“A classy debut that hits all the right notes and puts other turn-based strategies in the shade.”£1.99
Small-screen game developers don’t have it easy. Finding the sweet spot between immediacy and depth is always a challenge; nailing it within three-and-a-half-inch confines is a feat. And going by the number of poor turn-based strategy titles on iOS, this genre could well be a paradigm case. It sounds oxymoronic – just how do you pull off that ‘casual-hardcore’ feel? With youth, talent and balls, that’s how.
Cue Witching Hour Studios, the Singapore newcomer behind debut title Ravenmark: Scourge of Estellion. Itching for immersive high fantasy but unable to fall back on an existing mythos, these devs have crafted their own epic world. And it’s deep, Middle Earthy stuff. We can only scratch the surface here, but suffice it to say the land of Elisse provides the battleground in which you must guide the armies of the Estellion Empire to victory over the Kaysan, the dark mystics of the southern Cardani swamps. Yes, there will be blood.
The first campaign throws you into battle, where helpful in-game tips explain how to control your armies from above during the Command Phase. Unit classes, or Elements, are a spin on the usual suspects, each bearing an advantage over another – so ranged beats infantry, which trumps polearms, which fells cavalry, and so on.
Tapping on an element’s banner throws up an ingenious radial menu that’s home to a spree of tactical options. Marching orders are a given, but it’s the other menu items that excite. From here you can exploit the bonus abilities of your elements for a tactical advantage, or arrange several same-class elements into formations not just for a stat boost, but to unlock further unique abilities. Gather three swordsmen into a trine, for example, and they’ll link shields for better protection against marauding hordes.
Element and character abilities are either passive (triggered automatically when conditions are met) or active, but it’s those in the latter camp that demand keen tactical nous. Not only do some have a cool-down period, they rob you of a Command Point – and with only six points to play with in a single Command Phase, you can’t just dole them out willy-nilly. Thrifty deployment becomes the straightest arrow towards victory as you gain control of ever-bigger armies.
Say you have six Command Points, allowing you to control an army of six trines. If these trines were broken into 18 elements, you’d only be able to control six of the 18. Combine this management with Standing Orders, which allow elements to take actions without you actively issuing orders, and your options become legion.
The Battle Phase convinces, too. Swooshing screens signal moments of conflict as units trot about the landscape to the sound of clashing weapons and cries of anguish that (depending on your allegiance) evoke a warm satisfaction. And the crisp, lush visuals make the slaughter a joy to watch – add an epic soundtrack that ratchets up the warmongering and you can’t help but urge on your armies to bloody triumph. Zooming out lets you take in the entire battlefield, while a visit to the tactical menu gives details on all the elements involved, artfully keeping you abreast of proceedings. It’s here that you’ll also find the Codex, your portal to element attributes and a sprawling Elisse mythology that almost proves a double-edged sword.
Ravenmark wants to suck you into its fantasy world and sympathise with its characters’ plight, but whether it does or not depends on your stomach for this sort of thing. Sure, a few squabbles offer some context to the missions – faced with a phalanx of Braccian smugglers, for example, your commanders trade barbs over tactical positioning – but thankfully you can opt to skip it and just as effectively deploy your units to secure a victory.
However closely you choose to follow the ravages of war, in the turn-based strategy genre Ravenmark reigns supreme. Boasting AI that can outflank you at 10 paces, and 15 varied campaign missions with the promise of more to come, at two quid it’s a steal; with multiplayer, it’d be obscene.