To say that the card battling adventure genre is somewhat of a video game niche would be an understatement. How many can you think of right now? The chances are: not many, at least in comparison to the sheer number of first person shooters or RPGs that see release these days.
It’s a shame because it’s a niche that I very much enjoy. The thrill of combining CCG style deckbuilding with RPG elements is about a heady as a mix can get for those who have come to enjoy the tactile sensation of dropping a Scorched Earth, a Float like a butterfly… or a fully pumped Phyrexian Obliterator onto the table. And this is to say nothing about the advantage of having the software automate some of the more tiresome routines in card games such as shuffling, deck scouring and the addition of tokens- it really does make the genre a natural fit in terms of simple duelling.
With the likes of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft and the Duels of the Planeswalkers series hitting the scene in recent times, not to mention the deluge of freemium card games now available for mobile devices, I expect that 2015 could be a year where we see digital card games really come into their own. But will there be one that can truly combine such rich interactive gameplay with that of an expansive RPG style adventure?
At the dawn of the millennium, digital card games were very thin on the ground indeed but there was one series from Nival Interactive that stood out. That series was Etherlords, with the first title in the series being released for personal computers back in 2001.
At first blush, the original Etherlords looks to be an extremely derivative game, close to bordering on flat out plagiarism. It’s essentially an amalgam of two games: one being the original paper CCG Magic: the Gathering and the other being the turn based strategy classic Heroes of Might & Magic. The makers of Blitzkrieg and Silent Storm to name a couple, Nival would even be contracted to create Heroes of Might & Magic V in 2006.
The resulting concoction of strategy and card combat in the first Etherlords game is interesting then, but ultimately too flawed to be properly enjoyed.
The action takes place from an overhead view where in true Might & Magic fashion you traverse the map in search of resources to collect, creatures to battle and eventually the enemy temple; the destruction of which being your main objective in each scenario.
Each spell (or card) in your deck represents a creature, sorcery or enchantment that is summoned to the battlefield in full 3D when used in combat. But whilst the card duelling portion is robust and enjoyable enough, the strategy/world map portion is simply not fit for purpose. Producing hero units and casting global spells like a Heroes of Might & Magic game holds no weight when the ideal tactic is to simply eliminate the AI’s strongest hero and make a beeline for their temple.
The final battle of the campaign pitches you in a duel against the sinister White Lord with a totally different hero and every spell in the game unlocked for deck preparation. All of your hard work in building your own personal deck disappears at this point and it becomes a troubleshooting exercise instead of a grand finale to an epic adventure.
As the game goes on you get the feeling that Nival lost faith in the strategy side of Etherlords and quietly downplayed its importance in favour of the superior card battle system. That’s how it feels like to me anyway.
But two years later Nival would come back for another stab with the release of Etherlords II, and what an improvement has been made this time around.
Nival wisely ditched the Heroes style strategy elements and have instead focused on creating a more straightforward adventure game with card combat and deckbuilding taking precedence. The game still uses an overhead view and your hero still travels through a point and click interface, but the time limits have been removed (except for a few awkward instances), the resource gathering is streamlined and overall the game benefits from a more linear, story-driven approach than before.
Etherlords II is a meaty game too, with five lengthy campaigns to play through, each featuring its own unique mix of cards to collect and enemies to fight. Decks are kept at a very lean twenty cards which means each battle will likely require a different approach depending on the spells your current enemy employs against you. It’s uncommon to find a one-size-fits-all solution for your deck, even towards the end of a campaign, so the challenge remains healthy all the way throughout.
This is perhaps the biggest positive for diehard card game fans; Etherlords II is a tough game to beat and will require you to leverage every advantage you can in order to win. For those that are no so comfortable with excessive terminology and tactics however, the easy mode still makes for a fun experience.
Card duels play out in a similar fashion to Magic: The Gathering with much of the same terminology being used for abilities such as trample, first strike and draw to name but a few. That’s not to say that Etherlords is a full on clone of Magic as some things are notably different.
The main improvement over Magic is the removal of land cards- the resources used for actually casting your spells. Instead you receive ether (mana) via ether channels which steadily increase as the battle goes on. The game will start out with players casting minor spells and cantrips until later where they’re summoning huge treants, casting powerful fireballs and wicked enchantments.
Sound familiar? It might do as this is exactly how mana acquisition works in Hearthstone; an idea predated here by more than a decade!
What I love about Etherlords II is its large card pool of different creatures and spells that can make every game unique. Aside from the campaign, there is an extensive multiplayer mode with options for constructed and even limited formats of play. Some decry the Etherlords II campaign as lacking replayability but I don’t see this criticism personally. There are so many cards to collect over the course of the game that your second time through can be fought with different spells and different strategies than before.
During battle your spells are rendered more like tiles than cards, which leaves plenty of space to see the battlefield and creatures rendered with polygonal 3D graphics. The visuals may not be overly impressive but they are decent enough considering their age. Playing Etherlords II on large monitors today may be difficult though as the maximum resolution of the game is only 1024×768 with UI problems occurring should you attempt to raise it manually from the game’s config file. As it stands, Etherlords II is a good fit for any laptop or tablet computer that can run it.
In true RPG fashion, your hero collects experience points after each battle and will gain a skill point and additional health with every level up. The skills in Etherlords II are fairly simple and won’t differ all that much from game to game, but they provide the means for your hero to stay competitive as the challenge ramps up in later chapters.
Just for fun, here’s my take on the skills:
Effect: This skill allows you to use any artifacts you have collected up to 2, 4 and 8 times per combat depending on skill rank (max 3).
Comment: Artifacts can be found and even crafted at different points during campaign games and this skill allows you to use them more often. Each artifact comes with a certain amount of charges (to prevent you from spamming them continuously) but can be recharged at certain stations on the campaign map. Having at least one rank in artificer is recommended as each campaign will feature useful artifacts that can really give you an edge over the AI when you need it most. Artificer is not a skill that’s useful early on but it does have utility later when your artifact collection expands.
Effect: For each rank in this skill, ether disturbance is delayed for your hero by 1 and accelerated for your enemy by 1 (max 3).
Comment: A perfect skill for those who enjoy a slow win. Ether disturbance is sort of like this game’s version of decking out; a hidden time limit that breaks stalemates. Once a healthy number of turns have passed during combat, players will begin to experience ether disturbance; irreducible damage that grows in magnitude as turns continue to count down. Ranks in this skill allow you to gain the advantage in a long game by delaying that damage for longer and instead forcing it onto your opponent- leaving it up to them to beat you before their health runs out. When used correctly, channeling can form the basis of an entire deck strategy, although it will require some rather specific cards to take full advantage of. Not much use for fast aggro decks.
Effect: For each rank in this skill, you will draw an additional card every 4th, 3rd and 2nd turn respectively (max 3).
Comment: An all-round excellent skill that compliments just about any deck strategy. Concentration is extremely useful for reaching key cards quickly and great for resupplying an empty hand that has come about as part of a card effect or enemy attack. As with most card games worth their salt, having more cards will give you more options in a turn; simple maybe, but effective.
Effect: For each rank in this skill, you will earn additional experience points after a battle (max 3).
Comment: Another of those useless extra XP perks that RPGs are so often fond of. Why would I waste my time picking this skill when I could instead choose something that’s actually going to help me win!? A totally worthless “investment” that prevents you from getting ahead in the game and won’t get you extra levels like intended because you’ve already wasted the experience selecting it. Only take if you enjoy gimping your games or hate taking good advice.
Effect: For each rank in this skill, your hero’s specialization has a higher chance of triggering (max 3).
Comment: Now this is more like it! There are so many hero specializations in Etherlords II that you’ll be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t supplement or outright dictate your approach to dueling. When you get this skill to the max rank of 3 then you can almost guarantee that your specializations will be triggering every time they are able to. Useful at the beginning of the campaign and pretty much essential by the end. Arguably the best skill in the game.
Effect: This skill allows you to heal 1 point of health during combat rounds. More ranks increase the rate of regeneration (max 3).
Comment: A pretty worthless skill. Even at max rank, regenerating a health point every turn is not going to save you when your opponent is swinging with a pack of synergized orcs or a boosted Mechasaurus. You’ll be much better off selecting a skill that’s actually going to help you win and get ahead rather than something that tries to pull you up when you’re getting beat down.
Effect: This skill allows you to use each card in your deck a greater number of times during combat. More ranks increase the amount of times each spell may be cast during each battle (max 3).
Comment: In the original Etherlords there was a rather maddening feature whereby you needed runes in order to cast your spells in combat. When you ran out of runes, you couldn’t use your cards and it was a pain to keep restocking every time this happened. There is a bit of this leftover functionality in Etherlords II – spells can only be cast once during combat but they recharge after every battle so it’s made easier to handle. Being able to cast all of your spells once however is not good enough to beat the game so at least one rank in the resources skill should be considered mandatory in every playthrough.
Whether multiple ranks in resources is worth it is debatable. It may be nice if you have a deck that relies heavily on a particular card (as you can continue to keep using it during battle) but then I’ve beaten the entire game on hard with only one rank in resources before so ultimately I’m not so certain. Either way, this is a skill you will need to take every game and should probably be the first skill you invest in.
Effect: This skill increases your health points by a fixed percentage for each rank you possess (max 3).
Comment: Similar to regeneration, this skill is not very helpful and for similar reasons. Even at max rank, this skill doesn’t equate to a huge boost and your points are best spent on something else. Strength does scale better than regeneration towards the late game and can be mildly helpful in the early game where battles tend to be won by degrees, but overall it’s still not worth the investment. A shade better than regeneration maybe but not by much.
Effect: For each rank in this skill, your opponent’s specialization has a lower chance of triggering (max 3).
Comment: Similar to luck, this skill is always going to be useful as almost every enemy deck will make use of a specialization to augment their game and hamper yours. I rank this skill one star lower than luck however just simply because it’s a bit of a dull passive that you don’t really notice the effects of as well. Whilst luck is probably more helpful in the long run, having suppression in tandem is a truly winning combination if ever I saw one.
There are shortcomings to Etherlords II. The voice acting is pretty laughable, the camera can be an awkward beast and the storyline will not really draw you in like perhaps it should.
Another potential sore point for players is the fact that creatures don’t retaliate when blocking unless they survive the opponent’s initial attack. This puts a big emphasis on creatures with a huge attack power stats as they can punch a hole in an enemy’s defence with less of a risk than in Magic say.
But easily the worst aspect of the game concerns its suspect balancing when playing on hard difficulty. Simply put, as of the latest version (1.03), there are a couple battles in the early stages of each hard campaign that are impossible to get past without cheating. Whether this was missed during testing or caused by certain changes to spells in later patches is unclear, but it does bring the game down and is enormously frustrating to experience the first time around when you won’t be expecting it.
Fortunately Etherlords II possesses a very robust and useful cheating system that can allow you to bypass individual battles like these, but I find it to be much better advice for expert players to simply play episode I of each campaign on normal difficulty and then play every subsequent episode on hard.
In spite of these failings, Etherlords II is a good game, one saved by a remarkably diverse battle system and a dizzying array of fun strategies and deckbuilding potential. For hardcore fans of Magic: The Gathering or similar card games, Etherlords II is a must-play as there are decidedly few games like it ten years on from its initial release.
The leading fansite for the Etherlords series is Ether Planes and although it hasn’t been updated in many years, it’s still a good website to visit to get more information on the game and the like.
Surprisingly, the Etherlords universe returned in the form of a new freemium game for mobiles and PCs last year. Although I’ve not personally played this new title (simply called Etherlords), it’s new focus towards 3-on-3 combat and world-building puzzles seemed a bit off-putting from the hardcore CCG style thrills of the previous games in the series. Still, it’s nice to see the brand has life in it yet.
Thanks to digital distributors such as Steam and GOG.com, Etherlords II can now reach more players than ever before and also be enjoyed for less than a fiver. If you can work around the foibles with its display resolution, Etherlords II at the very least is a solid title that I’m very happy to have revisited this year.