Disciples: Liberation Review

Disciples: Liberation Review IntroductionDeveloped by Frima Studio and published by Kalypso Media, Disciples: Liberation is the latest entry in the Disciples series that up until this point existed to answer a simple question - what would happen if you took the over-the-top gothic grandeur of Warhammer, turned it up to eleven and mashed it together with Heroes of Might and Magic?Liberation then is different in that it's more reminiscent of the King's Bounty series where you control a single hero that goes around the map collecting quests, items and resources, and fighting an ungodly amount of turn-based battles.And with the recent King's Bounty II going in a more cinematic direction, you might be wondering if perhaps Liberation could become the proper successor to King's Bounty: The Legend and its sequels. If that's the case, or if you're just curious about Liberation, you can find our thoughts on this particular title below.Remember Bethrezen? He's Back. In Pog Form!What with the genre shift and the game sporting a subtitle instead of a number, you may be forgiven if you confuse Liberation for a soft reboot of some description. But this is not the case here. The game is a direct continuation of Disciples III, with plenty of connections to the earlier entries in the series.And while this is certainly a bold move in this age of endless remakes, it's not necessarily a good thing. Soon after launching the game, you'll realize that its tone and style are nothing like the earlier Disciples games where even elves looked like they started their day by bench-pressing tree trunks.Instead of this epic tale that kind of looks like a Rembrandt painting, you have what's essentially a young adult story about two mercenary assassins whose primary concerns seem to be getting their hands on some booze and coming up with the perfect zany one-liner.After a bit of just that, we get introduced to the bigger picture where the game's four races (Demons, Undead, Humans, and Elves) are sick of getting involved in their respective deities' squabbles, and so they now want to go all Nietzsche and kill their gods or otherwise break free from their control. And our protagonist Avyanna, being the product of a union between an angel and a demon that happened back in Disciples III, is uniquely positioned to facilitate this global liberation.Which isn't that bad of a story, considering the series' lore. It's just that the game's irreverent tone and its never-ending barrage of quips all but ensure that none of that stuff lands, and any semblance of tension gets immediately diffused by some timely exchange about the virtues of demonic ale.And while I was far from a fan of Liberation's story, things weren't all bad in that area. I was actually surprised by how many choices you get to make, and the way they send ripples through the game.Liberation is essentially separated into three acts, and each of those has 4-5 expansive areas associated with it. You get to choose the order in which to tackle these areas, and as a result, the developments in the earlier areas will change some interactions in the later ones. Furthermore, a good few of your decisions in the earlier acts will determine the encounters you get later on. And that's not even mentioning how the areas themselves saddle you with plenty of choices and more than a fair share of opportunities to double-cross your employers or play both sides.I'll be the first to admit that the game managed to surprise me with some of its twists, like that time you're hired to help a farmer who's being robbed by the rebels and taxed by the church. If you decide to do the guy a solid and kill all his enemies, he ends up dead because, for all their racketeering, the church was also providing him with protection. And many hours of gameplay later, you'll meet the guy's cow who'll ask you to kill him and feed him to her (since this is a modern game that tries to be funny, I'm afraid humorous cannibals are a must). But if he's already dead, he turns into a zombie and the cow refuses to eat him. And this is just one minor quest chain in one of the areas.All of this decision-making isn't just for show. The game's four races each have a reputation meter. If you raise it, the units belonging to those races become stronger when fighting under your banner, you get access to new skills, and the ability to construct new buildings back in Yllian, a city of angels that acts as your home base.Most of the game's quests will allow you to increase or decrease your reputation with the races, and more often than not, pleasing one race makes at least one other mad at you. During your first playthrough, you'll probably be able to max out relations with one of the races, and that's it. However, after you beat the game, you'll unlock what's essentially a New Game+ mode that sends you back in time and tasks you with maxing out relations with everyone with the help of some new dialogue options. Doing so is supposed to unlock some secret boss fight and ending.Speaking of dialogues, the game has that thing where the options you get to click express the general idea of what your character is about to say, but at least it has the decency to clearly mark the attitude of each line. You get friendly replies, angry replies, inspiring replies, romantic replies. So many romantic replies.You know how RPGs tend to have romances and some people love them while others can't stand them? Well, Liberation is on a completely different level in this department. Sure, you can have a romance with one of your companions (you get two for each of the game's races, plus your starting childhood friend). But pretty much everywhere you go, you get opportunities for casual hookups that the game delights in describing to you.But the funny thing is, as much as I usually want to have nothing to do with RPG romances, here that stuff tips over into the "so bad it's good" territory, where I couldn't wait to see what weird sexual encounter the game will throw at me next.Do You Guys Not Have Phones?Apart from being more promiscuous than Hugh Hefner in his prime, Avyanna has a character sheet with four primary attributes - Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence. These increase her damage, health, critical chance, resistances. The usual. Unfortunately, the attributes are borderline cosmetic, as you can't manually increase them. They just go up on their own as you gain levels.You can also raise your stats by equipping armor, but doing so will put you face to face with the game's itemization system. And that's very much a gazing into the abyss type situation.You see, Avyanna can wear armor (helmets, breastplates, pants, and boots), weapons, and these so-called Emotion Shards that offer unique combat-related bonuses. Her companions get access to weapons and Emotion Shards. And regular units can only equip the shards. And here's a quick quiz for you. Given the above, which type of item do you think is the most common drop in the game?If you said Emotion Shards, congratulations, you have more faith in the world than it deserves. The shards are a relatively rare drop. Then come the weapons. And most of the drops you'll be getting, which happens after just about every fight and when opening chests during exploration, will reward you with a color-coded armor piece. You'll be drowning in armor no one but Avyanna can wear, and pretty much all of it will be worthless.Early on, you'll occasionally get some item that's significantly better than what you're wearing, but once you start discovering Legendary gear with special, sometimes party-wide, properties, you'll have no reason to even look at the regular stuff you find.And sure, some of the regular items can have better stats than your Legendary gear, but here's the kicker. Raising your stats grants such negligible bonuses, you'll be hard-pressed to even notice them.When I just started the game, I found a set of gear just sitting in my inventory that was about ten times better than anything I could find in the game at that point. I was a bit confused but figured I missed some explanation and put all that overpowered stuff on.Then I discovered that the game's combat was ridiculously easy. I looked things up, and it turned out that my review copy was the Deluxe Edition that comes with a set of strong starting gear, five extra skill points, and a bunch of free resources. To be honest, I thought the age of pay to win DLCs was over, and the idea that that's where that gear came from hadn't even occurred to me. But upon realizing this, I unequipped all that stuff and started using the regular green garbage I was finding during my travels. And then I proceeded to not notice any discernible difference in my combat performance. Sure, I may have been doing slightly less damage, but everything died way before that became relevant. And even though the developers have already promised to expand the game's difficulty options, when I played it, Liberation had pretty much zero challenge.Thankfully, the game's skill system actually has a purpose. You have three meaty skill trees, one specializing in melee combat, one that's all about magic, and the third has a bit of both plus a bunch of army-related improvements. The trees are reminiscent of the early World of Warcraft talent trees where you had minor increases leading into big juicy abilities. The twist here are the powerful threshold bonuses you unlock upon investing a certain number of points into a particular tree, and the fact that certain skills only become available if you have good standing with the game's factions.The game also has classes. You start as a basic Mercenary but after a few story events are promoted to a Warlord, Hexblade, Seeress, or a Witch. Later on, you'll be able to improve your class and unlock some new abilities, and at any point you can completely respec and try a different build.The trap here is playing anything other than a full spellcaster. The game has four extensive magic schools, with some spells being so overpowered, they one-shot just about any level-appropriate encounter. And you might think you don't need this in an easy game, but you really do.Before we get to why, allow me to explain how Liberation's combat works. While the game is structured in a similar way to King's Bounty, in the signature Disciples fashion, instead of replenishable troops, you recruit individual units separated into four tiers. Each of the game's factions has three unit-producing buildings you can erect back in Yllian, with each building housing 4-5 unit types.This allows you to experiment with your party composition a great deal, especially when you also consider the fact that apart from the regular troops you can have up to two companions with you on the battlefield, and three units in the backline that don't directly participate in battles but can still help out a lot with their support abilities.The game has a pretty interesting take on the 2AP system, where you have three different types of action points. You can spend your blue AP to move, the red ones to attack, and the rare gold kind can do both. More advanced units tend to favor the gold AP, while the early ones can usually only attack once per turn.But, as opposed to the earlier Disciples games, early units don't evolve as they gain experience here. They just become stronger with each level, which creates a situation where even the lowly tier-1 units can have thousands of HP and pose a theoretical threat in the late game. They'll just be very boring about doing so.The game's act structure comes into play here, making it so you only get access to the stronger units as you advance through the story, and the enemies you face mostly follow the same pattern. And seeing how there are only faction units in Liberation and no unique neutral ones, it won't take long for you to get sick of fighting zombies and cultists while only using zombies and cultists of your own.Companions are a great help here, as they obliterate just about everything in the early game. They become more fragile around the second act, but by then you're able to hire some decent units. And once you reach the late game, you unlock spells that just win battles for you.And you'll love them because of the game's biggest flaw. My earlier issues with Liberation can easily be overlooked or just be seen as funny or silly moments, but this one is completely unacceptable in a game where you'll be doing a lot of fighting.The animations in Liberation are extremely, excruciatingly slow. The game has a slider doubling their speed, but that doesn't help much, because the problem isn't the animations themselves but all the waiting you'll be doing. The game can only play one animation at a time, and between each of them is a delay. Not an issue when we're talking a single battle. But over time these delays add up, souring the entire experience.At the same time, the game's underlying combat system is actually pretty solid. Clever positioning can turn the tide of many a battle. Just about any unit has access to status effects that can synergize in interesting ways like your snipers always critically hitting slowed targets, or a certain summoning spell requiring a number of enemies to be frozen to work. You can even find special named units that have much better stats than their regular counterparts, incentivizing exploration.But seeing how the game lacks any challenge, you don't really get to flex your tactical muscles and utilize the full potential of the combat system. Nor would you want to, because, with all the animation delays, you'll just want things to be over as soon as possible.And that's even when you consider the fact that you can instantly win most optional fights by using the "Conquer" button. I was using that button at every opportunity, and even so, my playthrough took me about 40 hours. And if you want to see that secret ending, you'll easily double that.If you think I'm mentioning my playthrough length purely to set your expectations, you are mistaken. The game's areas, apart from offering you quests, dungeons, loot, and enemies to fight, also have mines you can capture. And you might be wondering, with the game not being turn-based during exploration, how do mines work?They work in real-time. After you capture a mine, it starts working for you, gradually filling a reservoir back in Yllian. At certain intervals, that reservoir fills up, inviting you to drop what you're doing, go back to base and claim your resources. I honestly have no idea how a mechanic like this could end up in a PC game.But hey, at least you can always instantly teleport back home by pressing T. But only when you're outside. Because not having to run back all the way through a cleared dungeon would just be too convenient.Basically, the game has some really neat ideas, but it's like the developers gave up on them halfway through and fell back on what they knew, which is console and mobile games, leaving us with a game that works but doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense.Nothing exemplifies this better than the leadership stat. Every 5 levels you get 5 leadership points allowing you to recruit a bigger or more advanced army. Only the game's four tiers of units cost 10, 20, 30, and 40 leadership respectively. Meaning that increase of 5 leadership does literally nothing and can not benefit you in any way whatsoever. It's just there to give you another number that keeps going up on its own.Technical InformationOn the technical side of things, the game was clearly designed with a controller in mind. As a result, navigating its many menus is way more annoying than it needs to be. The biggest offender is having to hold the mouse button. When you do it to upgrade your buildings, it's no big deal as you don't do that very often. But should you ever decide to organize your inventory, which means disassembling the countless useless armor pieces you've accumulated, you'll have to individually select every one of those, then hold the button for a few seconds and watch a quick little disassembling animation. After a while, you just give up and accept your new life as a hoarder.Other than that, when accessing the menus, you have to first go through a close-up animation of your character screen for some reason, and that gets annoying fast. And to cap it all off, you can open your map by pressing M, but to close it you have to press Escape. It's just a million little things all coming together to make your experience marginally less enjoyable.At least the game runs pretty well (except for one particular endgame fight). Plus, I didn't encounter any major bugs other than the game's logic glitching out occasionally and forgetting my earlier choices. There also was a skill I thought didn't work right, but I can't be entirely sure on that one.Apart from having nothing to do with the original Disciples style, the game's visuals are quite pretty, especially when it comes to landscapes. Its unit models on the other hand vary a great deal, where some of them look pretty good, while others wouldn't seem out of place in Heroes of Might and Magic IV.The game has limited voice-acting, but there's still a lot of it. I wouldn't have minded if it was more limited. Basically, let's just say if this was a game about a college lacrosse team, then its voice acting wouldn't seem out of place. But when those soft-spoken voices are coming from demons and cultists, it's pretty much impossible to take them seriously.And don't even get me started on combat barks. I'm actually not joking when I say that at some point I started choosing my party composition based on a combination of how annoying a unit's voice was and the length of its attack animations.There's also a multiplayer mode where you can assemble a squad and fight a friend or some stranger on the Internet (I waited for a few minutes but couldn't find a game that way). But if you remember Disciples as the series with great skirmish maps and hot-seat capabilities, this installment is not it.ConclusionDisciples: Liberation has a framework of good ideas buried under a pile of questionable design decisions. It would need a lot of adjustments and rebalancing to be satisfying on a mechanical level, and even then, we'll be left with a tonal inconsistency with the rest of the series.Get this game only if you'd like to know what happened to the world of Disciples after it became a parody of itself, or if you're really desperate for a game in the vein of The Legend branch of the King's Bounty series.
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