Long Winters & Gathering Dust: Thoughts on “Endless Legend”

Bizarre, cynical, and full of stories–truly, Amplitude Studio’s Endless Legend is the Hunter S. Thompson of 4X games.

In a year that boasted some heavily-desired strategy and civ-based games (including one from the granddaddy of all civilization franchises), isn’t it funny that the one that absolutely stands out the most is the one with the strangest lore, most unique characters and creatures, and most fleshed-out, fun-to-explore world. It’s almost as if players enjoy a unique polish to their games every now and then. Not that I mean to give the finger to Sid Meiers and Firaxis and all those wonderful people. They’ve put out dumptrucks of amazing games over the years, and I’ve gobbled every bit of it up like an obese Texan toddler.

But merciful blue Christ: Endless Legend is steadily making itself into my favorite civilization game since Civilization V released Brave New World.

Endless Legend puts you in the gold and ruby-studded hotseat as the leader of one of eight distinctly unique empires: each with a real point of view and playstyle. And while there are a couple of familiar faces from the Ghost of Fantasy Strategy Past (dragons, druids & ranger-types), you’ve also got some truly unique armies and factions, including my latest favorite nightmare fuel: the clockwork abominations known simply as The Cultists.

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It’s a one-of-a-kind quality that is enough to draw in people who are sick of the same old thing, but the learning curve isn’t steep. The tutorial is fine for a quick introduction, but nothing beats a playthrough or two. An easy comparison to make here is to the Age of Wonders series, which is abundantly fair. But having played Age of Wonders 3 in 2014, I can honestly say that I enjoyed Endless Legend more. Part of this had to do with a personal preference for Legend‘s brackish and morally vague world. No one in this universe is really too much of a hero–every civilization has a foundational flaw to them, a hubristic or cruel quality that puts a spotlight on their intentions. There aren’t a lot of true altruists trying to take over the world, and Endless Legend takes pains to remind you of that.

But my other reason for preferring Endless Legend to Age of Wonders 3 has to do with the fact that, like the Civilization series, Legend doesn’t see the need to push me through a long, drawn out campaign: it just lets me play the damn thing. Their quest system is randomized enough to stay intriguing, particularly the quests you’re tasked to do by minor factions in order to pacify and assimilate them into your culture (that is, if you don’t instead choose to crush their villages beneath the spiky-toed heel of your boots). The usage of a winter season of random length (a la Game of Thrones) also adds a monkey wrench to your plans, since during the cold season your citizenry will be far more unhappy and less able to produce food and Dust (a sort of currency/spiritual substance)

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Each civilization has their own storyline, which unfolds slowly throughout the game as you complete faction-specific quests. However, true to its 4X style, completing the plot is far from the only way to win the game. Feel free to crush, bribe, and intimidate your way to victory at any point that you choose. And speaking of crushing your opponent, I will say that while the combat system is somewhat more complex than your average “click and see how it goes” civ game, the hex-based battle mode didn’t really feel like there was a ton of room for strategy. Essentially, as long as you keep a reasonably-sized standing army and upgrade their equipment on a regular basis, you’re not going to need to channel your inner General Patton to survive most scrapes. Although combat situations end automatically after six turns, whether a winner has been determined or not–so if you’re in a bind, it’s simply a matter of burrowing in and surviving the siege.

The web-style technology tree was also a low point for me. This style of research options also made an appearance in Civilization: Beyond Earth in 2014, and I can’t understand its appeal. It makes the whole process of learning new abilities and skills far less organized and tedious. You have no way of planning ahead for techs you’ll need in the long run, so the process feels needlessly chaotic.

But those issues were simply not enough to detract from the thoughtful experience that this game provides. About 40 hours in, I still feel like I’ve got plenty of game to tear apart, appreciate, and drink heavily in honor of. Endless Legend is just the sort of fantasy 4X that the gaming world needs to see more of. Grim, atmospheric, and filled with more freaks and fascinating stunts than a circus tent, I’m genuinely excited to see how Amplitude expands this universe over time.

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