Sieging the Day Again With the Stronghold: Definitive Edition

Stronghold: Definitive Edition
Reviewed On
Steam (PC)
Available For

As I was trying to decide what GiN review would run on Christmas day, I was working on this one for the Stronghold: Definitive Edition. As I was playing the main campaign and thoroughly enjoying revisiting the 2001 classic, my normally stoic castle advisor piped up and reminded me how many shopping days it was before Christmas in real life, which made me laugh quite a bit. FireFly Studios has always added little Easter eggs into their games, including famously telling players that it was getting really late, and they should be in bed if it detected that they were still playing after midnight. So, in honor of that little holiday joke, and because this is one of the best remakes I have ever played, Stronghold: Definitive Editon got the coveted Christmas day review slot. Hopefully that will make my advisor happy – along with the double rations I currently have him and my peasants enjoying.

The original Stronghold title was a true game changer for the industry, offering a fairly complex (especially given the time period) real-time strategy experience that mirrored the historical castle sieges and wars that flared up all around England during medieval times. It was one of the first times that players could work on gathering resources and nurturing an economy while also building up an army, keeping the peasants happy and of course constructing magnificent castles using whatever ingenious designs they could dream up. It had a nearly perfect formula and was also highly addictive to play.

Real-time strategy (RTS) games are much more advanced these days, but Stronghold remains a balanced title that is still really enjoyable to play. Unfortunately, the twenty-year-old graphics looked extremely dated, and even finding a way to play Stronghold with a modern computer was a bit of a challenge. The Stronghold: Definitive Edition makes a big effort to change all that, while also adding new gameplay elements and modern control schemes that make it so much more than a simple HD remake. In fact, while veteran players will certainly enjoy everything that FireFly has done to revamp classic Stronghold, it would also be a fun experience for newcomers who want to experience the castle building and sieging side of the RTS genre for the first time.

Although the graphics are not the only thing improved in Stronghold: Definitive Edition, they are the first thing that a player will notice. Before, everything was kind of pixelated, especially when you looked closely or zoomed in. What FireFly did was to take the original artists who created things like buildings and landscape elements (like rocks and trees) and had them redo those so that everything looks like a modern title with realistic materials and fabrics. The character models for the peasants and armies also got a little bit of a splash of color and definition. They still look a touch dated compared with the other elements, but it’s now easy to tell a spearman from an archer with a glance, and without having to zoom in.

After the graphics, the biggest improvement is the addition of a modern control scheme. When the original Stronghold was released, RTS games were still in their infancy. Titles like the original Warcraft (before it was an MMO), StarCraft, Command and Conquer and others had been around for a few years, but little things like modern control schemes where you left click and lasso a group of troops to select them and then right click to order them to move or attack had not yet become standard. As such, controlling the original Stronghold these days, especially for modern RTS gamers, might have seemed a little odd. Thankfully, with Stronghold: Definitive Edition, it now defaults to the modern control scheme that RTS players likely have in their muscle memory at this point, which makes controlling Stronghold’s massive armies so much easier. You can also go back and switch to the original control scheme if you want to play in the old school style.

The Stronghold: Definitive Edition keeps the balance and charm of the original Stronghold in place, and it is amazing to see Sir Longarm and Sir Woolsack arguing over strategy once more in your pre-battle briefings. The four villains of the realm make their triumphant return as well, so you will be fighting and hopefully besting the evil lords of the realm again including the hapless Rat, the insidious Snake and the bully that is the Pig. Eventually you will even fight your way to the Wolf, who is certainly the smartest of the evil lords, and who was programmed to take full advantage of all of the title’s many elements to try and defeat players in their quest to reunite England.

Something also has to be said for the soundtrack. Not only did the original Stronghold have almost full voice support, something that was far from common back in 2001, but it also featured one of the most beautiful soundtracks for any title, especially if you enjoy medieval-themed music. Like the graphics, many of the game’s songs have been redone by the original artists and also upgraded to HD sound quality. It really is a masterful soundtrack, and it’s nice to see that improving it was not overlooked in the making of the definitive edition.

Stronghold: Definitive Edition, like the original game, is also a really balanced experience. When playing the main game, players will first take on the Rat, who attacks without any real strategy and who defends poorly as well, including designing some really pathetic castles. As you march your army across England (the title forces you to follow a designated path), players are introduced slowly to advanced game elements like how to cultivate more productive foods, keeping peasants happy (or scared) so that they stay in line, religious blessings and of course advanced military units like knights and catapults. This happens while you also face increasingly capable opponents and bigger challenges like sieging or defending a castle. In a way, the entire campaign is almost like a well-crafted tutorial, although it never feels like that.

In addition to the original adventure with its 21 missions, the developers also added a whole new original one called The Jewel Campaign. And after 20 years away, it really felt good to dive back into Stronghold with both the original and the new campaign. The Jewel Campaign missions are well crafted and balanced, just like the original, and also surprising in places.

There are also some other features packed into Stronghold: Definitive Edition. The siege and attack modes have returned, where players can either defend a historic keep or try and assault it with a massive army. Steam workshop support has also been added, so players can craft their own levels and share them with the community. And there is a new Castle Trail mode too where players take on various missions involving castles which are not directly tied to either of the main campaigns. So, there is plenty of castle-centered goodness packed into Stronghold: Definitive Edition.

If there is one minor disappointment with the remade title, it’s the fact that there is no AI skirmish mode. I realize that battling the AIs on both developer and player-made maps was not available historically until Stronghold Crusader came out the following year in 2002, but that AI skirmish mode was a real fan favorite. I know it was for me, as battling an eight-way war with various Pigs, Snakes, Rats and Wolf-controlled castles was a huge treat. I’m not sure why FireFly couldn’t take that technology from Crusader and add it to the Stronghold: Definitive Edition since it already supports player versus player skirmishes, but its absence is disappointing as that could have added a lot of longevity to the new game’s popularity.

However, taken as a whole, Stronghold: Definitive Edition is almost like a master class in how to remake a game. It enhances most every element that made Stronghold so fun to play, and even adds new content over 20 years after its original release. As such, the Stronghold: Definitive Edition will certainly thrill those who loved Stronghold back in 2001, but also offers a new and exciting RTS experience for new players too. And with Stronghold: Definitive Edition priced at under $15 on Steam, it makes for a really nice holiday gift for players to maybe buy for themselves, especially now that my castle advisor tells me that Christmas has finally arrived.

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