They say Wrath Unleashed is a throwback, a next-gen clone of Archon. They say Wrath Unleashed is a thinking-man’s game, where strategy is just as important as fighting. They even say Wrath Unleashed has vicious, head-to-head mayhem. What they forget to mention is that the game is only as good as the players’ competition.
For those who haven’t played Archon, the throwback reference means very little. Basically, imagine a game not unlike Battlechess, and you’ll get the picture. Move pieces on a board strategically, and when your piece and an opponent’s are on the same tile, you do battle in a real-time fighting engine to see who will control it. It’s very different from most mainstream games today, and kudos to LucasArts for taking a risk.
Where the strategic elements are concerned, this risk completely pays off and will make you remember the days where gameplay was king and could challenge the mind. But the second part of that risk, the game’s fighting engine, fails miserably, undermining any good the rest of the game can do.
The premise of Wrath Unleashed has four demigods locked in a massive confrontation in which each is vying to restore his or her version of “peace” to the universe. The loosely tied-together campaign involves players selecting one demigod, then taking on the others in a “refined” battle on the board. The gameplay pieces range from unicorns to dragons, and like any chess-like game worth its salt, the movement patterns of each piece are restricted.
This on-board movement accounts for the majority of the gameplay in Wrath Unleashed, with players strategically placing their pieces around the board to achieve specific objectives. Objectives range from capturing a certain number of temples to controlling a specific citadel to out-and-out knocking the snot out of the other demigod(s) playing in the match. There is a story that ties all this action together, but it’s so poorly conceived, acted and carried out that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Fortunately, the game’s strategic elements will make you forget all about this little oversight.
Strategically moving pieces around the board is a breath of fresh air in this shooter-happy world. Games start players with a set number of pieces, each of which moves differently. In addition to the temples that these pieces seek to control, the board is adorned with magic-boosting tiles and teleportation gates that provide warps to areas that would otherwise be out of most pieces’ one-turn range.
The magic-boosting tiles are particularly hot commodities, since they cause a player’s demigod to accumulate mana more quickly. After accumulating mana, the player’s demigod can use it to cast destructive spells on the opposing pieces or to resurrect defeated pieces, transfer health or transport members of their army. It’s a nice addition to the chess-like genre, and it adds yet another strategic element to the game.
In theory, the board itself also adds to the strategy of the game, because each tile is imbued with characteristics that enhance or hinder a player’s heritage. For example, if a gamer plays as Light Chaos (fire) and fights an opponent on a lava-imbued tile, the Light Chaos fighter will have a distinct advantage. Conversely, if that same battle took place on a water tile, Light Chaos would have a disadvantage, especially if the opponent was Light Order (water). But like I said, that’s all in theory.
When you’re playing on the board, the type of tile you land on has little impact on your piece’s ability to perform. Instead, the “impact” comes in the confrontations you have when you’re on the same tile as an opponent. When that happens, you enter a fighting mode not unlike a poor man’s Soul Caliber, the victor of which claims that tile for his/her demigod. The concept is that the environmental hazards (whirlwinds, water sprays, etc.) on the imbued tiles come into play during the fighting sequences. Great concept. Horrible follow-through.
For starters, the hazards play little role once players realize they can move around them in the 3D fighting engine. Sure, it throws a little extra thinking into the mix, but some hazards even affect the like-imbued fighters, so the “advantage” is basically lost.
Second, the actual fighting in Wrath Unleashed amounts to little more than button mashing. There are buttons for heavy magic, light magic, heavy attack and light attack, but you’ll really only need light attack. Honestly, if you go into a fight and use nothing but a repetitive burst of the super-fast light attack, you’ll win about 85 percent of your matches.
Granted, different characters are faster or stronger than others, but the only difference that really matters is health. If you have more health than your opponent, little can block your road to victory except an incoming combo that will need to hit you before your own light attacks hit the opponent. And forget about blocking; the button’s unresponsiveness renders that tactic almost entirely moot. Strike first and strike often; that’s the name of the game.
The other downfall exposed in these weak fighting scenarios is the questionable AI. Sure, you can throw a barrage of light attacks and win the fight, but the computer makes things infinitely easier by seldom doing more than blocking those attacks. Surprisingly, “block” actually works for the computerized players, perhaps because the developers knew the computer would need to make good use of that move.
The saving grace for the fighting comes in the form of human opponents, with gameplay for up to four simultaneous players. This, folks, is where Wrath Unleashed gets fun again. Nothing thinks quite like a human, even if you customize a single-player Battle and increase the computer’s AI. Humans are just flat-out better competition, and I had one match last more than two hours as we jockeyed for control of the required number of temples. My longest customized Battle with the computer, meanwhile, lasted about an hour. Still no slouch, to be sure, but just not as much fun as a human opponent. Given that you can even create your own army and use it in battle, Wrath Unleashed would’ve been strategically unstoppable had supported online play.
As a strategy game first and fighting game second, Wrath Unleashed understandably doesn’t have jaw-dropping graphics. The character concepts are great, with well-conceived models and interesting takes on traditional fantasy creatures. But, much like the game’s fighting concepts, the actual implementation is so-so at best. The players are all animated well, and the dragon, for one, has fabulous fire effects that swirl around him in battle. But get the camera within spitting distance of the characters, and the scene becomes polygon city.
The fighting environments and gameplay boards are all well detailed, but I must admit a little disappointment in the environments’ size. The swamps look great, for example, with animated trees and murky puddles strewn about, but it becomes annoying that you can’t move past the lush environments’ laser-like boundaries. The small space is somewhat surprising, too, given the 10- to 15-second load time before and after each match. When an environment is this small, and a match lasts only 45 to 60 seconds, you’ve got to wonder what exactly is “loading.”
Since this is a LucasArts game, the audio/visual saving grace would seem to be the sound. Amazingly, that’s not so. Wrath Unleashed is the first LucasArts game I’ve played where the sound didn’t leave me awestruck. The music is appropriately muted, which complements the strategy aspects, but the voice acting is overly dramatic, and the sound effects are so nondescript that you’ll turn off the game wondering what they even were.
Which brings us, once again, to the realization that the chess-like strategy will overshadow the rest of the game’s shortcomings. Wrath Unleashed is a refreshing respite from first-person shooters and stealth games, and I’m all for more critical-thinking titles. The only problem is that LucasArts didn’t take the ultimate risk and create strictly a strategy game, because the fighting aspects sink this game faster than an ogre mage in quicksand. Mixing strategy and fighting is a concept that’s worked before and could work again, especially if the fighting aspects lived up to the standards of today’s fighting-game connoisseurs. Wrath Unleashed, unfortunately, just isn’t that perfect combination.
- Gameplay: 7.5
- Graphics: 7.5
- Sound: 7
- Replay: 8.5
- Overall: 7.5
- Let’s hope for a sequel with better fighting mechanics.
— Jonas Allen