Fantasy General II Review05 Sep 2019 4
Fantasy General II Review
Released 05 Sep 2019
There’s a certain danger to playing a long-awaited sequel. For some beloved properties the weight of years will make anything new developers produce inadequate. The carefree levity of youth weaves into the fabric of gaming memory, creating a protective shell of nostalgia. Other properties, ones that only resurface when you’re reminded of their existence, have a much easier time. Fantasy General falls into the second category for me, and I would hazard to say I’m probably not alone in thinking this.
By all accounts a good game, Fantasy General was only the third release in the 'Five Star General' series following the major successes of Panzer General and Allied General. Bringing magic and non-human soldiers into the Panzer General formula worked well, and the open campaigns, vastly different Commanders to choose from, and hardworking AI for the time gave the game replayability. Still, for Wargamer’s Zack Zimmerman it’s only the sixth best Generals game so YMMV.
As we’ve seen a resurgence in recent years of quality games operating through modified Panzer General systems like Panzer Corps and Order of Battle, it makes good sense to revisit the Fantasy General licence and return players to the hazily remembered world of Aer. While it is always nice to see a classic game franchise get a shiny coat of paint, how does Fantasy General II hold up on its own as a new product? I’m happy to report that at this moment, with one-third of the main campaign and a handful of skirmish scenarios across 18 hours under my belt, it certainly stands up to today’s competition while offering a respectful nod at its predecessor.
The main game is a 33-scenario campaign that follows the rise of Falirson, a familiar fantasy Viking type, as he unites the tribes to strike out at the Empire, an ordered and civilized society that seeks to use the earth and spirits rather than cohabit with them. There is nothing earth shattering in the narrative, but it was certainly interesting enough to keep me entertained and give the decisions I made weight. Each scenario will see you facing key choices as you fight across the familiar Panzer General hex grid using a variety of units. These range from your standard Viking axemen and javelin throwers to various fantasy creatures like trolls and undead, on to the esoteric and interesting like the wolf mother, a support unit that can tame animals and a boulder launching Bronze Bull.
The narrative is assisted along by the game’s pretty presentation. I was quite taken with the campaign map, spending several minutes just floating around it and reading the places of interest. The game itself is visually appealing with discernable terrain and only a few confusing looking units. (I’m pointing at you, various Empire spear units!) The music evokes that proper high fantasy feel, but I found sound effects repetitive. While this alone would produce an above average yet ordinary wargame, it’s the little things in FG2 that sets it far above the rest.
One of the most impactful changes to the standard formula are unit wounds and deaths (something Fantasy General I did). When a unit engages an enemy, it will take damage with a percentage chance for that damage to result in a death. When there are no healthy members of a unit, it is eliminated, regardless of the ratio of wounded to killed. If you can keep a unit from acting or being attacked for a turn, they can rest and recover all their wounded members. This adds a crucial layer of strategy to encounters; you’re not only balancing the dozen usual Panzer General factors, but also judging how much more punishment each unit can take. Is it worth risking that half wounded unit, knowing some might die for real forcing you to spend money on replacements or lose some unit XP?
Another interesting take on the usual economics in these types of games is raiding. Buying new units or mercenaries mid-scenario requires that you hold settlements, yet looting settlements is an important way to gain gold for future purchases and upgrades. Also, instead of a hard turn limit, each scenario offers a depleting bar of the region’s value. Exploring and looting quickly can get you valuable gold, upgrade material, and magic items. Run out the region’s value bar by taking too long and your looting will earn you nothing. It gives players the option to risk their units by forging ahead or lose out on money by playing it safe. I found myself thinking hard about these trade offs in almost every scenario.
These types of wargames are often puzzles, where the pieces you must work with are a product of how you’ve played the game until that point. While in some games this can feel restricting, Fantasy General II weaves these developments into the world and your decisions. Whenever a unit interacts with an event, they are the ones encountering it. It was Thoralf and his berserkers (an upgrade choice I made) that found the ancient dragon skeleton, and Thoralf himself who had the vision of the ancient knight who slew it, granting he and his unit the ‘Dragon Slayer’ attribute for 20% more damage against lizards and dragons. Another time Lynnare ran afoul of a forest spirit, spiting her with 50% more damage from all sources. As soon as I could, Lynnare hung up her spear and became a wolf mother, losing me a powerful fighting unit but granting me some much-needed magic support. Fantasy General II’s interwoven story elements and decisions impact your army composition in a way that I found refreshing and interesting, if I did not succumb to the urge to reload old saves.
That brings me to the difficulty. As is common with Panzer General style games, sometimes you’ll be blindsided or overwhelmed by the negative impact of a decision you made, or the sheer difficulty of a scenario. This forces you to either reload, lose outright, or risk winning while losing irreplaceable units. This is not unique to Fantasy General II, and while the devs seem to go out of their way to fix a lot of the longstanding problems associated with this type of wargame, they do nothing to discourage the perfect or bust mindset that is often a part of this genre. For a game that relies on decisions, getting to make them over and over again is a missed mark.
On the other side of the same coin, Fantasy General II is appreciably difficult, and not simply through overwhelming you with units, (though they do start to do that in the later scenarios I played). The AI is quite good for a Panzer General type, and if they do cheat, I can’t tell. The enemy AI does a good job of covering their units with ranged support, of zeroing in on weakened units, and of exploiting gaps in your lines. Enemies will also make use of cover to ambush you if you don’t adequately scout forwards. Ambushing is a valuable skill to learn yourself and while enemies will often walk into your traps if you give them a reason, (baiting them with a near dead unit, for example) they’re not so stupid enough to blindly follow your units everywhere. You shouldn’t be worried about the game being a breeze, if my experience has taught me anything, just be prepared to restart often.
It’s also important to look at Fantasy General II as the sequel it is. Though we’re now 23 years removed from the first game, it tries to make the most of the nostalgia. The chorus singing over the title screen is apparently the same from the original game, and there are several nods throughout to the history written during the first Fantasy General. Players expecting a more straight-forward copy of the original game will be disappointed, though that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try it. There is no choice of starting general, no free-flowing campaign, and the number of individual units and factions is smaller. I thought only having access to two factions (pending DLC, of course) wouldn’t be enough to hold my interest, especially given the variety of Fantasy General I.
Yet I found myself wholly content with the Barbarians and the Empire. Both factions give you a variety of human and non-human units, with the Barbarians favouring magic, ambushes, trolls, and werebears alongside any fantasy Viking-type you can shake an axe at. The Empire combines undead forces with pseudo-Roman legionnaires, mythical constructs and units that spread disease or summon corpses. Whaling on both factions are the neutrals, who run the gamut from wolves, bears and poachers to elementals, harpies, and the dreaded eaglebear, born with a heart full of neutrality, who cares not whose soldiers it devours. The point is that sometimes fewer factions crafted with care and thought can carry a strategy game over an abundance of middling troops. I would have liked more, for sure, but I’m willing to wait if future additions are just as interestingly constructed. I will admit that I probably won’t be making much more use of the skirmish mode until more factions and the editor show up.
So what do we have here at the end of things? Fantasy General II is a very different game from its decades old predecessor, but that is definitely not a bad thing. I found the main campaign to be full of difficult decisions, resourceful AI, and varied challenges. I appreciated the steps taken to ameliorate some of the more common Panzer General-like issues in ways that forces interesting decisions on the player while retaining the flavor of this type of wargame.
The inclusion of a robust skirmish mode, while hindered by low faction count, is clearly indicative of what the game will grow into in the future. As for right now, at launch, you can settle for a few dozen hours of an interesting, engaging, and difficult main campaign. A modest beginning, but one that’s still worthy of your time - Step up young Falirson, you’ve got an invasion to lead.