Endless Legend review: Beauty and brains

Endless Legend combines 4X strategy, tactical combat, and role-playing into one grand and beautiful game. 

7

Calling a game "endless" sets up a kind of promise. It can be fun and exciting, like endless wonder, or a kind of threat, like endless tedium. Endless Legend, the third game from Amplitude Studios (Endless Space), falls somewhere in between and slides from one extreme to the other. The turn-based 4X strategy game takes a lot of inspiration from games like Civilization V, including the hexagonal tiles, but it has plenty of unique features to stand out as its own game. Players choose from eight different factions, each with their own backstories and motivations to grow an empire.

The game diverges from the traditional 4X strategy model by including role-playing elements. In addition to traditional paths to victory, like miltary or science, each faction has a series of story-based objectives. You may start with having to investigate a number of ancient ruins, then later escalate to greatly expanding the size of your city or subjugating a neutral town. All these actions build into a running factional narrative. Players can choose to bring neutral town to their side through force, bribery, or by completing a quest for it. These options aren't always easy, but it helps you shape the narrative, albeit in a minor way. Factions battle for control of a land called Auriga for resources, influence, and a substance called Dust, which is treated as currency in the gameplay but revered in the story for its special properties.

Endless Beauty

Endless Legend features some excellent artwork at creative factional stories that drive the player to succeed. While the lore and mythology can be a little confusing, it doesn't interfere with the enjoyment of the game. Standouts include the Cultist of the Eternal End faction, who look like animated marionettes that worship two chaotic gods. Another is the Broken Lords, a once venerated group of warriors that sought to avoid extinction by magically trapping their spirits in armor, and now must walk the world as sort of vampires. The cel-shaded leader models use beautiful hand-drawn artwork.

Although it might look like Civilization 5, dressed up as a fantasy game, the two are actually very different. There are familiar features shared by all 4X like movement tiles, city management, economy, and technology research, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. For example, the technology system isn't set up as a tree. It's set up as a series of circles, each one representing an era, with hive-like hexagonal tiles put into different groupings (Military, Economy, Empire Expansion/Diplomacy, and Science). Each hex is a different technology, and players can research them in any order. Discovering enough technologies unlocks the next era.

Each era comes with new armor, weapons and items, which are added to units through an editor. Players have to remember to do this, because the game doesn't offer to automatically upgrade obsolete units. The unit editor is a feature that sounds more exciting than it is. With it, players can pick a template from their existing selection of units, rename it, and equip it with different gear, but you can't modify its base abilities and the gear is limited. For example, I wanted to give a flying unit a ranged weapon so that it could rain death on the enemy, but I could only outfit it with melee weapons. The feature lets you diversify the army, but not by much.

Multiple units can be stacked to form an army, which can be assigned a hero to lead them. Heroes have special skills that can help boost the army's performance, and can be equipped with armor at no cost (alternatively, heroes can be assigned to govern cities). Combat works similarly to Heroes of Might & Magic, except the hero fights as a playable unit instead of standing off the side to cast spells. Players move units tactically around a battlefield and assign targets, and everything is automated. I didn't see any big spells that damage or heal multiple units, nor any special moves that need to be activated. Combat largely involves making sure ranged units get to higher ground while staying out of striking distance of melee fighters. Battles tend to resolve fairly quickly, since only a handful of units can assigned to an army.

Endless Frustration

Unfortunately, Endless Legend is the first 4X strategy game from Amplitude, and the studio hasn't had a chance to iron out the kinks a long running series like Civilization would have. The game suffers from a terrible lack of feedback. There's no pop-up to warn you about units with unused turns or a city that is in revolt. Cities can only garrison a certain number of units. One of my cities hit that limit, which caused a build to get stuck at infinite turns until I happened to spot it.

Units don't always complete their ongoing movements when you hit the End Turn button, which means it's one extra annoying thing to micromanage. For some reason, I couldn't sell or disband my settler, which meant I had a useless unit standing around as a minor but constant drain on my economy.

The game has some pacing problems, which partly stems from how it doesn't always spell out a faction's strengths and weaknesses. For example, I tried playing as the Broken Lords, and I couldn't figure out why my city wasn't growing and why I couldn't build any settlers. Meanwhile, my rivals grabbed up all the territories surrounding me. In any case, the start of the game can be pretty slow going for new players, especially when you're trying to figure out how to prioritize technology research. Moving a technology up the queue means having the clear out the research list and reselecting everything you want in the order that you want them.

There aren't any worker units as you would find in a Civilization game. Improvements like mines are placed by the player, and roads appear by themselves. That, combined with the how difficult it is to assemble multiple armies early on, makes the Endless Legend world uncluttered and lets you appreciate the sprawling cities, but it's also lonelier. Expensive and sparsely numbered armies is also why going to war can be a painfully tedious process. Cities can't defend themselves until the enemy outright attacks it, even with ranged units garrisoned. If an enemy lays siege, the city has no choice but to sit helplessly and starve until an army can be brought over to save it (unless there happens to be a hero with a siege breaking skill residing in the city). Winning an enemy city can feel like a hollow victory, unless you have the money on hand to immediately purchase defenses, because your empire is always vulnerable and requires your heroes to do a lot of back-and-forth.

Leaders don't have a lot of personality to them, it's hard to figure out what drives them, and the vague diplomacy system lacks features. One of the biggest innovations the Civilization series developed is a "What will make this deal work?" button, where you can ask a faction leader what he or she wants in exchange for your proposal. In Endless Legend, players have to spend influence points for each individual proposal they make (both offering and requesting things takes influence), while balancing a happiness meter. If a proposal favors you too much, the leaders will be less happy. The more it benefits them, the happier they'll be when they approve. However, they'll rarely ask for a commodity, resource, or money on their own. There's no way to set a time limit on anything, so a trade or research agreement will go on indefinitely, and it's difficult to tell how well your agreements are working out, because the benefits differ from city to city. It costs influence points to break a deal, so unless an agreement is costing you money, it's easier just to leave a zero sum agreement going. Furthermore, there's no function to simply use your powerful army as leverage to demand tribute, or just to tell other leaders to get out of your territory. Other straightforward features like offering to purchase a city (outside of a Cold War relationship), trade units, or request/offer a loan to be repaid with interest are also missing.

Endless possibilities

Endless Legend is a gorgeous game, with a unique take on 4X strategy, and a tremendous amount of potential. Its interface and diplomacy systems could use a bit of improvement, but the tactical combat and decision-based campaign help make up for it. The game can be slow going, and even experienced strategy game players may need time to learn its complexities, but it's a worthwhile goal. Endless Legend doesn't quite measure up to some of the longer standing series, but it gets very close. For a relative newcomer, that's a big deal.

Final Score: 7 out of 10.


This review is based on a downloadable Steam PC code provided by the developer. Endless Legend is available now on PC and Mac for $39.99. 

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From The Chatty
  • reply
    October 2, 2014 12:30 PM

    Steven Wong posted a new article, Endless Legend review: Beauty and brains.

    Endless Legend combines 4X strategy, tactical combat, and role-playing into one grand and beautiful game. 

    • reply
      October 2, 2014 12:57 PM

      This game looks really amazing. I should maybe play Endless Space first since it's cheap.

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      October 2, 2014 1:07 PM

      This does look interesting but a lot of those downfalls sound pretty irritating. I'll wait for a sale or to see how things patch out in the future.

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        October 2, 2014 2:41 PM

        IMHO after civ5 it really feels different ant fresh. While it definitely could use some polish the core of a great game is there.

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      October 2, 2014 2:39 PM

      What? "Endless Legend is the first 4X strategy game from Amplitude"

      Um, Endless Space says hello. If there's something I learned today it's that Shack staff doesn't seem to have much of a clue regarding the 4X genre. <3 you guys but you need to do a bit more research.

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      October 2, 2014 4:36 PM

      I'm having a lot of fun with it. So far The Cult is my favorite faction. The setting reminds me of the Numenera: Torment world

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        October 2, 2014 4:39 PM

        make that 'Torment: Tides of Numenera' the CRPG and Numenera the P&P RPG

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      October 2, 2014 10:21 PM

      Getting deeper into it and the main faction quests are really cool. The way each faction plays is much more distinct than in other games of this variety, and the quests give them even more character.

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      October 3, 2014 7:27 AM

      I've played enough of this game to say its fabulous and its replaced Fallen Enchantress on my HD.
      I love everything about it. In fact all three games are top notch games and I recommend them.
      Endless Legend, Dungeon of the Endless and Endless Space. Cant lose.

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        October 3, 2014 7:31 AM

        This is another reason I cant take Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth seriously. This game although I know it to be a spiritual successor to Alpha Centuri looks like a glorified DLC for Civ V. Meanwhile you have games like Endless Legend that not only look beautiful but are fully formed games that don't look like "every other game in the series"
        I love Sid, but I think its time they raise their collective heads and see what other works have been done.

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          October 3, 2014 12:01 PM

          It'll be interesting comparing and contrasting EL and Civ:BE. They are both clearly rooted in Civ4/5 style 4x so it'll be down to which can innovate and execute better. So far EL has innovated nicely and executed to an acceptable level of polish (should improve steadily based on Endless Space's track record). Beyond Earth needs to be better than a Civ 5 mod or it won't fly.

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