Friday eXcursion: Legends of Eisenwald

Oh Legends of Eisenwald, I tried so hard to love you. Your gameplay and graphics reminded me of a simpler time, when I was young, and the best games were big ideas, barely realized. But now I see the truth – you’re not good for me and it’s time to move on. It’s not me, it’s you.


Legends of Eisenwald was developed by Aterdux Entertainment, a seven-person company based in Belarus. Eisenwald is the rare example of a successful Kickstarter campaign that resulted in an actual, playable game. After spending some time in Early Access purgatory, Eisenwald finally, officially, launched on Steam in July of this year.

Eisenwald is a roleplaying/tactical game hybrid with a little economic simulation mixed in for seasoning. As a roleplaying game, there’s not much role to play. I was offered a choice of three characters to take into the lands of Eisenwald – a knight, an archer, or a priest. The story plays out exactly the same way regardless of who is chosen (which can get odd when you play as the female archer since the game inherently treats you as male), so this is purely a selection based on how you want to fight in battle. Do you want to cut people down with a sword, perforate them with arrows or… ummmm… pray at them? Those expecting the priest choice to correspond to an RPG-style wizard will be disappointed. Eisenwald is what we’d call low fantasy. Very low. Magic is essentially nonexistent except for a few healing spells and minor buffs that temporarily improve stats.

Once I chose my avatar, I was dropped into a small town/tutorial area. Each section is essentially the same. The player is placed in a region and tasked with various quests in order to move the game forward. These usually involve finding something and schlepping it to someone else, with lots of killing in between. Once the quests have been cleared, the player moves on to another region and starts the process all over again.

Graphics are a mixed bag. The overworld map, where players will spend most of their time, is fairly unattractive. Character models, however, are well detailed. The eyes are a little creepy though. As you can see below, they kind of just… stare emptily into the unknown.

If you ever wondered what someone meant by Uncanny Valley...
If you ever wondered what someone meant by Uncanny Valley…

Like many things about Eisenwald, it seems clear that the developers had a vision and they simply overreached. In places the game looks great, but in others it seems, ironically, that if they’d settled for something simpler, they may have had a better-looking game.

The UI, in general, is a bit of a mess. Everything is well organized and intuitively placed, but the controls are far too inconsistent. Sometimes a floating tooltip appears. Sometimes you need to right-click to get the same information. Sometimes there’s no information, at all. It’s a game within a game, guessing which input the developers decided made the most sense on which screen. That’s not what I would call fun.

Regions are, for the most part, fairly realistic. Areas look and feel like an actual place in time, and the world seems to exist as more than just a playground for the player. I often felt like I was exploring actual medieval German towns, and it was enjoyable to be there. There is a full day/night cycle and NPCs actually do go home (or to the pub) when the sun calls it a day. Eisenwald feels alive, which makes the little errors all the more troubling.

Sunrise in the mountains. This game can be so much prettier than it has any right to be.
Sunrise in the mountains. This game can be so much prettier than it has any right to be.

As I discovered through my travels in Eisenwald, each region usually has five basic buildings: a town, a pub, a marketplace, a church, and a castle. Sometimes players will also find a blacksmith, but these are less common. A little more variety would have been nice. Each building serves a predictable purpose. The pub, in stereotypical RPG form, is a place to pick up quests and recruit NPCs for your party. The marketplace is for selling and buying equipment. The church will heal the party. Castles are sites for siege battles and encounters with major NPCs, usually quest givers. Towns offer a mix of all of the above.

I found I was free to wander around as I liked. The view can be rotated and zoomed but, oddly, not scrolled. In order to see a far away location, the player must walk there. Verrrrrry slllloooooowly. I’m sure this has to do with creating a feel of really being there, but gotterdammerung is it annoying. The freedom to move is nice though and that extends out to the quests.

Time passes as the player moves, it feels about seven minutes per day/night. Players can also “fast forward” the game by speeding up the game clock and then pushing the play button and watching the world race by. This is important for some quests which are time-dependent – catch the thieves at nightfall, wait for the lord to leave his castle, etc. The passage of time has no other perceivable impact on gameplay.

Maps and quests. You’ll spend a lot of time looking at this ugly screen.
Maps and quests. You’ll spend a lot of time looking at this ugly screen.

Eisenwald is refreshingly old school with its quest system. Players are told what is needed and then left to their own devices as to how to solve the problem. There is no heavy, prescriptive, list of actions like checking off a shopping list. There is no “go to the supermarket, walk down aisle 11, pick up the eggs…” Instead it’s just, “get eggs.” That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in an era where it seems every game babysits the player, it’s quite a bit of fun to have to uncover your own solutions for once.

The best quest I’ve encountered in the game so far involved courting supporters in a battle to retake my character’s family castle. There are four potential allies, but the player can only keep two on board for the big end battle. No one is perfect, and each choice means weighing a lesser evil over a greater one. Should I support the lecherous, violent, or greedy lord? One is clearly bat-poop crazy, but his sons look really well armed… If I turn on him I’ll have to fight them and that won’t end well. This is really well done without the dopey “good choice/bad choice” morality options of supposedly more “in-depth” RPGs like Dragon Age.

The mustache that ate Dusseldorf.
The mustache that ate Dusseldorf.

And yet, in the end, this was also demonstrative of Eisenwald’s biggest flaws. Like I said, the game is intentionally retro, which is good for gameplay and bad – because bugs. Lots and lots of bugs! Nothing show-stopping. No crashes to desktop. But man… Clicking in particular is just downright evil. The hit boxes are unresponsive and way too precious. I’ve spent hours chasing a little bastard for one lousy conversation just click click clicking and miss miss missing. Then I finally catch him and the conversation pops up again and again and again until my character can finally walk away. Oh God, I have to talk to him again…?

Perhaps more egregiously, however, is the weak payoff for the quest. I’ve made my choices, accepted my tradeoffs, and then the game abruptly shifts settings leaving all those decisions behind. What a waste. Why give me complex, in-depth choices if they’ll never pay off? I could have chosen anyone, anyone, and the result would have been the same. If I make a poor decision, shouldn’t I be punished in some way?

Every quest eventually leads to battle. Roaming around the countryside? Leads to battle. Talking to an NPC? Battle. At least it’s fun to fight. Players are dropped into the standard-issue tactical screen, their people lined up on the right, the enemy on the left. There are all kinds of troop types, archers and crossbowmen, sword and stave and hammer wielders, healers and buffers. Each type has benefits and drawbacks. For example, a pikeman can always give attackers a good poke before taking damage, but they are vulnerable to arrows because the pikes preclude holding a shield.

How dare you insult my red leggings!
How dare you insult my red leggings!

Each character moves once per round in a pretty standard tactical battle right out of Fire Emblem, Endless Legend, or BEDLAM. What differentiates Eisenwald from these other games is the characters must attack, there is no movement for movement’s sake. This doesn’t seem like much of a wrinkle, but in battle it presents some interesting complications. Players can’t just shift an archer to improve line of sight or swing a knight around to take an enemy’s flank. It feels like real planning is necessary and I enjoyed the challenge. Furthermore, the AI plays well, taking advantage of dumb mistakes and pressing the advantages you accidentally provide. The AI will absolutely wipe the party out if the player is not judicious.

This is also where the roleplaying part of the game comes in. The player can recruit members for their party as they travel around the overworld. These characters gain experience from battle and level up. Peasants can become soldiers and then knights. Lowly bowmen will become skilled, deadly archers. These evolutions are noticeable in play, making the growth truly rewarding. Unfortunately, as with everything else, a change in region removes all non-main characters from the party, taking away any satisfaction or reward from seeing your digital companions grow.

Despite this screenshot promising otherwise, He-Man does not appear in Legends of Eisenwald.
Despite this screenshot promising otherwise, He-Man does not appear in Legends of Eisenwald.

There are also some small economic simulation features in Eisenwald. In some regions, players can occupy castles and then tax the peasants for gold. There’s not much to this, just walking around town and collecting weekly monies, but it does add another half-baked feature to a game just brimming with them. Sometimes, it’s better to make one cookie really well rather than one hundred crappy ones. It’s a lesson that Eisenwald would do well to learn.

If anything, that would be my primary critique of the game. (Well, secondary. We’ll get to that in a moment.) Eisenwald feels overstuffed with raw ideas that never got a chance to get fully done. Like most of it’s Kickstarter-ed kindred, Eisenwald is over-promised and under-delivered. A more focused game could have been a real treat, but instead we’ve got something that looks good at a distance but is far from filling.

Problems aside, up to this point, I’d been enjoying Eisenwald. It felt like a flawed, yet well-intentioned, fun little game made by people with a unique vision for a mostly realistic, genre-busting experience. As I mentioned above, it really does remind me of my early PC gaming days waaaaay back in the 80’s and 90’s, in all the good and bad ways. It was the one-eyed kitten, almost more lovable for all its little faults.

Then we changed regions once again and this happened:

Wait… What?
Wait… What?

Yup, in a game that, to this point, had prided itself on a sense of realism, suddenly I had zombies.

Once the zombies had passed (literally, that’s what the scenario was. I had to stand and watch them pass), I encountered a sequence that had my character running around the mountains, murdering innocent peasants in scores, causing disastrous landslides, killing his own men, and generally acting worse than any brigand I had yet encountered in the game. I was given no say over my actions at this point except to press forward with the slaughter. All of this culminated in one of the most bigoted sequences I’ve experienced in any game.

Wait. WHAT?!
Wait. WHAT?!

You see, my character needed a boat to cross a river. However, a merchant character (Jewish) destroyed the boat in order to cheat the townspeople of their earnings (destroying the boat kept them from selling their goods to anyone but him). I was forced, then, to wander the town, cheating the townspeople myself, and be subjected to increasingly offensive anti-semitic epithets against the merchant at each stop. Or, I could have just murdered the merchant and moved on. So, you know, that’s all good. Is this realistic to the time? Maybe. To be honest I’m not well versed enough in German history to know if this region was particularly anti-semitic or not. Is it necessary for the immersion of the setting? I certainly didn’t think so.

Look, I understand this is a game set in another time and there are certain expectations that come with being true to a historical era. If this was, say Legends of the Antebellum South and a character used the ‘n’ word, well, I wouldn’t like that either, but I could at least understand the developers’ intention to create a realistic portrayal of that era. The thing is, though, I’ve played plenty of Civil War games and never heard that kind of language. I’ve played games with actual Nazis that were less offensive than this. We live in an era where this is not acceptable anymore. If the game was making some type of commentary on this sort of bigotry, showing it to be the vile and disgusting thing it is, that would be different. But it’s not, so I find the inclusion of this language to be offensive.

And, again, how can you use the defense of trying to create a realistic representation of a place yet have effing zombies?! Zombies!

And that was the point where I lost my patience with Legends of Eisenwald. Even beyond that one quest, which will be an absolute full stop for many players, the flaws constantly overwhelm what might be good about the game. For every well-thought-out quest, there is a story beat that undercuts it. For every interesting development in the game world, there is a novel’s worth of text that must be parsed to move forward. For every piece of gameplay I legitimately enjoyed, there was a bug that caused incalculable rage: the maddeningly imprecise clicking, the strange UI inconsistencies, the way the game would forget some quests (or key parts of quests) almost at random… These aren’t little “quirks.” They’re serious problems that I can’t overlook.

The game is also misogynistic, but that’s to be expected in gaming, right boys?
The game is also misogynistic, but that’s to be expected in gaming, right boys?

From reading on message boards and visits to the company website, it’s pretty clear to me that the developers care deeply about this game. They love the setting, the gameplay, everything they’ve done. They’re proud of it and they’re constantly working to make it better. I have no doubt that bugs will be squashed and features improved. Eisenwald is Aterdux’s only game (beyond a sort of precursor title that is no longer sold) and they are clearly dedicated to it. If that gives you hope, then go ahead and give the game a shot.

Legends of Eisenwald might be something great some day. It’s $30 right now on Steam and I can’t recommend you try it at that price point. There are plenty of better built experiences for much, much less. I’ve no doubt that the developers have a lot of passion for their game. But passion doesn’t always equal a great relationship. It’s time to move on.


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