Review: Etherlords10 Sep 2014 0
Carcassonne meets Pokemon is a hell of an awesome premise. Build a custom overworld from individual tiles, uncovering its weird and dangerous inhabitants as you do so. These creatures can be added to your squad of fighters, which will do battle with other teams to claim the resources you need to keep building. That sounds great! How could a game like that possibly not be fun?
Exhibit A: Etherlords. A game of shallow, frustrating combat that confuses progression with accomplishment.
You are tasked with restoring a ruined world by travelling from one location to the next, each of which must be rebuilt to certain specifications. Build five lakes, for example, or one very large forest.
Each turn the game randomly gives you a square tile printed with various terrain features. A sliver of lava bordering a patch of desert, perhaps, or a bit of forest alongside a glade. You will place these on the map, adding one small bit of landscape at a time until they begin form a whole.
This map-making exercise never requires the level of tactical decision-making provided by Carcassonne and its ilk, but it's a pleasant experience the way making a diorama was in grade school. When you complete a level the extraneous tiles will fall away, displaying the world you built as a unified whole. It’s a nice touch.
Completing various map features rewards you with new creatures you can add to your collection, which will fight for you in combat. This is the game’s second half. In order to earn the “matter’ you need to place tiles, you’ll have to fight. A lot.
You’ll choose a three-fighter team from among your collection. The creatures you collect are colorful and varied, each with their own special abilities. Frogs that launch mosquitoes at their opponents, shamans who can strengthen their allies, raccoons with hammers, they’re all here. It should be easy to create thrilling combat out of such a varied cast of characters, but unfortunately the fighting mostly boils down to which team’s level is higher, or which has the rarest creatures.
Your three chosen warriors will repetitively attack whichever weird creatures stands opposite them for five seconds. Then the action will pause while you decide which of your characters’ special abilities to use (they each have only one). Maybe you’ll forgo using a special ability to re-arrange your forces so that one of your troops can stand on a rune that will make its next special attack stronger. Repeat until everybody on one side is dead, a process that usually takes less than a minute.
The game touts this “one button” combat as a feature, but it is so devoid of interesting decisions it never even rises to the level of enjoyable distraction. It is a chore, a pyrotechnic treadmill you’ll grind on until you can get back to the marginally-more-interesting overworld.
The teams you face appear to be based on those of your fellow players. You’ll see a username and profile pic appear every time you fight, presumably displaying the creator of your opponents. But all the fights are so similar there is no sense of discovery, no thrill to tackling a challenge created by another human being.
There’s some thought that goes into team composition, but it’s pretty bare-bones. Creatures come in three flavors (earth, air and fire) which determine which runes they can use. Despite their wild and diverse visual appearances they basically fall into a few basic categories: direct damage, AOE attacks and support. You can “fuse” creatures in your collection, sacrificing some to boost the strength of one. This is the primary way of leveling up, which is crucial to tackle the harder enemies.
Killing off your creatures to make those that remain stronger might sound callous but you won’t care, because under the hood these colorful cartoons are inherently disposable, lacking the personality or distinctive gameplay abilities to stand out from each other. You won’t find fan favorites like Pikachu or Charmander, instead you’ll struggle to remember the difference between “leaf guy” and “mosquito guy.”
Maybe some of the creatures hidden behind booster packs are more notable. Etherlords is not the most exploitative of its free-to-play brethren, but there are still plenty of cardinal sins on display here. Log into Facebook to collect bonus awards. Challenge your friends to collect “valor points” which can unlock special booster packs. Ether, the material needed to fuse your creatures and purchase a host of other bonuses, can be earned slowly in game or purchased quickly for real money. Some creature packs can be purchased with ether, but the most desirable are real-money only. These can cost $20 or more.
Etherlords is not worth $20 or more. It might not even be worth your time. The boardgame-like worldbuilding is decent but constantly hampered by tedious combat. It takes a cool premise and squanders it.
Etherlords blend of gameplay styles sounds brilliant on paper. In a perfect world they would combine to create something greater than themselves, like peanut butter and chocolate. Instead they hamper each other, stripping themselves of the strengths they have. Like peanut butter and horseradish. Sure, it’s “free,” but it’s still not a sandwich I would willingly pack for lunch.
Etherlords was played on an iPhone 5s for this review.