Endless Legend [Official Site] is a strategy game, but it’s also a role-playing game. It’s set in a world of science-fiction, but there’s also a sizeable chunk of fantasy (science-fantasy? fantasy-fiction?). It’s a 4X, but not if you play as The Cultists, who can’t expand and have only one, sprawling megalopolis, and while extermination plays a big part for all factions, it plays the biggest for the Necrophage: they know no peace, and broker no alliances and treaties with their foes (AKA: everyone). In true Amplitude style, Endless Legend is a coalescence of genres and styles – which come brilliantly together, really, I won’t make you read to the end to tell you that this is one of the best 4X games I’ve ever played, and certainly among the three most beautiful.
The overarching structure of Endless Legend is, essentially, that of a 4X, but – and I’ll have to use but several times in this review – with several modifications to the genre. The first and foremost aspect that’s different from what we’ve come to expect from regular, Civilization-like 4X’s, is the faction asymmetry: there are eight (or nine/ten depending on which DLCs you have), all with their unique gameplay style and emphasis. The above pictured Roving Clans are a nomadic merchant-faction: every market transaction is taxed by them, their cities are mobile scarabs that you can relocate at will, and while they can’t directly declare war they can hire privateers to wage combat against other factions under a supposedly neutral flag.
The Drakken, a race of drake-like creatures, are famous for their diplomatic skills and influence, making them better at assimilating minor factions and giving them the unique ability of enforcing truces, peaces and alliances regardless of what the other player wants. Each of the factions has a unique playstyle, though a couple – such as the Broken Lords and Wild Walkers – are less ambitious in this aspect than others – like the Cultists and Roving Clans. While the regular fare of managing your resources, called FIDS (Food, Industry, Dust and Science, some of which certain factions don’t use), is present, the faction you choose determines what you’re best at and will steer you into more likely victory conditions: the Roving Clans can easily exert monopoly over trade routes and guarantee an income of Dust that puts them in a good place for an Economic Victory, while Vaulters are naturally inclined toward Science Victories. Compared to the subtle differences between nations in Civilization V, the asymmetric factions of Endless Legend play completely different, making playing with each of them seem like a distinct game.
Another novel aspect are the faction quests: questlines that will last through an entire game and are also a means of victory, each of them varying according to the played faction and with unique storylines and events. These come alongside the regular quests in the game, which you’ll discover as time passes and by interacting with ruins and minor factions: they’re random and usually a variation of either giving certain resources to a target, slaying an enemy group or doing other relatively simple objectives. While they’ll generally reward you with a certain amount of resources, Dust or even a unique artifact, if you perform a quest for a minor faction you’ll pacify them.
Pacifying a minor faction will make their population work for your city in their region, as well as enable their assimilation by your empire. While each faction has four types of unit to create, assimilating a minor faction will allow you to customize and create their units as well, while also granting you an empire-wide bonus specific to each minor faction. This allows you to field units your enemies might not be prepared to deal with, unique and different from your regular enemies. If you’re playing as a Cultist of the Eternal End you can also convert your enemy’s pacified minor factions to serve you instead, your only means of expansion and power projection aside from your capital.
The role-playing aspect of the game comes into play, aside from the quests and your faction’s storyline, with the hero and unit customization. Heroes are special units that can be used as governors or generals (as well as spies, if you have the Forgotten DLC) and which have varying abilities and skill trees depending on who they are and from which faction they’re from: an Ardent Mage hero makes a competent administrator for science-based cities, especially if you gear and skill her for this purpose, while a supporting Drakken general can heal and maintain a unit in battle for much longer.
As well as the regular sprawling, non-linear research tree, other 4X tropes such as resource management, population allocation, diplomacy and army composition and the aforementioned unique aspects of Endless Legend, is the seasonal system. Auriga is a world on the brink of its demise, and as a prelude to that are the increasingly long winters, a period during which vision and movement is reduced, city production is slowed down and things are, in general, harsher. You have a rough prediction of when winter will come – which can be improved with technology and buildings – and knowing how to position your armies before winter comes can be vital, as once it begins you might leave them or your cities exposed to foreign threat.
Combat is also slightly different from what you usually see in a 4X, with a tactical, Age of Wonders-like grid-based system. You can manually direct your troops in this phase, which takes into consideration terrain elevation and obstacles, and use the scenario and your units to improve your odds. If you’d rather not, you can automatically resolve – though your losses will often be larger than if you personally direct your troops.
That’s not to say that with all these added and altered features Endless Legend is faultless. As the game drags along not only do you have to manage your increasing empire, you’ll have to micro-manage the role-playing aspects – equipping your units and leveling your heroes -, manually direct your troops in the grid-based combat and perform an increasing amount of actions that doesn’t cope well with multiplayer games in particular. The AI is also at best questionable, as with a bit of experience under your belt even the harder difficulties aren’t that hard to trump.
Binding all of this excellent and polished gameplay is a lush and vibrant artstyle and fitting soundtrack. Endless Legend is a colorful game, with sinuous rivers, snowy mountaintops and sprawling cities dotting Auriga’s beautiful landscape. Like its others aspects, a lot of thought and work was put into fleshing out each faction and minor faction with varying backgrounds, units and buildings. With its unique faux-fantasy setting and asymmetrical factions, Endless Legend is a 4X game where the developers decided to push the boundaries as much as they could without changing genres, in the process imprinting their identity into it.