Review by Seraphimon
"Battle Realms is the result of a failure to understand at all how not to make a miserable failure of a Real Time Strategy game"
I'm amazed that so many of other reviewers on this site gave Battle Realms a 9 or 10 out of 10. Battle Realms is simply abysmal.
In my mind, real time strategy is the genre wherein games require the highest standard of gameplay design, compared to other genres, to 1) be playable, and 2) be any good. In other words, you can be an idiot and design a half decent RPG or FPS. But if you're an idiot, you'll never design a bearable RTS.
Case in point, Battle Realms.
When you start playing the game, it looks like the developer, Liquid Entertainment, knew what they were doing. There are a few innovations to the traditional RTS formula. The setting of the game that determines races and units, that of medieval Japan, isn't all that original but seems acceptable. But then it all goes downhill from there. No, not even downhill, it's as if the developers basically wrote down 'samurai Japan, RTS' and then monkeys did the rest.
For its time, Battle Realms looks acceptable. Unfortunately, more time seems to have been spent on the loading and title screens than on the unit models. Battle Realms is a block-hands-fest, meaning that your units are ugly and many don't even seem to be human. This is somewhat redeemed by the fact that unit animations (especially their abilities) are great, and the fact that the terrain on which the units move also looks pretty good. Even the skins for unit models are decent However, this doesn't stop the fact that like it or not, the unit models are plain ugly. Given, Battle Realms was designed at the dawn of 3D RTS's, but I think they'd have been better off sticking with 2D.
Gameplay is of course the aspect that makes up the core of an RTS. It's also the aspect with which Battle Realms falls down in every possible way.
Since there's so much wrong about the gameplay, it's incredibly difficult to systemise and structure anything comprehensive I want to say about the gameplay's flaws. So I'm simply going to outline the sort of real time strategy game that Battle Realms brings onto the table, and then, in a much longer section, show how everything that Battle Realms brings to the table should have never seen the light of day.
The game has four 'clans' (think: races), Dragon, Serpent, Wolf and Lotus. All are differentiated enough, though none are completely unique: while unit abilities do vary significantly, the clans' tech trees are about 90 per cent identical. There are two resources, rice and water, and collecting them with your peasants is rather generic. Resource wise, the only vaguely worthwhile things worth mentioning are that 1) rice needs to be watered or else it will eventually run out, 2) if you keep it watered consistently then your resource source is unlimited (i.e. you don't have to trek around the map looking for another rice field), and 3) there are limits to the amount of resources you can hold at once, and the limit is reached fairly quickly.
The above is a macro perspective of the game. Moving on to more specific things, the unit creation system seems to be the game's main innovation. Rather than creating units from production buildings like in every RTS, you use buildings to train the units you already have. The only units that created from thin air are the peasants. You can then direct them to train at various buildings to become your combat units. Many combat units can then be trained at other buildings to become generally more powerful units.
Apart from that, the only other really big feature that seems to differentiate Battle Realms from other RTS's is the stamina system. Every unit has stamina, which functions not only as a magic/mana meter for units that have special abilities, but also a 'how long you can run for' meter. That's right: you have to use up energy to run. And if you walk, your units move at a snail pace.
In the few paragraphs above I've tried to honestly sketch out the features of the gameplay. Now I'm just going to unload a whole lot of reasons why the game doesn't work.
1. Battle Realms actively discourages unit micromanagement. I can't see why the developers would in any possible universe want this, but Battle Realms actually seems to want you not to manage your individual troops' actions. First, the graphics make it hard to click on units. If in a battle you're trying to click on a wounded unit to make it run, you're more likely to click on the unit just south of it. This is the result of the way the game tries to recognise you clicking on a unit model. It means that if you do want to retreat a unit, you're better off selecting a whole group and then finding the individual unit. Which is 1) horribly slow and so defeats the point of intense unit co-ordination, and 2) when you select a group of more than 8 units, only the first 8 are shown in the bottom toolbar part of the screen. If your wounded unit isn't there, tough luck. But more than that, the game discourages micromanagement through the stamina system. Units in critical health can't run. Which might score points for people who want realism in their strategy game, but not for people who want a game that tests their skill and is fun: it means you're better off letting a wounded unit die then waste time trying to get it off the field, since it moves too slow to have a chance.
But you know, that's not even half the problem of Battle Realms in relation to the micromanagement. There's a much, much bigger problem screwing over micro. Which is...
2. Battle Realms has possibly the worst unit AI for any strategy game in existence. When we think of 'AI' in RTS's, we usually refer to the AI of computer players. Now, that particular sort of AI is in fact also extremely bad in Battle Realms, but that's not actually what I'm referring to. I'm talking about the way your own units are programmed. Most importantly, there is no move command in the game. There is only what seems to be attack-move (but is in fact worse). For anyone who's played strategy games in any depth before, the horror of this should be self-evident. For anyone who hasn't, basically, you can't trust your own units to go anywhere. If they're attacked, they'll abandon what they're doing and fight. Even if they're an expensive, cost-half-your-resources-but-is-now-at-one-percent-health-but-you-managed-to-get-it-out-of-the-battle-but-oh-look-they're-too-stupid-to-follow-your-command-to-run-back-to-your-base sort of unit. Heck, your units don't even obey orders to focus fire on specific units if they're then attacked: they will retaliate on the attacker. They really like attacking, even against your commands.
What makes this an even greater slap in the face is that the AI seems bugged, so that for some inexplicable reason your units (entire armies) will randomly stop attacking anything without your command during a battle. They'll drop the queued focus-fire commands you gave them, and just do nothing. It's not that they're stunned, because you can get them to start attacking again, but well done, you may have just lost 5 seconds of time. Which is enough to lose you the battle.
So basically, the AI seems to make your units attack when you want them to anything but, and it makes your units stop attacking and not attack at all when they're actually supposed to. In other words, micromanagement wise the game is near unplayable.
3. Battle Realms is far, far too slow.. This game is too slow. Far, far too slow. There's no reason for it to be slow, since as above it has no micro depth, unlike Warcraft III which intentionally slowed down the game to encourage epic battles that used a heap of micro. There are two reasons why the game moves at a snail-pace. First, the unit production system is designed so that peasants spawn slower as you accumulate more units. By the time you're at about 50 or 60 per cent of your max unit capacity, peasants are being spawned at a ridiculously slow speed (probably one every one and a half or two minutes). So for the times where you need a huge force to be able to do anything effective, be prepared to start reading a book while you wait for your army to build up: even with the cap placed on your resource collection, resources are only limiting 10 per cent of the time; it's nearly always peasant spawning that's the limiting factor. And second, the stamina system means that moving across the map is unbelievably slow. Of course, you could always run and use up your stamina, but that makes your units with special abilities unable to use them (i.e. it's wasteful). Admittedly, you can use horses, but horses must be collected by villagers and this take an even longer time. Thus Battle Realms isn't only a pain to play in battles, but it's also just plain boring outside of battles.
4. Battle Realms encourages building-hiding tactics. In Warcraft III (and a heap of other RTS's), when the outcome of a game has, practically, been decided, but the winning player is still razing all of the defeated player's buildings, the latter may decide to be annoying and sent his remaining peons/peasants/villagers out to hide small cheap buildings across the map. The aim is to annoy the winning player, and hopefully waste so much time doing so (this can last a couple of hours on a large enough map) that the opponent resigns out of frustration. Obviously, it's not a tactic highly looked upon.
Battle Realms actually encourages this tactic.
As above, peasants spawn extremely slowly when you have lots of units. However, when you only have a few units (i.e. when you've been defeated), they spawn ridiculously quickly. Furthermore, 'Peasant Hut' buildings are cheap and fast to construct. Put two and two together. The problem is made worse by the fact that there are no air (or sea) units in the entire game, making scanning for enemies that bit harder.
5. Why hello there balance. Why are you leaving so quickly? What amazes me is that for a game with so little to do, it's so woefully unbalanced. Every unit can only have one ability at any given time (and most have to receive extra training to receive this ability). And there are no core units that you have to have that internally imbalance a race (see once again, Warcraft III, which was broken by the hero system: Battle Realms also has heroes but they're not anywhere near as central.) But nevertheless, the game has no conception of balance. For example, one clan in particular, Lotus, has no units that are all of 1) are tanks, 2) are easily accessible, and 3) aren't slow as hell because they literally only have even stamina to run from one end of your base to another. Also, Lotus units seem to do more damage than those of other clans (but who can tell? you don't even get shown unit stats or exact life points, only their health and stamina bars) but they don't do enough damage to make up for the fact that they die too quickly. In other words, Lotus suck.
6. You too, scouting? Where are you going off to? Because of the stamina system which has led to so many other problems, you also can't effectively scout. Your units move too slow once their stamina runs out. A total of -one- unit in the game, a Serpent hero (so you can only get one of him), transcends this by having the ability of not expending stamina while he runs. Yes there are horses, but as I've implied before the cost-benefit analysis finds them not worthwhile. Which means, only one clan has any effective scouting capacity. And once again, the lack of air units takes away that option. Thus Battle Realms destroys another staple of the RTS genre.
7. Map imbalance. This one's pretty self-explanatory. In several of the maps Liquid Entertainment designed, though a cursory glance at the minimap makes it seem like nothing's wrong, the distance between resources at starting points varies dramatically, disadvantaging an unlucky player's economy. Choke points also vary greatly. In other words, you might be completely screwed over by how the game randomly allocates your starting point on the map.
Overall, it's sadly amusing, because I could discuss a whole lot of other criticisms about damaging aspects of the game, just that there's no point. To explain this: at the time this review was written Starcraft II was in production, and all the fans are hotly debating whether or not you should be able to select multiple buildings, and the advantages and disadvantages of being able to do so. Such discussion can only be found in the context of a game where a heap of stuff has been done right: there seem to be no big flaws, so the fans are nitpicking. I could nitpick here as well. But why bother? Battle Realms already has so many game-ruining features without me doing so.
Since, for obvious reasons, the online Battle Realms community has dwindled down to a rather small number, if because of some misfortune you ever play the game, you'd probably hit the campaign. Unfortunately, the campaign is nearly as bad as the gameplay in general.
In the campaign you take the role of an aristocrat named Kenji. A decision you make in the first short map determines whether or not your clan is Dragon or Serpent, and also how some future missions play out. This signals the only not-bad feature of the campaign: path branches, wherein you can decide what map you'll play next. Unfortunately, the variation is minimal (you might be given a choice of which map next to play, but two missions later it turns out you need to turn around and pick another one of the choices. Which isn't really a choice at all.)
The main problem with the campaigns is that they're tedious. Of the fourteen maps you play, about ten (depending on what path you take) are build-up-destroy-everything missions. They thus demonstrate all the things wrong with the gameplay above. But in addition to that,
1) The basic strategy, even at Difficult mode, is to establish a town and build between ten and twenty of the most powerful unit you have no available (unit diversity? never!). In other words, you do near exactly the same thing for 10 maps.
2) When above I discussed how Battle Realms encourages building hiding strategies, the campaign compounds that problem tenfold. Since for several of the later missions you have to clear a huge map of enemies, after it becomes clear that you've won, you then literally have to spend between half and one hour just finding those last two or three buildings you missed. And the map is big enough such that you can run only a fraction of its length before your stamina is completely depleted. This is for several maps, by the way.
3) You can't adjust the speed. And the speed seems to be set to the slowest possible setting.
And the non-build-up maps are generally generic defend/destroy-the-building that were probably designed in someone's lunch break. i.e. Their only redeeming feature is that they're a heck of a lot shorter than all of the other missions.
As a final note here, plot-wise, the story is nothing special. Which is fine, because people don't play RTS's for plot, but if it'd had a storyline anywhere near Starcraft's it might have been icing on a (here, not very tasty) cake. However, it doesn't. Characters are horribly generic, unrealistic, and predictable; the plot events and writing are cliched.
Sound-wise, Battle Realms is decent. The music, which is supposed to sound like its from samurai-era Japan, is completely unmemorable. But it's not grating or anything. Sounds of units and buildings are similarly passable.
The voice acting, both from your units and from the campaign plot, is bearable, though slightly below average. In other words, there's nothing particularly good, and nothing particularly bad, just that it's all terribly generic.
Replay Value: 2/10
Usually, strategy games have a heap of replay value because of how orientated they are towards multiplayer. Battle Realms breaks the trend.
The reason should be pretty obvious. Since replay value derives itself from other aspects of the game, and since Battle Realms has no redeeming features, its replay value must therefore be incredibly lacking, at best. There's no incentive to replay the campaign, even to go on different path branches, because of how tedious your first experience of it was. There's no incentive to play single player skirmishes against the computer, because of how not fun the gameplay is, because of the reasons above. And there's no incentive to play multiplayer, because 1) the community's dead, and 2) even if it wasn't, there's no getting around the fact that the game has too many features which make it anything but frustrating to play.
Battle Realms is bad. There's nothing enjoyable about the game; in fact it's consistently frustrating. The thing about rip-offs (this being a rip-off of Starcraft) is that although it's extremely rare for them to be as good as the original, they still can be quite enjoyable. Battle Realms however, isn't enjoyable. It isn't even bearable. Battle Realms in fact makes you want to rip out your throat because of its sheer lack of quality.
Recommendation: If you buy it, only do so in order to destroy so that you prevent some poor soul actually playing it.
Reviewer's Rating: 1.0 - Terrible
Originally Posted: 01/05/09, Updated 01/06/09
Game Release: Battle Realms (US, 11/07/01)
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