Conquest of Elysium Review
Developer: Illwinter Game Design
Platforms: PC, Mac and Linux
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: 256 MB RAM, 100 MB HD space, Windows XP or more recent operating system
Elysium may be filled with vicious creatures, powerful magic, and warring factions, but it's a pleasant and familiar land to anyone who's enjoyed the Dominions series. As in the Dominions games, warring civilizations ally with diabolic powers, ancient gods, and elemental beings to take control of Elysium and build an empire. But unlike the Dominions games, this turn-based strategy title has players battling each other and the AI over a tile-based world.
The core of Conquest of Elysium 3 is building an empire. Whether you command a cult of necromancers, a tribe of dwarves, or worshippers of the Great Old Ones, you conquer towns, ancient ruins, and fortifications. Those resources allow you to acquire larger armies and invoke otherworldly creatures to dominate more mines, villages, and forests. At first, it's enough just to fend off wandering monsters that threaten your control over your holdings, but as you begin to encounter other civilizations, the struggle of Conquest of Elysium 3 becomes a vicious battle to control vast holdings with insufficient resources.
Conquest of Elysium 3 is a deeply strategic game, but it certainly isn't pretty. The graphics share the same units and animation that appeared in Dominions 3. While the visuals are far more detailed, and support higher resolutions, they aren't any more sophisticated in principle than the tile-based Civilization was in 1991. The thing is, the graphics don't matter. Conquest of Elysium 3 has such a diverse assortment of units, each with their own style of play, powers, and invocations that it could well be rendered with ASCII characters and a spreadsheet-plug in and still provide a compelling experience.
The early game is a struggle in most cases. It takes months of game time to earn enough gold to hire a tiny standing army. Then, strategy and luck have to align to allow you to conquer enough resources to build a larger army that can both expand your domain and patrol your own lands. At the same time, each civilization requires its own resource to do magic. Some collect blood sacrifices from towns, others harvest fungi from the forests and swamps or gather gems from mines, still others amass the severed hands of criminals. As each civilization has tiles it strives to control, those slightly different goals lead to very different patterns of attack and defense.
Capture enough of a civilization's special resource and you gain the ability to summon truly diabolical creatures or immensely powerful allies. Gems can summon elemental lords, while severed hands can transform leaders into liches or vampires. Victory in Conquest of Elysium 3 depends on creating (or summoning... or whatever one does with fungus) powerful entities that can turn the tide of battle. Mastering an individual civilization's mystical economy is what makes every worldly power unique and provides the game so much longevity, because the myriad strategies to victory are so varied.
As with many of Illwinter's games, it's easy to recommend the intricate play offered by Conquest of Elysium 3, but it will take you a while to learn how to do it right. The game desperately needs better documentation and a more detailed tutorial. It's frustrating that so many of the game's most powerful spells and summoning are a complete mystery until you try them out. While that has its own charm (who really knows what will show up when you sacrifice a few hundred slaves?), it can be irritating to spend an entire game session earning the resources to try a spell when you have no idea what you're working toward. Even then, the end result might not align with your strategy. But once you've played each civilization several times and really investigated these mystical abilities, the game becomes difficult to put down.
Another splendid aspect of Conquest of Elysium 3 is that it is tremendously configurable. It's possible to play a rapid game during a quick break on a small map with few players. While such a game doesn't give you the chance to experience the full depth of the magic and summoning trees, it is still deeply engaging. You can also play on an enormous map with up to eight players in contests in which you can immerse yourself for days.
The game supports play against other humans and against multiple levels of AI. Personally, I prefer large team games with other humans. The AI can provide a compelling experience, but even at a high level, the AI is imperfect. Good games are hotly contested, but some generated games are over almost before they begin. The AI will sometimes inexplicably hurl itself against neutral armies, losing before you even meet it. At other times, neutral beings will eliminate your forces before you've had time to recruit a real army. With different factions depending on exclusive resources, the distribution of the map can extensively advantage a single competitor. As in Illwinter's other games, potent magical items can decide victory in combat, but these tend to appear randomly without easy paths to controlling or pursuing such artifacts. Once things get rolling, the contest becomes more balanced, but you have to be ready for some disappointment along the way.
If you are the kind of strategy gamer who can look past graphics and puzzle out some of the more powerful game mechanics, Conquest of Elysium 3 is a positively spectacular experience. While it's easy to see how the raw pixels and mediocre documentation could put off more casual gamers, it can be downloaded for $30, providing hundreds of hours of fascinating strategy. Conquest of Elysium 3 is a tremendous experience, but Illwinter asks the gamer to climb much of the learning curve alone.