink, or move more than my mouse hand over the last few days. Master of the Arcane isn’t enough to be a replacement, but is of a high enough quality that it’s well worth a play by fans of the genre and lovers of Majesty. Casual Civilisation players won’t see the point, but might be tempted when it inevitably gets on the receiving end of a Steam deal.The basics: you start a game with a single city and a couple of units. There’s a decent tutorial (narrated by the wonderful Sean Connery sound-alike), although if you’ve ever played a Civilisation game, you’ll already know what you’re doing. Units can move a set number of hexes each turn, making exploration a limited thing, and battle all the more about strategy. Exploring can help you find gold or items, or maybe come across another kingdom. From there, you’ll be able to declare war and further expand your empire (that’s if you win), or else enter into the game’s diplomatic screen, allowing you to exchange money for solitude and safety.
The hook, of course, is seeing all the different races of Majesty brought to life on the battlefield. If Master of the Arcane is Civilisation, it’s a far less realistic version of the game in which you’ll find yourself fighting giant rats and skeletons. You’re also able to cast magic spells, and a key part of your kingdom’s development comes from knowing which spells will benefit you the most and, even more importantly, knowing exactly when to use them. In a losing battle, casting a fireball at an enemy can both protect your units and change the flow of the fight, giving Master of the Arcane an interesting distinction over Civilisation.
I suppose it is only fair to judge Master of the Arcane by its own merits, rather than compared to Civilisation (although as you’ll no doubt see from the screen shots that the comparison is more than justified). Along with magic and the likes of giant rats, you’ll also come across larger, more dangerous monsters. Sometimes these will be as simple as a thick-skinned and heavy-handed giant; at other times, you’re more likely to come across massive sea dragons that will shoot at you from out of range. Occasionally, you’ll even come across elementals, monsters which will rain fire down upon you before you have much chance to act at all.On top of that, there’s a certain attitude and level of humour to the game that Civilisation just couldn’t achieve. Selecting an archer of the ratty variety will always be met with some variation of “best archers in the world!” and, as I’m sure you can imagine, hearing that some 200 times never, ever gets boring. Seriously though, it’s nice to play a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that is part of what makes Master of the Arcane so much fun. The developers, I hope, were well aware that their game would be compared to Civilisation, and yet the personality couldn’t be any more different. That’s partly why I sank quite a few hours in.
Of course, the the problem with strategy/domination PC games is just how life-consuming they can be. Master of the Arcane is no different, and you can play for day without actually realising it – or achieving much. Playing on the lower difficulties, I found that there wasn’t enough challenge to keep me playing, and it became harder and harder to enjoy each victory as my kingdom grew. On the harder difficulties, I struggled to achieve a victory at all. I know that’s not a fault of the game per se, but it’s worth noting that some people will need a learning period to get a higher level of reward from their time revisiting Ardania.
Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a great game, but given its similarities to Civilisation, it almost had to be. What they’ve decided to borrow – we’ll say borrow – from Sid Meier happens to be the best of what’s available, and they’ve built upon what’s lacking. Unfortunately, there are times when I felt that perhaps they didn’t borrow heavily enough and the latter series wins out but, for what it’s worth, Master of the Arcane manages to still be very enjoyable. Try out the demo: it’s available now, and there’s a good chance you’ll find the hours quite gently slipping away.