Fantasy Conflict: Dwarves, Kings, & Personality

Normally I tune out when the phrase “RTS game” is uttered in my presence, because it conjures images of the obsessed arguing over “god game” versus “tower defense” versus “RTS,” followed closely by a ranking of their authenticity as players. Even sans rhetoric, the gameplay of these games is usually boring to me.

That sentiment bears mention because I’m reasonably certain it directly influenced my attitude towards Gaijin Entertainment’s Fantasy Conflict, available now in the iTunes app store. Approaching the game from as skeptical a standpoint as one could possibly have, I have to admit that Fantasy Conflict is very good. It feels like it was designed specifically for iOS, and as such many of the problems that I typically have with RTS games are missing in dwarven-filled action.

My first foray into gaming was on the PC, and as the games evolved I came to adore games like Populous and SimCity. Then Civilization II arrived, which was an astounding achievement that was undeniably sophisticated for a title in 1996, but that was really where I stopped – the more complicated these games got, the more they represented every kind of real-world stress that I typically go to games to avoid. I enjoy games for the escapism, not to compound my problems. (“I have three appointments on Thursday, a sick cat, I’m out of Nesquik, and now I have to worry about your entire civilization, too!?”)

While role-playing elements are generally credited with maturing modern RTS games, Fantasy Conflict doesn’t seem concerned with them – there’s no leveling up units or balancing HP and MP, nor is there any customization of anything or anyone.  There’s also no management of resources, so you don’t have to mine ore and chop wood to make the tools to make the weapons to fight the dwarven opposition.

Fantasy Conflict feels like a confident, much-needed step back from all of that. It recognizes these things as absurdities that obfuscate your main goal, and by eschewing these tropes the gameplay is broken down to its simplest elements. There are power-ups in the game, but they only come in the form of amulets or spells, and advancement in the game is as simple as upgrading these two things – nothing else.

To that end, perhaps I’m most enamored with the game because it behaves more like a puzzle game. There’s some setup (picking your amulets and spells), but then it’s basically figuring out how to maneuver your troops. For each round/level, you’re only granted only a handful of spells to use, so figuring out how to use them to your advantage is where the heart of the game is.

For example, early in the game you’ll unlock a spell that temporarily empowers your troops, effectively making them stronger for a short period of time. At first you’ll learn to use it by powering into a walled dwarven fortress, but in later levels that spell will become the only way to advance across the map – the dwarves will simply become too numerous for your to beat them any other way.

My affection for the title also has a great deal to do with its art direction and character design. Even the “good guys” look like curmudgeons, albeit charming ones. The action can be difficult to control on the smaller screen of an iPhone or iPod, but regardless what device you play on the battlefields look spectacular. What isn’t found in the variety of the environments is made up for in detail, as every tiny little trooper, every castle, and every spell has its own unique animation, every one fun to watch.

These dwarves I keep mentioning are the enemy in the game (the ones who advance on the map to take over your castles), and they get spells to use, too. Sometimes learning the best way to combat them with your spells is extremely frustrating; you’ll feel like they’re wiping the floor with you. But this is where “correctly” using your spells comes into play. As previously intimated, some spells are about speed while others are about numbers, and your success depends on balancing the two against your opponent.

I’m not particularly gifted with being critical, and it doesn’t help that the things I personally don’t like about Fantasy Conflict are likely design choices. My biggest complaint is that you can’t choose which of your spells you get to take into battle with you. However, proving that decision is most likely not accidental, it forces you to look at every level differently. Previously, I mentioned how it can feel overwhelming when your castles are all captured before you have even learned what strategy to use, but again, this is the challenge. And if beating that challenge becomes too easy, I can assure you that the achievements should keep you busy, as each one represents a significant leap in difficulty.

It’s been exciting to be a fan of games as the iOS platform comes into its own. Even two years ago, a game like this wouldn’t have existed. Thankfully developers are starting to understand the platform better, and instead of seeing control scheme challenges they see opportunities to streamline gameplay experiences. The excellent Fantasy Conflict effortlessly falls in the latter camp, and approached as a puzzle game with a ridiculous amount of content the game should easily find its way onto your wish list.