Warlock: Master of the Arcane – Review
Platform | Release Date
PC | May 8, 2012
Developed by Ino-Co Plus
Published by Paradox Interactive
Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a new turned-based strategy game set in the fantastical world of Ardania, popularized in Majesty franchise. Warlock: Master of the Arcane invites players to take on the role of the Great Mage and build a powerful magical empire, giving mightly mages the ability to control armies and wield magic to wage war against another, as they compete with other wizards for the title of Warlock.
Miralbus sat at his desk, poring over a dusty ledger. This city is expanding, this is really close to the border, and this one the blasted ratmen still control. He’d gone in with an army far too small. Soon, though, soon revenge would be his. He could taste it…
His assistant rushed in. “Sire, I have news!”
“What of it?”
“Anna the Benign just declared war.”
“Dammit! How many cities do we have to take from her before she learns her lesson?” This would be the fourth war he’d had with her. And, he vowed, the last one.
Whoever programmed the AI for Warlock: Master of the Arcane had a private chuckle about Anna the Benign, aka the most bloodthirsty Great Mage in the entire game. While wearing the comically large hat of Miralbus Card, I’ve fought more – and longer – wars with her than any of the other rival rulers. Sieging her capital city literally kept me up, sleepless, past midnight.
Taken superficially, Warlock comes off as a re-skinned Civilization V. In other words, it’s a hex-based turn-by-turn strategy game with rival AI-controlled rulers, simply ported into a fantasy setting. Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth, as city management is a very small part of the game’s progression, with nearly everything centered on combat and exploration. The sweep of one’s civilization through time is lost, but out with the bathwater goes corruption, revolution, and all manner of arcane city management busywork.
Each game starts with a single city and the familiar fog of war surrounding it. Units churn out quickly, never more than five turns in the making, but they can be quickly squandered against the monsters which roam the procedurally generated maps. Expansion is less about beating your rival Mages to a given location than it is about killing the monsters which guard it. Successfully founding a new city only to have it captured by the variety of ‘natives’ on the map is an frequent occurrence.
As you move towards the outer edges of the map, you’ll discover portals to alternate worlds rich in resources but guarded by incredibly powerful monsters – creatures which can kill units in a single hit. Mages have powerful spells they can call upon, but defeating these creatures is an entirely un-fun turn-by-turn grinding down of their hit points. Gaining access to the worlds beyond is worth the trouble for the vast resources they afford but the slog getting there is one part of starting a new game I’ve come to dread.
Fighting the AI-controlled mages is more enjoyable than clearing the map of monsters but it, too, grows quickly tiresome. The computer is quite aggressive in declaring war but they’re never actually ready for it. I never see troops massed along my border, never see the computer abuse a non-aggression pact, and I can mass troops along their borders with nary a complaint. Stealing cities early on is an easy task, but sieging high-level cities towards the end of the game is a painful and, yes, un-fun process which can take upwards of thirty turns (despite summoning high-level units to the battlefield).
My biggest complaint with Warlock is its tech tree, or lack thereof. Each Mage can research spells which range from “I’d never use this” to “Manhattan Project in the Twelfth Century”. At any one time the player can research one of five spells but the options are randomized. Like a spell from a previous game? In your next one it might be 150 turns before it ever shows up in the research pane. This would be okay if every spell was useful, but I find most of them completely useless. By the time a match is complete, I’ll have twenty or more spells at my disposal, with only two or three I actually use. I’d much rather have seen fewer but more powerful spells in the game.
Alongside the magic research is the expected unit upgrade system. Once built, each individual unit earns experience points per turn allowing for “perks” but getting new units requires building certain structures. The game does a decent job explaining which structure does what, and which is a prerequisite for the next structure, but the lack of a master tech tree makes planning one’s endgame army difficult without constantly referencing an outside guide. Double (or triple) this by the number of monster and alternate civilizations you capture, which gives you access to another complete set of units and upgrades.
Warlock’s hostile fantasy world charms you during its exploration; with armies that include human swordsmen, Lich Kings, fire demons, and artillery support in the form of lightning bolts. My “just one more turn” itch was scratched – a lot – with play sessions almost always exceeding three hours in length. The core ideas in Warlock are incredibly refreshing but the fun comes in spite of certain imbalances in the game. If you’re willing to fight with the system a little and want a unique take on turn-based strategy gaming, it’s hard to argue with $20 for Warlock: Master of the Arcane.