There are other ways to upgrade your forces. As you fight, you gain "yin" or "yang" points, depending on your faction. This roughly corresponds to battlefield experience, honor, or what have you. Typically, the farther away from your home territory when you're fighting, the faster you'll earn these points. This gives the aggressor the advantage so that players don't just resort to hunkering down, waiting for their opponents to make the first move. Yin and yang points can then be spent to upgrade certain classes of units--to make them stronger, more damaging, faster, have more range, and so on. It's another interesting facet of the game--you don't just buy unit upgrades as in other real-time strategy games, but you earn them by taking the initiative in battle. You'll have to pick and choose upgrades, especially at first, and depending on which units you improve, you can emphasize different types of units in your armies.
Battles can be frantic, but units will make good choices on their own.
One of the side effects of having so many seemingly powerful units in Battle Realms is that their roles aren't always obvious. Every unit can fight hand-to-hand; the Dragon Clan cannoneer is basically a sumo wrestler with a huge wrought-iron cannon and will bash you over the head with that thing if he's too close to shoot you with it. Units that can fight from long range will do so if you order them to hold their ground, even if their melee attack is stronger. When you have so many multipurpose units available, you might not have an intuitive sense of which of these to send into the fray. This is especially true of the Lotus Clan, whose gangly, undead forces don't have obvious roles; and the Wolf Clan, all of whose units are gigantic and fierce-looking.
You'll eventually realize that a mixed army, including specialized melee fighters, archer units, a couple of healers, and maybe a support unit or two, will lead to the best results. Clans also have fire-starting units that are best suited for razing enemy structures. All four clans look and sound different (down to their interfaces), and they have very different units, different structures, and different battle gear. The resource model is the same for all four, though, as is the underlying strategy. But even though you'll figure out eventually which unit of each Clan does what, you'll wish the game provided more information about exactly what's going on. Battle Realms hides a lot of statistical information from the player--it's evident that there are different types of unit armor, different types of damage, and more. Yet it's unclear either from the game or from the well-written manual exactly how powerful each unit is, what certain upgrades do, and so on. Real-time strategy games such as Starcraft and Age of Empires II do an excellent job of giving you at-a-glance information on how powerful each unit is and what upgrades it has, giving you the raw data that helps you determine a good strategy. Battle Realms, with its decidedly unusual units, would have benefited from this approach.
Battle Realms features some tutorial scenarios to give you a grasp of the game's distinct style and some of its unique features, a complete skirmish mode that lets you play against up to seven computer-controlled opponents, and a branching campaign. The campaign tells the story of Kenji, a mighty swordsman returned from a period of exile after apparently murdering his own father. Early on in this campaign, you make a choice that determines whether you are good or evil in your disposition, which decides whether you'll lead either the noble Dragon Clan or the wicked Serpent Clan thereafter. You'll later square off against the Lotus and the Wolf either way, but these other two clans are fully playable in skirmish and multiplayer battles.
The campaign takes a number of interesting twists.
Between campaign missions, you'll have options to advance into different provinces, effectively choosing different missions that lead to different plot branches. The campaign uses in-engine cutscenes that are zoomed in too close for comfort to the game's units, and this is perhaps the only thing about Battle Realms that doesn't look good. Otherwise, the story itself is fairly engaging, thanks to the sense that you are making meaningful decisions, as well as the generally good voice acting for Kenji and the other characters.
The campaign missions themselves can be a bit drawn out. You'll almost always have to build a town from scratch and will often have to clear all the enemy forces from the map to win. Finding the last scraps of resistance or that last peasant hut can be time-consuming. Still, the computer provides a good challenge both in the campaign and in skirmish battles. It will use shrewd tactics to do you in--you'll notice how it sometimes attacks from two directions, aims for weaknesses in your defense, goes straight for your peasants if it can, or even uses a fast unit to goad your defending forces into pursuit, leaving your town vulnerable. The computer makes a worthy opponent, and as a result, the later campaign missions can be tough, though you do have an option to tweak the difficulty.
You can also play against up to seven human players using the game's integrated GameSpy player-matching service, which seems to have some problems finding open games--but at least you can use its chat features to facilitate a match using direct-IP. Both in multiplayer and in the skirmish mode, there are plenty of maps of all sizes to choose from (no scenario editor is included, though), and there are also a few discreet modes of play available. Some of these are designed to curtail some of the lengthy endgame sequences found in the campaign missions. In one mode, all you have to do to win is raze the enemy keep. Another mode, called famine, eliminates the economic aspects of Battle Realms by giving you a large surplus of water and rice with which you'll need to assemble a formidable army. You can never earn more resources, so this becomes an exercise in careful spending and battle micromanagement and thus can make for a good diversion from the core gameplay.
Great effects and lush terrain make Battle Realms a pleasure to watch.
Micromanagement has become sort of a taboo in real-time strategy gaming, but you probably won't mind micromanaging the battles in Battle Realms because your units will basically do a good job on their own, and you'll enjoy scrutinizing the combat anyway. The units have tons of personality in their every move--for example, the Wolf Clan's ballistaman stands hunched over, with a giant crossbow on his back. He sticks out like a sore thumb from his peers, who shun technology. But when he cranks up that machine of his, flips a big bolt into the slide, and lets it loose, you'll see why even the austere Wolf Clan doesn't mind having him in its arsenal. Meanwhile, the Lotus Clan's infested ones are truly disgusting--these fat, maggot-ridden walking corpses attack by throwing their innards, complete with flesh-eating maggots, at their foes. The ranks of the Dragon Clan and its rival the Serpent Clan are filled with slightly less unusual, though no less impressive, units. Appropriate voices are used for all of them, though you'll wish they had more to say individually. The other sound effects in Battle Realms--most notably the clamor of open battle between forces--are excellent, and the understated Far Eastern-sounding music is perfectly suited to the action. Besides all the regular units, each faction has a number of what are called Zen masters, mighty hero units that can be summoned from each faction's keep for a price. These powerful warriors look especially great, with their gigantic weapons and remarkable combat moves and special abilities.
You'll like other details, like being able to see faint shadows of clouds drifting over the horizon, little animals scurrying around the fields, or blood staining the earth in the wake of combat. You'll even notice your units gaining line-of-sight and combat bonuses when fighting from higher ground, as well as the way birds flutter from trees if you run through wooded areas--a key strategic feature, actually, as this can alert the enemy to your approach. There are also conveniently placed boulders in some areas, which you can push to bulldoze enemy units or buildings for devastating results.
Look no further for one of the most original RTS games of the year.
There isn't too much variety in the environments of Battle Realms, but they all look great. The camera is fixed at an isometric perspective, though you can tilt it down at more of an angle. The gameplay runs very smoothly, even with lots of units onscreen, on midrange to high-end systems. You can adjust the detail levels and resolution as necessary, but with everything turned on, the performance was great on a 1GHz test machine. Some users have reported technical issues and crash bugs (the game's readme file addresses some of these), but we experienced no technical problems on two different test systems.
Ultimately, Battle Realms is a distinctive real-time strategy game that's a lot of fun to look at but also a lot of fun to play. However, despite its innovative resource model and its focus on battles between relatively small but highly skilled squads of warriors, the combat itself can feel too frenetic sometimes. Furthermore, as with many other real-time strategy games, you'll find that much of the strategy in Battle Realms lies not on the battlefield, but back at your town, where you constantly have to make judicious use of your peasants and other resources. This is conventional, yet some jaded real-time strategy players might call it patently unoriginal. That would be selling Battle Realms short, though, because other than the familiar balancing act between economy and military, as well as some of the core mechanics, it has refreshingly little in common with other games of its kind. Besides which, its great presentation, genuinely likable units, replayable campaign, and flexible skirmish and multiplayer modes are easily enough to recommend it. And Battle Realms will appeal not just to real-time strategy players in general, but also to those who simply like the martial arts subject matter or even those who wish the strategy genre could stand to have a little more flair--or a lot more flair in this case.