When it comes to real-time strategy games, players are accustomed to building their bases, collecting their resources and raising an army to destroy incoming threats. In many ways, most titles in the genre involve these elements, but it's the way that it's handled that makes the game stand out from others. But what if you manipulate some of these standards by removing some of these processes, turning your interaction into more of an advisory role than a guiding hand with direct involvement? That's the concept behind Majesty 2, the long awaited sequel to 2000's unique RTS. While there are some elements that expand the gameplay, the title is held back by issues, like redundant features and a difficulty curve that can becomes crushing for no apparent reason.
Set in a land called Ardania, Majesty 2 tells the tale of a line of kings who united the land and cleansed it of all evil. In fact, the kings did their job so well that the last king, Leonard, was left without a foe to prove himself against, a rival to conquer or a threat to his prosperity. Hoping to prove worthy of the crown, Leonard and his court magicians summoned the Demonlord from Hell, who was much more dangerous than the ignorant people knew. Overwhelming the mages, the demon slew Leonard and the other lords of the land that dared to enter its domain. Even worse, it ushered back all of the monsters and creatures that had been removed from the kingdom. As an advisor informs you, you are the lone descendant of the royal bloodline, meaning that the safety and security of the realm lands on your shoulders. Your task is to liberate the world from this infernal presence and its minions, restoring the rule of your family.
To accomplish this task across the sixteen single player missions, you'll need to rely on heroes to do your dirty work, as you're too valuable to be lost on the field of battle. Heroes are recruited by guilds that correspond to their particular skills, such as Mage's Towers or Rogue's Dens. By improving the guilds, your heroes expand their personal skills, making them more formidable in battle. Additionally, you earn magic that will allow you to directly interact with the world, like healing your characters or casting powerful spells to smite enemies – provided you spend the cash to cast them. Cash drives everything within Majesty 2, from the building construction to your magic system to equipping your soldiers to resurrecting them when they fall in battle. This last point is vital, because unlike the first game, Majesty 2 now allows you to resurrect your characters for a price based on their level; the higher the level, the more you spend. While it does impose a bit of constraint on you as you try to juggle your economy between what you want to build and what you need for battle, at least you won't have to fend off powerful enemies with weaker characters.
As time goes on, you'll also discover that the guilds themselves can be a point of contention. For example, Elves and Dwarves don't particularly like each other, so you'll need to choose which faction you'll want to help you on a certain mission and accept that you won't receive their opposing units or structures during a mission. However, once you accomplish your mission objective and are victorious, you're able to promote one of your heroes into a lord, carrying them from one mission to the next to give you a better chance to defeat your enemies. As missions go on, you'll realize just how vital this is, as you'll need the stronger characters to fend off the stronger enemies within the game.
Any heroes you recruit will act on their own if left to their own devices, looking for glory (and hidden treasure) in your lands. However, in Majesty 2 you can now group like-minded heroes into parties to help them accomplish their desire for fame and glory by using their abilities to tag team enemies. You can further influence characters by using flags, the equivalent of placing bounties for your heroes to track down and fulfill. Majesty 2 provides for four separate kinds of flags: attacking an enemy or structure, defending a unit or structure, exploring a location or warning characters away from a specific area. Once you place a flag, you then have place a cash value from your treasury to ensure that your heroes follow your wishes. Any flag that you place with a bounty and then delete does not allow you to recoup your money; that cash is lost forever, so you'll want to make sure that you want to place a flag in a particular location before you attach any dough to it.
There's an obvious correlation between the distance from your kingdom and the amount of coin you need: the farther away, the more you need to pay to a hero (or heroes) to do your bidding. The same can be said for lower level heroes, who're just looking for adventure, and experienced characters that require something worth their abilities to invest their time in. Of course, just because you're spending a large amount of cash on flags doesn't mean that you won't ever see the money again; your heroes, after accomplishing their tasks, will seek to lighten their now stuffed pockets by purchasing goods to help them survive their adventures. These goods are items that you provide in markets, blacksmith shops and other mercantile businesses, allowing you to earn cash back in the form of taxes on these establishments.
Clearly, striking the balance between exploring and building is vital, because you don't want to overextend yourself and paralyze your economy, preventing you from building defensive structures or recruiting other characters. However, there are also some elements within the flag system that don't work particularly well. For one thing, the radius around flags can tend to make your heroes rather myopic. For example, if you set down an explore flag that happens to be surrounded by treasure chests, your hero may run right up to the flag and leave the chests alone, forcing you to place down additional flags to make them collect all of the loot. Similarly, placing an attack flag on a monster lair will sometimes result in heroes refusing to engage its defenders in favor of the structure itself, leaving them completely open to being murdered by the AI. Another issue is that the warning flag feels completely useless; without a bounty attached to a specific location, heroes seem to learn that a particular monster or lair is not a place they want to go without you attaching a large "Keep Out" sign. This is something that's never covered within the instruction manual or in the in-game tutorials, so you'll frequently find yourself eschewing the use of this flag completely. Besides, at some point, you will want to order the experienced characters to destroy all the threats around you.
Speaking of threats, you'll find your kingdoms constantly assaulted by various monsters from all sides. From wolves and bears to vampires and elemental demons, you'll find that these creatures will spawn in varying numbers from various lairs, crypts and portals, threatening your heroes. However, while you can destroy these enemies, reducing their numbers dramatically in a particular mission, they aren't necessarily the largest threat to the safety and security of your lands. That actually comes in the form of graveyards (where you can resurrect your heroes) and sewers, which randomly spawn within the confines of your territory and constantly spew a stream of vermin and undead into your city streets, causing as much damage as possible. It would be fine if you could destroy the sources of these infestations, but for some unexplained reason these elements are indestructible, forcing you to constantly be on alert because your town could suddenly be overrun. Even worse, these attacks can sometimes weaken or eliminate your defensive structures, allowing more dangerous threats from outside your walls to decimate your troops and population before you have a chance to respond.
That actually raises the largest problem within Majesty 2, which is that the difficulty level ramps up suddenly and rather severely, frequently in the middle of a mission. In fact, once you get to about the halfway point of the game, the even, frequently measured pace of the game that allows you to develop your heroes to face the dangers of the mission is instantly replaced by a race to build up your forces as quickly (and in the correct order) as possible. The Dragon level is a prime example of this, where you have a short amount of time before the beast flies in and destroys segments of your defense (or your town if you haven't protected yourself). Turtling isn't a safe plan either, as the rats and skeletons I mentioned previously, coupled with flying wyverns in large numbers, can crush your troops if you're not properly prepared. This has nothing to do with the actual difficulty level of the mission itself; instead, the AI all of a sudden acts and reacts faster than ever before, which is much more challenging considering that you only have some indirect control over your environment and your people.
If you're tired of playing the campaign, or are looking for a different challenge, you can leap online and play against other would-be rulers in multiplayer. Up to four players can engage each other across eight maps. At least, in theory -- I tried to play against multiple opponents, but the multiplayer games over the Internet weren't particularly stable. Many of the games that I attempted to join that weren't password protected would fail to join a match or disconnect during the setup process both at home and in the office. This was rather surprising, considering that Majesty has its multiplayer powered by GameSpy, and has been released in Europe for months. It also appears that there aren't many players around online – perhaps because they're busy playing the single player campaign.
At least Majesty 2 is visually pleasing. The building models are quite well done and nicely detailed, which stands out whether you're zoomed in as close as possible or taking a more top down view of the action. The destruction of buildings looks particularly nice as well, as you can see segments of walls or shingles fall from the structure as it takes additional damage, eventually catching on fire and crumbling into pieces as its razed to the ground. Character models, from the heroes that you influence to the monsters that you face, are nicely done as well, although the animations for characters aren't particularly varied. Instead, much of the game relies on "mood indicators," somewhat humorous icons that indicate whether a character is angry and attacking or fearing an enemy and running for their lives, for instance. The soundtrack feels rather appropriate for a fantasy game, although the voice acting is tolerable at best.
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