Spellforce 2: Demons of the Past is the latest addition to the generally successful Spellforce series published by Nordic Games. Not a direct expansion of the previous titles, Demons of the Past is a stand-alone entry that doesn’t require a single one of its predecessors to be able to play it. With that said, it is considerably helpful to be a Spellforce fan when picking up this RPG/RTS crossover as the journey will be far from easy without previous knowledge of the games.
Demons of the Past may be masquerading itself as a stand-alone title, but do not be fooled; there is nothing in this game that allows it to stand on its own two feet. It is a hostile and unwelcoming experience for outsiders, taking no care at all to break you into a world you may have never seen before. It feels much closer in design to DLC, because expansions usually take the time to give you a refresher on the fundamentals and new features. In Demons of the Past, however, you are flung straight in at the deep end with nothing to hold you afloat.
Any attempts that there are to introduce players to the series are weak at best, and it is immediately apparently from the word go. At the beginning of the campaign you are briefed on the game’s history through a narrator speaking over animated paintings. This is all well and good for those who can nod along as they indulge in their memories, but for anyone else who has picked up the game as an individual title, it is simply a massive blur of names and words that mean nothing. There is little attempt to clarify the details, either. After this information overload, you will then find your avatar involved in a discussion between some soldiers, a ghost, and a few talking dragons, and minutes later you’re thrown into the middle of a war zone and left to fend for yourself. It’s completely mind-bending and leaves you wondering what on earth you’ve let yourself in for, and that’s not even the half of it.
On top of the lack of story explanation, there are also no in-game tutorials in this title. Instead, Demons of the Past gives you the option to stumble blindly through the game yourself, or watch the video tutorials that can be accessed from the main menu. These video tutorials are a collection of slow-paced, bad quality recordings of someone else playing through the tutorial from Spellforce 2: Faith in Destiny. It’s worse than it sounds. The lack of interactivity is stifling to say the least as not only are the tips not particularly helpful, but the videos are a complete drag. A written tutorial, and a written history while we’re at it, would have been a much better alternative to the pixilated mess that you have no choice but to subject yourself to.
If you finally do get past the ridiculously steep learning curve, however, Demons of the Past does redeem itself to some degree. The combat is a particularly strong aspect of the game, which is no surprise as it is often what the franchise is most celebrated for. The combination of RPG and RTS works well and is straight forward to grasp so you can get into the fighting spirit pretty quickly. The customization system is also considerably in-depth, and you will be able to spend a lot of time finding the perfect weapon, armour and skill combinations to suit your style of play.
There are also a substantial amount of skills to choose from. These are categorised into combat, magic and Shaikan abilities, with addition branches for heavy and light styles of combat. It is a great levelling system which allows you to be anything from a hard hitting warrior to powerful mage and everything in between. There are five different play modes available too, which are campaign, skirmish, free-play, domination and survival. This means you’ll get plenty of value for money if you choose to explore each mode, or want to do multiple playthroughs with different specialised characters.
Demons of the Past also has a good, solid soundtrack. The classic clashing of metal mixed with grunts of pain can be heard when you zoom in on combatants, while both dramatic and subtle orchestral compositions bounce back and forth over the top. It’s fitting for the style of the game. The voice acting is respectable too, doing a good job of fleshing out the characters you meet on your travels and making them more relatable, even if you’re not entirely sure who they are. The volume for the voice overs is a little quiet, though, so you’ll probably find yourself needing to turn it up in the settings. If you don’t like to be dragged down by dialogue, you can also skip conversations once you’ve skimmed the subtitles to get back into the action.
The overall story has good degrees of depth, but unfortunately most of the minor details and nods to past Spellforce titles will be lost on beginners. This can leave it feeling lacking, as the most a new player will likely gather from the narrative is that there’s an evil being with an army of undead, and you’ve got to save the world. You’re also an Elder of the Shaikan, who are a group of individuals that carry the blood of a dragon, though that isn’t really elaborated on. Either way, it’s your typical good versus evil set up, so from that perspective it’s not too hard to follow. For fans, however, there will be nostalgia everywhere as you bump into characters from across the series and catch up on how events have played out. It’s all very endearing and is a nice way to wrap up the eight year story.
Visually, Demons of the Past isn’t stunning, but when considering the age of the series and the style of gameplay, cutting-edge graphics aren’t particularly needed here. Even without high-end visuals, the environments are fitting, the enemies are well designed and varied, and it all generally looks quite attractive. There weren’t too many graphical hiccups in my play through either, other than the odd phantom mouth movement during dialogue scenes, so there’s little to complain about.
While most of the individual elements of Demons of the Past are actually pretty good, the gameplay as a whole is marginal disaster. The difficulty spikes like you wouldn’t believe and the pacing can be brutal, but not in an enjoyable way. If you don’t get on with your quests and manage your troops in a quick and orderly fashion, before you know it you’ll have either failed your missions out of thin air, or be suddenly overrun with enemies. It seems as if the game wants you to be everywhere at once which is impossible early on with the very limited amount of fighters and resources at your disposal, not to mention the lack of explanation on how to properly operate your units. The experience is intense and doesn’t give you a single moment to stop and collect your thoughts, which I understand is in the nature of the genre but in this case there is far too much too soon.
The AI is also somewhat ridiculous, with some enemies not realising you’re attacking them while others chase you down to the ends of the earth. It seems always to be the powerful ones who won’t let up, too, so you’ll probably find yourself more acquainted with the game over screen than you’d like. There is also an issue with the game transporting you away at the end of quests, so your avatar will suddenly be taken from, say, a battlefield to the village. Unfortunately this act of transportation doesn’t apply to other members of your team. Instead, you’ll either have to launch a rescue party to regroup, or hope they can make it back on their own without running into a hoard of enemies. It’s fairly frustrating, especially considering that time is of the essence in a game such as this and you have to throw it away just to reassemble your allies and return to full strength.
All in all, if you’re a fan of Spellforce 2, then you’ll probably like or maybe even love Demons of the Past, but as a stand-alone title it is just a painful experience. It’s not exactly a bad game; just much more niche and exclusive than Nordic Games would lead you to believe by marketing the title on its own. Even if you’re not a fan of the Spellforce 2 games but are an RPG or RTS enthusiast there is still a huge mountain to climb before you really get anything out of it. Whether the journey is worth it is up to you. I can only confidently recommend that you buy this game if you are familiar with the series and know you will gain something from the experience, but if you’ve never heard of Demons of the Past before, then forget you ever did.