Disciples: Sacred Lands is a pleasant diversion

Disciples: Sacred Lands
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Disciples: Sacred Lands is the latest entry in the turn based strategy gaming arena. It comes from a Canadian company, Strategy First, which is known for highly detailed strategy war simulation games like Man of War.

The game almost got delegated to the lowest shelf of the "to review" library after a quick glance. When you look at the game from a distance, it seems to be a clone of the highly successful Heroes of Might and Magic series. It’s only after you have spent a little time with the game that you realize that it is really different, and actually in many respects a lot more fun.

You play one of four races in the game that runs the gamut from the traditional humans and dwarves to undead hoards and daemons. There is a single player campaign for each of the four races, and each one uses unique maps.

The races themselves are really different from one another, and not just in name and graphic. Oh sure, I suppose there are similar units – each race has some type of front row grunt fighter – but the special abilities of the different troops differs greatly. I found that a particular strategy that worked well with one race would not work at all if I was playing with a different army. As an example, the cleric character for the humans cast healing magic on his turn, so a human army can have more lower level grunts upfront. But the dwarves, or Mountain Clans as they are called, have an alchemist instead who brews potions to temporarily increase the strength of another unit. With no healing, it’s better to have a huge guy upfront who can take a lot of damage and can be enhanced with your magic.

The graphics are really the downfall of this game. It’s all 2D and the game only runs in 640 by 480 resolution. Where as the Heroes series looks spectacular at 1024 by 768, Disciples is pretty average by comparison. This is not to say the graphics are bad, but given the fact that the game is not real-time, and hence programmers did not have to worry about rendering too much, you would have thought they would have gone hog-wild with the color palette.

This seeming disadvantage has actually been a boon for me personally, because the game plays great on my laptop. Disciples has become my constant traveling companion on the road, and I am a lot more sane because of it.

But what makes Disciples really shine is the unique way the game figures out who is winning, and what players have to accomplish to get the advantage. Whenever you conquer a city, the ground under that city becomes the type that is most advantageous to your race. Each turn thereafter, the land continues to creep outward, claiming all the hexes around it until it runs up against another race’s land or is stopped by terrain barriers such as a large river. For the humans, green meadows spring up under their conquests, while the Mountain Clans blanket the land with ice and snow. The undead’s land is cracked and broken and the daemon’s world is black as tar with red lava flows. Depending on the map, there is often a neutral land texture that is currently unclaimed.

There are resources in the game such as mana and gold mines. And whoever controls the land beneath a resource gets a bit of that resource added to their coffers each time. This system is a great change from Heroes, where you had to leave armies behind to guard resources, and fight nearly every neutral creature on the map to even get at the various mines.

There are still a few guerrilla tactics that can be used to capture resources, which makes the game even more interesting, though these are difficult to accomplish and rare, as they should be. There is a special unit in each army that can plant a rod in the ground on their turn. The rods generate land of your race’s type in the immediate area, though not nearly to the extent of capturing a city. The rod is best used when planted directly onto a resource that you want to control, but is well beyond your front lines. The problem is that the rod-bearing leader is the weakest you can hire in any race, and can only have one follower. So if they get caught, the enemy will likely make short work of them. I have used this tactic however to stave computer players effectively. It works best right after you have destroyed a major – and expensive – enemy force and their bank is low. However, other rod-bearing leaders can destroy your rods, though this is the risk you take for deep penetration.

This method of gaining ground is sort of like the tactics employed in World War I, where the country with the most inches of land was considered ahead. Given the type of units and the way combat is handled, it’s a lot of fun to think of strategy this way. For example, you might capture a neutral city simply because it lies across a river, so your land’s influence will begin to spread to a new continent. Or you might need to hold a city at all costs because it will block your enemy’s terrain from expanding through a narrow pass.

I was a bit disappointed that you can only have up to six units in your army, including your main leader. All armies have to have a leader, except for those in cities. Some exceptionally large creatures take up two slots, so building your force is a delicate process. Most leaders can only command up to three other units, so one large creature and one normal sized one fill you up. This makes it pretty much impossible to defeat some neutral armies out of the gate in each scenario, since their six slots of creatures would slaughter you.

The one pet peeve I have with this otherwise excellent game is that in some scenarios you can’t really lose. That is because they stick a "God-like" character in your home city that can’t be moved. The God-like person has something close to 1,000 hit points, does enough damage to squash all enemy armies in one turn, and almost always goes first. If you are able to battle your way to your enemy’s base, you will find a similar unbeatable opponent residing there. Come on guys, if I want to destroy my opponent in a scenario before completing my main objectives, I should be able. Otherwise the game is too focused on being linear. At least knowing this, you won’t plan an attack on an enemy capital, but instead will use the aforementioned resource starving technique to eliminate them.

Combat is a bit unusual once the armies, more like skirmish groups, get together. Strategy First has eliminated all movement in the battle zone. Your frontline troops consist of the people you have in your first three slots. They can attack other frontline troops and be attacked by other frontline troops on their turn. The last three slots are for your back line. This is where your mages and archers sit. They can only be attacked by other troops with missile weapons, and can normally shoot any or sometimes every enemy on the board. You can use your frontline troops to attack the enemy’s back line directly only after you have eliminated all the frontline defenders. Likewise, once your frontline crumbles, your back line is highly vulnerable.

At first I missed being able to move troops around on the battle map. But I found that this really simplifies combat, without removing all strategic choices.

The magic spells available to each race are unique and a lot of fun to cast. And a well-timed spell can save the life of your party. You have to be careful casting spells because they are expensive in terms of mana spent to both research and cast. And you can only cast spells from the overall map, not once you have entered combat.

There is a multiplayer mode that is pretty good, though it suffers from the same problems of all turn-based strategy games in that you spend a lot of time waiting for your opponents to move. But playing other human opponents is a ton of fun, especially in a turn-based setting that is more fixated on strategy than the knee-jerk reactions found in real-time games. It’s like a very complex chess match, and can be quite fulfilling.

Disciples: Sacred Lands is truly a landmark in strategy turn-based gaming. The way resource ownership is determined, with your land slowly creeping outward, makes this game unique in the same way that The Settlers distinguished itself in the real-time strategy world. If you, like me, made the mistake of thinking that Disciples was just like Heroes, then you need to take another look at this game. In no time at all you will become a disciple yourself, devoted to playing the game over and over.

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