REVIEW: Battlemaster

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Battlemaster is a real-time squad-based strategy game (with some RPG touches) that is balls hard in every way. Your troops are always outnumbered, underpowered, and at the mercy of killer traps. The mechanics are opaque, the puzzles are obscure, the controls are terrible, and it’s is exhaustingly long. It’s the perfect test of your patience and tactical nads.

Battlemaster’s structure is straightforward: you enter a land on the world map and wage a battle, or (less likely) parley with its friendly inhabitants. Afterwards, you select an adjacent land and do it again, making your way across the continent towards a big tower where there will certainly be a huge showdown. During battles, you control a single member of your squad, the rest following in a formation of your choice. The path-finding AI sucks and your troops get stuck all over the place, requiring intensive babysitting to even travel the terrain, much less rally them in a melee. Later, when you have a dozen of the little retards, the only workable tactic is to have them stand around and while you lure the enemies into an ambush.

Poor control aside, death still comes easily in Battlemaster. Traps are numerous and can instantly kill your whole squad. The enemies are more powerful than you and always in strong positions (sometimes you’ll start a battle completely surrounded, unable to organize before you are massacred). There is a morale meter, which changes arbitrarily and can make your already lazy troops even more so. And the maps are sprawling, and full of locked doors with hidden keys, invisible teleporters, and poorly explained puzzles, and scouring every crevice for treasure is absolutely necessary to prevent yourself from being even more outclassed by your opponents.

Battlemaster is primarily a strategy game, and the RPG components are minimal. You choose a class and race from four class and four races. Classes affect your statistics, while races affect what lands will be hostile and where you can hire new troops. This sounds more interesting than it is. Basically, in friendly lands, you can parley to buy items or pay passage without fighting. Useful for skipping some of the more grinding battles, but for the most part, you’ll want to fight them all to accumulate money and skill points, and in most of the really hellish battles, parley doesn’t work anyway.

Despite all my trash talking, Battlemaster is sort of cool. It’s definitely a challenge, the big melees with lots of troops feel pretty epic, choosing your own path on the world map adds some strategic depth, and the game is long (more than 2,500 screens and 100 hours of game play, claims the box). Some of the maps have nice touches too. For instance, in one early battle, you are attacking a fortress. If you find a shovel hidden in the level you can dig into the basement and come up onto the walls from below. Sure, those clever moments are infrequent, and Battlemaster is mostly aggravating, but, while I’ve never beaten it, I can imagine that conquering this cruel bastard would make all your other gaming achievements feel lame in comparison. There is something to be said for that.

Note: Battlemaster reminds me a bit of the DOS shareware game Gladiator made by Forgotten Sages, which is excellent and worth a look.

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