Review by Sinroth

"A refreshing, original experience, nothing short of fun"

There is a certain kick you get out of making a castle, and watching hundreds of soldiers perish as they try to breach your walls, falling in a cloud of embers and crossbow bolts. But then again, there is also a kick to building up a massive economy, using natural resources of many types, or perhaps fending off gigantic waves of swordsmen, with about a third of the enemies troops. Stronghold covers all of this, and it does it in a simple, yet fun, and challenging fashion.

Let us start with the graphics, shall we? The graphics are nothing special, but they get the job done. Forget World of Warcraft, or Age of Empires 3, as there is little in the way of ragdoll physics and life-like environments. Despite there being an obvious lack in this department, the visuals are surprisingly easy on your eyes. 7/10

The sound is next. From the ambient tunes, to the clatter of swords, and the swish of ocean foam, there is certainly no lack of themes whilst in-game. However, in long games, this can get repetitive, but seeing as seventy percent of the time is spent without enemies on the map, you only get a few, near silent tunes that you can just faintly hear, so really, repetition is not a factor. The voice acting is clear and crisp, albeit a little bit corny. 7/10

Now, the meat of this review: gameplay. Well, to put it simply, this is a castle sim. Therefore, you have to manage a castle. Sounds easy, eh? Factor in the fact that your peasants consume food, and you must deal with happiness, it can become quite a challenge simply delivering enough apples to your granary without everyone packing up and going. Since there is a large range to explain, I shall start with economy. Well, first off, you need to provide food for your peasants. The more peasants you have, the quicker food is consumed. You can toggle how much they eat, but this has a hit on happiness. There are four different types of food; meat, apples, cheese, and bread, and they are each acquired differently. For example, to acquire meat, you must build hunter posts, whom will go out looking for deer, kill them, return the carcass to their hut, and skin them. For bread, you must build wheat farms, wait for them to bring wheat to your stockpile, have a mill where the wheat is grinded into flour, and then bakers to morph the flour into bread, then delivered to your granary. Describing it sounds complex, and having to micro people making bread sounds incredibly tedious, but really, it is easy to get the hang of, and once you have a fairly good food economy up, you can forget about it for a long time, until you get a large influx of peasants. Another bonus, is that you don't have to command people to do every individual command. Once they have a job, they do it, until you tell them to stop, in which case, they do. Tell them to do it again, and they go straight back to doing everything.

Next up for gameplay, the building. Buildings are trained instantly, but you need the resources for the buildings. For example, if you need wood, you must get woodcutters to fell trees, and saw the wood into planks. If you need stone, you must construct a quarry, getting several masons to fetch the stone, chiseling it, and loading it on oxen, whom carry the burden to the stockpile. There is a large range of resources, and for each resource, a large range of buildings for you to gather it. Units are built in a similar manner, although you must have an armoury, and a barracks. You must have the right resources, and then construct the corresponding building. For example, to create a bow, you must have a fletcher, 3 wood, and an armoury. The fletcher will work on the bow, then return it to the armoury, where it is stored. At a barracks, you can turn one spare peasant into an archer.

For the combat, there aren't a whole lot of units, but you quickly learn their strengths and weaknesses. The meat of the gameplay, however, isn't about skirmishes, it's about all out sieges. There are several siege weapons, ranging from Catapults (whom can also fling cows, ridden with disease) to men bearing ladders. As for defense, not only can you construct walls, but also towers, giving extra range to your archers, as well as gatehouses, and lots of traps. For example, pitch. If you shoot a fire arrow into this, it lights up the whole pitch, burning those who step through it. And the computer, eighty percent of the time, isn't dumb enough to keep trundling through it, so you must time your shots. Another example, are war dogs. On your command, this will release two wolves. While not particularly strong, it is a nice touch. Also at your disposal, you may dig moats. For those who don't know, a moat, is, in short, water around your castle. If your enemy wants to cross it, they need to find dry land, or they need to dig it in. Fortunately for you, there are drawbridges, which immediately close when enemies are nearby. A rather small annoyance, is that they won't open again unless you tell them to, which can put a cut on your economy if you forget to.

Another factor is happiness. Basically, you are rated out of a hundred on how happy people at your castle are. At 50 or over, they will come to your castle, while under 50, they will begin to leave. This can be affected by scripted events, such as a traveling fairs, wolves, fires, plagues, bandits, and so on, or by non-scripted events, such as changing the taxation, or rations.

Although I suppose the main gameplay needs explaining. For the majority of missions, enemies will attack you. However, you can't see these enemies until they appear. So, you build up in peace, until enemies come, which you are warned of before it happens. The other small majority of the game involves you, and your enemy, appearing on the same map, usually still with invasions as stated above, where you tend to have to kill your enemies lord to win. 10/10

The military campaign is composed of 21 missions. And they are punishingly difficult. Even on the default normal difficulty, you may find yourself struggling on some of them. Fortunately, there are four difficulties (easy, normal, hard, very hard), and lots of challenges for you to overcome. The first few missions serve as a bit of a tutorial (even though there is already a tutorial mission), and see you killing wolves. However, you will quickly jump up in difficulty, as you hold off against small forces of enemies, until finally, you are conducting your own sieges, and trying to stop thousands of knights pouring through the gaps in your walls. However, easy difficulty shouldn't be too hard for you, so long as you've played another RTS before. You may also save whenever you feel like it, and there are no limits on saves. The campaign is near perfect. 9/10

The story is the generic, your father was slain, and you must have your revenge. Take note, this isn't a spoiler, as this is learned in the first or second mission. All the enemies who you face have a short backstory to them, and they each have different attitudes. For example, the Rat, your first enemy, is a scared, weak warlord, with near useless armies. However, the Pig, your third enemy, throws mass quantities of weak soldiers at you, and is an absolute brute. Don't think there are a shortage of characters on your side either. To start with, there are two men who brief you; Lord Woolsack, and Sir Longarm, each with conflicting personalities. It isn't terribly original, but it gets the job done. 7/10

The games replayability factor is quite high indeed. The game is fun, and addictive, and sometimes, even just building a castle without enemy invasions can last you a week or so, however, there is also a map editor. At first glance, it appears very basic, not having an awful lot in the way of terrain, animals, and detail, but if you look around on the internet a little bit, you can find lots of strategies to making beautiful maps. For example, bridges, whilst not included in the game, can easily be built with walls, using a few simple tricks. If you are willing to spend a lot of time putting detail into your maps, you can come out with incredible results, such as immobile ships, ports, harbours, fountains, and even cities built on water. 8/10

One thing that gives flavour and life to a game is the random tidbits. Well, Stronghold is nothing short of excellent in this category. For example, you can click on a random citizen, and they will say something. These change, depending on who you have selected, and the current situation. For example, selecting a drunk, they will say nothing, but there are a large quantity of funny subtitles, most bound to give you a chuckle or two. Another example, is if the enemy is present, the citizens voices whimper, and they ask you to save them. If you give them a large amount of taxation, they will moan about how poor they are, some asking you to lower the them. And then there is the church. Well, once you have a fair amount of religion in your castle (there is only one, nameless type), there will be weddings held between your peasants, most of the time with rather smug, laugh out loud comments. More than once have I found myself constantly clicking the church, hoping for a different wedding to read the comments. Not only this, but your advisor, whom informs you of things, like when the enemy is coming, or of scripted events (in the campaign, or in custom missions), will give funny remarks at certain times. For example, at 12:00 in the afternoon, you are met with "What about a snack my lord?", and at 12:30 in the morning, you are greeted with "It is a bit late, my lord." All of this life crammed into the game really makes it feel refreshing, and more like you are in a castle, instead of in some stellar keep, surrounded by four silver walls, yelling at three archers to shoot at a spearman. 9/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 01/29/07

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