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Disciples 3 Review

by VoxClamant, 2010-07-26

What a disappointment.  A game that seems to have such promise when you first start playing is so fatally flawed in combat basics that you might not choose to finish it.  And for those of us who have Disciples II in our long-term top five -- one of those games that stays on the computer and gets played again and again -- it is an even bigger disappointment.  Disciples 3 eliminates almost all strategy components reducing it to a linear hack-and-slash.  Game balance is terrible.  One fundamental design decision means there is almost no replayability even if you fix the worst flaws.  And the UI is simply bizarre for a professional release.


What a difference a few hours can make

Ever wonder why RPGwatch never bases a serious review on an overview of a game, a quick run-through of a level or two, or a demo?  This is a prime example of why you have to spend hours with a game before you can be so bold as to foist your opinion off on others who might be foolish enough to trust your review.

An hour into this game (or the demo) and you will be in love with it.  You will already have decided that it will be one of the best games of the past few years and a wonderful improvement over the Disciples II you still enjoy to play.  Disciple 3 has a level of Art and Cinematography that is absolutely stunning; whoever did the art design clearly put passion and care into what he/she did.  Disciples 3 is simply beautiful to look at - even the splash screens are worth pausing to enjoy. 

Two hours into playing you are smiling ear to ear at the new combat system.  Moving your army, the new "hot spots", new special abilities for your creatures (and hero), the dynamic use of obstacles on the battlefield -- all combine for a lot of fun.  The design of the new combat system is excellent and normally would provide hours of challenges.

Four or five hours in you are starting to see that Disciples 3 increased the RPG/Quest aspect of the game.  You have rescued an angel on a mysterious mission and even met the evil protagonist who disappears after the usual threats and the promise of things to come.  You are so busy building your character and trying to figure out how things work that you push aside the nagging things that are starting to add up and bother you. 

After all, you think, it is a new game and perhaps you have just not figured it out.  Maybe you have just had a run of bad luck in your battles when the opponents seemed to be nailing you with critical strike after critical, while you sometimes "miss" 6-7 times in a row.   Maybe you have some kind of a keyboard issue on your computer that you had not noticed before that is causing problems with the UI.  Perhaps the manual -- if you could find it -- would clear things up.  Hopefully later you will start to see opposing heroes attacking and have to start thinking about strategy rather than just a Diablo-like "here is a group of pigmies, and another group of pigmies, and another group of pigmies, and yet another ..."

Finally, 30-plus hours in, with two campaigns finished and having replayed several missions to try to figure things out, you will realize it was not you.  Disciples 3 was simply shipped badly flawed and incomplete.  It is as though they had a superb idea, did all the graphics and hard work, and then ran out of time and money with just two months to go.  The keyboard routines didn't work so they just cut them out and went with mouse clicks.  They couldn't find an experienced gamer to help balance the creatures, so they asked "Fred from Accounting" to make up a spreadsheet based on whatever he could figure out.  Unfortunately, Fred seems to love criticals!  So the first thing Fred did was make sure all the enemy mobs score critical hits more than half the time.  And, of course, Fred knew that it was unrealistic that you hit on every strike, so "... let me just tweek the player misses a bit ..."

When you finally invest enough time to really understand the game, you will see that combat is broken, the UI has a perverse case of schizophrenia, strategy has been reduced to a linear hack-and-slash, replayability is gone, the choice of "mage, warrior or thief" means absolutely nothing and you might as well play the game through without spells.  Methinks you will probably lose interest part way through the first of three campaigns, force yourself to complete one play-through since you paid for it, and then are not likely to play it again unless there is a significant - and unlikely - patch in the future.

A note -- this critical review is coming from someone who thinks Disciples II is one of the best games I own and who wrote one of the first, and very positive, reviews of Disciples II when it first came out years ago.  I really want to find good things to say about Disciples 3.

 

When is a critical not a critical?

Criticals are a key part of the fun in game combat -- they add unpredictability and variation and challenges.  Purists can argue forever whether the right percentage for crits is 2%, 5%, 10% or even as high as 20%.  But, by definition, crits need to be a "minority event" - even rare.  Sixty percent is not rare!

In Disciples 3 they appear to happen more than 60% of the time for enemy mobs, and perhaps 30% of the time for your forces.  This is by design, not random chance.  When you are targeting, your chance for a critical is displayed.  For your mobs it seems to display between 25% and 55% (though it seems to occur less than that).  For the enemy mobs I cannot give solid evidence, but it clearly is more than half, and anecdotally I would guess it averages in the 60% range.  

This destroys any balance in combat, even if the basic data for the creatures made sense (which it does not).  Picture a starter army of hero, healer (for 37 HPs), a basic melee unit at 150 HPs and a "something" (probably a useless, at level 1, mage or archer.)   You are taking on a group of orcs who hit for 60.  You hit for 50.  For a strategy player this is a nice challenge -- no problem with careful healing and using all the tricks we know.  It was a typical fight in Disciples II.  Except this time you miss one of the two strikes you get before dying.  And the orcs are critting for 120 a pop, two of their three strikes.  The badly implemented crits turn this into a fight where you average hitting for 25 against an enemy that averages 100.  It destroys any balance that might have been there.

This scales up as you level.  Later your mobs are hitting (when they do not miss) for 100-150 while heavies are critting for 400+ on you again and again.  I had to go with three healers until I found equal flaws in design that I could exploit to get around this.

This criticals issue is on top of some major imbalance in creature stats that made it to the final release uncorrected.  Many of the basic stats seem just "wrong."  But the worst relates to one of the best new features: special abilities of the mobs.  Some of these are simply overpowered.  A line of demons get massive regeneration for 10 turns that heals 150 HPs per turn -- more than twice the heal of the best cleric in the game.  Some special spells -- like a three-turn area effect transform or paralyze -- are just too strong.  Some leader skills make tough battles as easy (and boring) as though you were playing on god mode.  And there are many cases of low level monsters hitting for a ton while some high level mobs seem to have forgotten to take their vitamins this week.

To add final insult to injury, criticals ignore armor or buffs - something else that was overlooked in the final release.

 

The Thong of Impenetrability

Misses are just as badly butchered.  Frequently at higher levels I've seen instances where three top-level melee units cannot kill a solo healer.  Three veteran knights on horseback with swords somehow cannot even touch a girl standing next to them in a dress.  By the way: she had no buffs or special abilities.  Either she had an amazing degree of hip flexibility to dodge swords, or she was wearing the ultra-rare Thong of Impenetrability +10.  Were it not for my mages, I would still be playing that mission two days later.

When top melee units - including your hero - miss six times in a row (my record is nine misses), something is sadly broken.  The display says I have a 29% chance of missing ... so the probability of 6 misses in a row should be 0.06%, far less than 1%!  (.29 raised to the 6th).  Now if this happens 4 or 5 times per mission, then either my computer random number generator is on drugs or Disciples 3 has a seriously broken math engine.

 

God mode -- whether you want it or not   

Here's another example of horrible balance, though one that works for the player.  By mid way through each campaign you should be able to get your hero's armor to 90+.  By the end, you are over 100.  That means you are invulnerable to all non-spells (except crits -- that ignore armor).  Up against a tough opponent?  Just quickly send your hero into the middle of things to attack whatever is needed - the AI sees you are invulnerable, so it ignores you.

Or get defacto god mode with the right mix of characters.  One caster has a mass petrify spell that lasts three rounds.  Get two of them in the back and take on any enemy in the game on auto pilot. 

The Devil's hero even can get a petrify spell.  Picture a Legion of the Dammed group, without a healer, easily defeating an enemy capitol without taking any damage!  Your hero freezes the guardian each round, and the melee and casters take their time chewing though those 3000 HPs while never seeing the 250 nukes.   Use the same approach when defeating, without taking any damage, an enemy resource guardian.

 

My Kingdom for a good modder?

It is hard to comprehend how Disciples 3 was shipped this way.  Most of the balancing problems are more a database issue than programming.  If Disciples 3 supported mods, a good modder could fix the worst problems over a long weekend and probably resolve almost all of them in a couple weeks.  I even spent a few hours trying to slog through the data files for the creatures to see if I could discover the criticals stats for each.

 

Wither goes the strategy and replayability?

While most of the balance/criticals issues seem to be solvable, many of the other issues need a major patch - not likely since the game has been out for months outside the USA.

Strategy is largely gone; your choice of "Mage, Warrior, or Thief" at the beginning means next to nothing.  Whatever your choice, you still get the same warrior hero.  You cannot play with a mage or thief (or ranger).  Choose mage and you can cast two main map spells per day -- but the way the game is designed you will rarely cast more than a couple spells per campaign!  Choose warrior and you get one spell, plus regenerate 15% per day. 

You do not need other armies.  The missions and maps are so linear that your main hero can easily do the entire mission/campaign.  And worst of all, there are no longer enemy armies causing you to have to think about defense.  You don't need other armies (the only roamers are occasional small groups of creatures that attack your resources.  But your resources in Disciples 3 can defend themselves).

An "unintended consequence" of all this is to virtually eliminate replayability.  The story and map is tightly linear and you get just one hero.  Nothing significant can change the second time through.  Disciple 3 loses out on one of the classic enjoyments of a game like this -- no longer can you try a whole new approach, see if you can sneak through, or try to nurse a starting mage with a weak front line through the first couple of levels.

 

UI needs a time out

The last problem to be covered is bewildering from a leading game producer.  The UI needs to be put on some serious meds.  It seems to have a mild case of schizophrenia, or ADD, or something!

Hot buttons do not work.  All is mouse-driven.  There is even a file in the game directory for hot buttons but they are disabled in the game.  Time and again you need a cumbersome series of clicks all over the screen when you could just normally press the "x" key.  Example:  after every move during combat you need to go to the lower left and click that you are done.  Even scroll bars do not work.  Scrolling through the inventory requires 20 or so clicks on the arrows to move the bar; the bar moves, you just cannot drag it.  Sometime the "ESC" works, sometimes it does not and you have to click on the menu button.

When the AI casts a spell on you while on the map, about two-thirds of the time your own ability to then cast a spell is disabled.  Perhaps this is a "feature" and not a bug…maybe the AI is also casting "silence" on those times it grays out your ability to then cast a heal…

Load and save is a mess.  The game is saved as something like "Mission III -- Into the Breech move 9".  All the missions and all the campaigns are saved mixed together.  Now, this might not sound like much of an issue but the titles only show the left 20 characters or so when you go to load a game.  It cuts off the "day" number for most of them.  You might have several listings all saying the same "Mission III -- Into the Bre" - and it is an alpha sort so "9" comes after "11".  This is a small thing, but one of dozens of examples of a UI that should not have been released.

The fog of war approach is a mess with the unintended consequence of helping eliminate the need for strategy and making additional armies.  The problem is not FoW far away -- but FoW close to you.  Many mobs simply do not show up until your hero is right next to them.  Worse -- the minimap never indicates where you are looking when you are watching someone moving in a distant location.  The "view outline" stays centered on your hero.  So you see them moving, but have absolutely no idea where they were.

During combat - until you learn how to disable it - the magnificent cinematic focusing on the spell caster does not let you see if anyone was hit.  It is a beautiful close-up of the caster in action -- but forgets there is a game going on.  After a battle the "level up" messages happen in less than 1/2 second so you might not be able to tell who leveled without going into each character.

 

Almost an RPG

At first you will think the RPG/Quest aspects of the game gave been strengthened.  Mission one of the first campaign sets the stage for a decent storyline but the implementations seems to be as though following a sparse outline that was never finished.  Two or three times in a mission you might get some vague text that refers to the quests, but there is no depth or detail.  Characters show up and seem important but are never seen again.   There is really only a little sense of story or goal after the first few missions.

Part way through campaign two is a series of events that hint at the promise the RPG elements must have held in the original, unfinished, design but it is so weakly presented and disjointed that you really have to work to fill in the storyline and make it all come together.

There are more "Quests", but they turn out to be all rather phony.  You are going down a trail killing groups of orcs, when someone tells you the next orcs "captured the Whatsis of Thingamabob" so you need to kill them.  You go down the path, kill the same group of orcs you would have killed anyway, and get a message that the "Whatsis" was successfully found: end of quest.  It is sort of like telling an airline pilot going from New York to London that he has a new quest to do on the way -- fly over some water.

Meanwhile, since there are never any enemy armies attacking your lands, so there is no sense of a mission or strategy.  You do not defend cities.  No one ever attacks your main base.  Making additional heroes is unneeded and impracticable.  It becomes a strategy game where you only need tactics and no strategy.  It is an RPG with only a rough outline of a story.

 

The Bottom Line

The possibilities for Disciples 3 were amazing when you look at all the good in it.  If you step back a few feet and imagine what it could have been -- and the outstanding ideas the designers appear to have had at the start of the project -- Disciples 3 seemed to have been on track to be one of the best games of the past few years for strategy/RPGers.

But somehow, at the end, they lost their way or just ran out of gas.  The UI was never finished.  The basic game math and balancing appears to never have been revisited after the original placeholders.  Strategy and replayability was sacrificed.  I get the feeling that the final 4-6 weeks of polishing never happened, and that somehow the game was never play-tested by gamers.  My release says version 1.06 but I have heard nothing about patches currently in process.

This is baffling since the game has been out for months outside the USA.  I had read some of the Russian reviews (talk about an exercise in insanity -- reading Russian documents translated by Google) and could never quite understand the mixed emotions I was reading.  They seemed to feel let down, yet they praised the game.  You sensed they were uncomfortable saying critical things about the game.  There was a sadness about the reviews. 

As someone who loves Disciples II, now I get it. 

Box Art

Information about

Disciples 3: Renaissance

Developer: .dat

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: Strategy-RPG
Combat: Turn-based
Play-time: 40-60 hours
Voice-acting: None

Regions & platforms
Europe & USA
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2010-06-25
· Publisher: Kalypso Media

More information

Summary

Pros

  • Length: A complete playthrough takes at least 40-50 hours
  • Graphics: Stunning at times – obviously a “work-of-love”

Cons

  • The UI is a mess.
  • Strategy has all but been eliminated by design decisions
  • Replayability: Almost none

Rating

Review version

1.06