Warlock: Master of the Arcane Reviewed

Our Rating
out of 5.0

This game was reviewed on the PC.

In Warlock: Master of the Arcane, we’re taken through InoCo’s version of turn-based conquest that strongly invokes feelings of its strategic forebears.  Like other games in the turn-based strategy genre, your power is based on development, diplomacy, and combat, but the uniqueness of Warlock lies in the details.

Ardania is the world at stake, and the players are the Great Mages.  One of the first notable differences here is that as a leader of the faction, the player doesn’t just deal in money and resources.  There’s no arbitrary system of quantified honor or prestige.  Instead, one of the aspects of commerce is mana, the mechanism by which the Mages use spells.  It can be traded as a commodity, or hoarded and used in case of emergency, making mana immediately more useful than the mere posturing of diplomatic powers.

Building cities in Master of the Arcane is extremely simple.  You start off with your capitol, which is seated in a hexagon surrounded by six others and a colored border indicating the city limits.  Construction is one building at a time, without the ability to queue up new ones in advance.  A gap in construction time lies in the frustrating problem of population growth.  Warlock maintains the notion that a city can only operate a certain number of buildings at a time, based on the number of people that live there.  ‘Insufficient population’ becomes the largest and most common obstacle in city development.

This seeming flaw actually serves to keep things moving.  Rather than zeroing in on an initial city, the players are pushed into exploring the map, where they’ll find hexes with rare properties, such as ancient ruins, silver mines, and pumpkin patches.  These spots provide special construction opportunities, like the chance to build a foundry on an iron mine, or turning a haunted forest into a mana-producing magical garden.

Despite that push to get out of the starting zone, the world map is very small, even when selecting a large map.  With five competing Great Mages on Ardania, things get crowded quickly, and traveling quickly turns into fighting.  The tutorial speaks about portals that can take your forces to new planes, but unless you find one, you’re stuck shoulder-to-shoulder with AIs that will offer horrible, self-serving deals and loudly reject peace.

Warlock’s combat feels familiar, initially.  You have one unit per hex that acts on your turn.  Damage is based on unit health and strength, any weapon bonuses it might have, and whether or not it’s standing on difficult terrain.  The damage is then ‘typed’ based on how it’s dealt, which means melee for infantry units, ranged for archers, elemental damage for wizards, and so on.  Defenses are represented by resistance to these types, and arise out of weapons, armor, races, classes, and magic.

Magic changes combat considerably.  Playing a Great Mage is what makes Warlock distinctive in its otherwise conventional play style.  Your units are never bound by technological advancement, or the lack thereof.  Using the spells ‘Melee Resistance’ and ‘Less’ makes your rookie troops suddenly gain the survivability to threaten and overcome a veteran infantry force.  If you find yourself short on combat units, there’s always the option to conjure some up, placing things like imps and wolves on any hex you can see.  Are there drakes inbound while you’re short on archers or wizards? Just call down fire and lightning, they won’t even touch your cities. This type of on-the-fly customization leads to a far less linear, less predictable game.

There’s less to be enthusiastic about outside of the gameplay.  Visual comparisons of Warlock to mainstream turn-based strategy games would place it among the previous wave of releases rather than the current.  The graphics aren’t ancient, they’re just not cutting edge.  The character portraits are done in a fun, vibrant illustrative style, but the 3D models are as nondescript as any other small-scale renderings.  The larger sprites, like giants and elementals work better, but only so long as you don’t stare at the seams.  Looking at the ancient scrollwork in the opening screens reveals that ancient Ardanians used the Greek alphabet to record their wisdom.  Who knew?

Without retooling the audio settings, you’ll hear voices and sound effects quite clearly, but only get a suggestion of a drum beat otherwise. It’s not entirely necessary, though, since background music meant to loop for hours has to be unobtrusive enough to keep it from driving players insane. The end result is easily digestible and readily forgettable. That’s the case here, presented by timpani in a series of eighth notes with a cadence of warlike accents.

The storyline is a disappointing level of generic.  The world is falling apart, the most magical and capable step in, and war decides the victors. More can be excavated out of the character biographies and even the other Ardanian games than the in-game experience of Warlock.

Warlock is a tried-and-true model that was spun around a bit and made new by its setting. For its ingenuity in strategic gaming, and for its presentational shortcomings, Warlock: Master of the Arcane earns a 4.25 out of 5.

Our Rating
out of 5.0

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