Like a noble trying to placate a revolutionary mob, Great Battles: Medieval promises a lot, but delivers far less.
Sometimes this is superficial - the strategy game bears a passing resemblance to Total War and some of the dynamics of Fire Emblem, but can’t match up to either of those two series.
Other times it’s quite literal - the main menu contains two Campaigns, Multiplayer, and Skirmishes, but actually only has a fraction of this content at launch.
There are a lot of good ideas at work here, too. It’s just a shame that for every blow that connects there’s another that bounces harmlessly off the armour of disappointment
The warrior king
Set during the Hundred Years War between France and England, Great Battles: Medieval’s main mode revolves around the conflicts that saw England slowly but surely reign supreme over the mighty continental foe (for a day or two, anyway).
Every battle is preceded by footage from the History Channel that sets the scene nicely. You won’t get much of a handle on exactly why England invaded France in the first place (money, power - the usual) but seeing actors looking moody in armour with a gravelly voiceover never gets old.
Indeed, the presentation of the game in general is of an extremely high standard, no doubt helped by the fact that it was originally an Xbox 360 title. The units on the battlefield move independently, arrows streak out from bows and plunge into their targets’ chests, and horses fall to their deaths at the points of spears in a morbidly satisfying manner.
Stand and deliver
Given that this is the age before European standing armies (those were introduced at the tail end of the war), your forces consist of a handful of peasants and other unfortunates forced into service and equipped by their noble masters.
What this means in gameplay terms is that your troops are persistent across the campaign and can be outfitted with their own weapons independent of what ‘type’ they are. So, for instance, a longbowman can carry an estoc in case of last-ditch fighting, and cavalry can carry spears in case an impromptu jousting competition breaks out.
Your troops also gain experience with each battle that can then be used to train them in various categories, upgrading their stats without having to purchase more expensive weaponry for them to hold.
Unlike in Fire Emblem, though, while your men do persist from one battle to the next dying isn’t a permanent thing and any troops lost will be available to use again in the next battle.
The battles take place in semi-real-time, in that you have to pause the game to give orders. It’s a clever system, especially for smartphones, as it gives you the chance to take stock. But during these paused moments there’s no way, short of zooming in and making judgements yourself, of garnering enemy info.
That doesn’t sound so bad on paper, but given that the game moves so fast (battles rarely last more then a few minutes), it ends up ratcheting up the difficulty.
Should one of your units become engaged in a fight against his opposite number (horses against spears, for instance) your men will rout within seconds, almost certainly destroying any chance you had of winning.
The difficulty curve in general is pretty much vertical. The inability to plan moves effectively contributes to this problem, but it's mainly down to the sheer number of enemies you’ll come up against.
By the third mission (of 16) you’ll be so hopelessly outnumbered that even the finest of tacticians will be unable to win.
A kingdom for a horse (and another archer)
To compensate, Great Battles has a number of skirmish missions that unlock as you progress. These levels are replayable and never change in terms of structure or units, so once you have enough troops and know the layout they become incredibly easy to beat.
Alas, you’ll have to beat them time and time again, grinding out the gold, if you want to progress. It feels like a cheap way of extending the length of the game rather than added gameplay.
Great Battles: Medieval could have been great. The battle system is interesting and well-designed for mobiles, the upgrades and unlockable equipment are a great idea, and the graphics are fantastic for the most part.
But the constant grinding and unreasonable difficulty results in a game that’s likely to have a fair few of its subjects out on the streets, pitchforks in hand, demanding changes from the king.