As a gamer I’ve come to expect some respect from my minions over the years. If I tell an elf to go and slay a dragon I expect him to thank me for the opportunity, get his trusty bow and go fight the damn dragon. Then, when he’s inevitably set aflame I expect him to express regret for not serving me better, and as he’s gobbled up I expect him to praise my eternal benevolence between each chomp of the dragon’s mighty jaws, ideally composing an ode to my grace as he slides down the lizard’s gullet towards a long and horrible death.
Which is why I’m shocked, shocked and appalled to find such stunning selfishness present in the world of Ardania. In Majesty 2, my minions care nothing for my well-being, they only care about cold hard cash.
It’s been a long time since the first Majesty game, about 9 or 10 years in fact, which makes it both surprising and intriguing to see Majesty’s odd brand of hands-off fantasy strategy gaming make a return for this brighter, cheesier sequel. Set in a familiar technicolour land of high fantasy, the twist of the Majesty series is the fact that you have no direct control of your troops. If you want them to do something, anything in fact, you’ll have to pay them.
You plant flags over certain locations or enemies and assign a reward to that flag to attract your minions. It works like this: ‘Oi, you, elf! 100 gold to walk over there and see what’s happening, not interested? Okay, 200 gold. No? Fine! 500 goddamn gold, half of all the gold I have if you just walk over there into the fog of war to try and find some resources so I can harvest.’ Then the elf goes there and discovers a wolf den and flees for his life. The neat thing is that when that wounded elf returns to base and buys a health potion and some of that money goes straight back into your coffers. You can build a blacksmiths and have them research new armour and weapons which not only earns you money from your citizens, but increases their competence at the same time. As infuriating as it sounds, it’s actually quite a neat system with a couple of problems.
Majesty isn’t unique in divorcing your servants from your control. Bullfrog classic Dungeon Keeper had tremendous success in granting your creatures their own personality and lives outside of your direct influence. You could slap them around or shower them with gold and throw them into a fight and they would gladly do battle if they liked your dungeon. Majesty 2 (and Majesty before it) gives you minions that are completely devoid of personality and only one frustrating way of interacting with them. The opening stages of a level are the worst. You have to build structures to hire troops and watchtowers to defend from the endless streams of enemy attacks, there’s not enough left over to bribe scouts to discover the vital resource points that lurk nearby somewhere in the fog of war.
Once you’ve discovered a resource or two things improve immensely. When you’re not always broke you’re free to start branching out, exploring multiple locations and building new structures to train more troops. Here you’ll find plenty of variety. From rogues who can act as underhand tax collectors in times of financial struggle to beefy warriors and ever-useful clerics that heal your troops, there’s a wide roster of interesting archetypes to recruit. Building your town can be a satisfying experience and you’ll have to make some choices between which races you’ll recruit, dwarves won’t work with elves, and minions from opposing temples are similarly stubborn. But just when you’re starting to enjoy the pleasing world and base building, the limited quest design and unfair difficulty curve pop up to spoil the fun.
From the moment a level loads groups of enemies are dispatched towards your base at regular intervals from nearby spawn points. Skeletons attack from abandoned tombs, bears from bear dens and Minotaurs from Ziggurats (for some reason). Until you destroy all of these there will be no peace. In fact, if you wipe out every single foe on the map there will be no peace thanks to indestructible sewer entrances and the graveyard, integral parts of your base that spawn enemies directly onto the streets of your town. In one level, on top of all of this, an invincible dragon turns up every ten minutes to set fire to your town. I beat it after a couple of restarts, when I realised exactly what I needed to build in what order. The trial and error approach is a telltale symptom of the lack of strategic depth here.
The missions all boil down to building up your forces and putting a huge bounty on the big villain of the level and letting your chaps get on with it. The repetition and the niggles of the bounty-based control system add up to turn an intriguing idea into a tedious grind. Even with some slick visuals, a cheesy wit and someone who sounds like Sean Connery chuckling in your ear Majesty 2 fails to be much fun. If you’re hoping the multiplayer will redeem the package then you’ll be disappointed. I tried to get a game every time I booted up, but I couldn’t find anyone playing.
Frankly, if you’re after a quality RTS then you’ll have been spoiled by the splendid releases in the last few months, so there’s no real need to reach out to Majesty 2 for your kicks. If you enjoyed the first game then you’ll find the sequel to be an improved experience. Your villagers now actually make some attempt to defend themselves, and to a limited extent they’ll try and protect your structures from attack if they’re around. In the mean time I’m placing bounty flags on Supreme Commander 2, Chaos Rising, Napoleon: Total War and any number of superior titles far more worthy of your hard earned gold.