Fantasy General 1.5?
Genre: Strategy, Tactics
Developer: Mosaic Mask Studio
Publisher: Mosaic Mask Studio
Release date: 18 Mar, 2021
Hex-based strategy games that draws inspiration from the old 5-star general series seems to be pretty popular these days. Slitherine’s Fantasy General 2 and Panzer Corps are of course among the more high profile ones, but there’s been a fare few others released over the last couple of years.
Shields of Loyalty is the latest of these 5-star general inspired games, and was just launched into early access. It seemingly drawing a fare bit of inspiration from the first Fantasy general, with mighty fantasy armies facing each other on the battlefield. And much like the games that inspired it this game is turnbased with the units moving on a hexagon grid. But Shields of Loyalty is not a clone of the games that came before it and has its own twists on the formula.
Story & Setting
The world of Mantaria is in peril. After the death of King Eldric II the dead has started to walk. Dark magic is spreading across the world and only the very heroes that King Eldric II had exiled now have the power to save the world. Though nobody knows where they are now.
The story in Shields of Loyalty is a typical fantasy story. There’s a big evil that threatens the world and you need to find the people who are able to fight against the forces of darkness. Despite being somewhat cliché the story is not terrible and there’s enough to it to give context to what you’re doing. There’s also some more story given before each mission that advances the plot further, though at the moment at least the pre-level text is pretty short.
Speaking of the world, Mantaria is a pretty depressing world to live in. It’s dark and grimey and has a feel to it that might feel at home in a Witcher novel. There’s not a whole lot of worldbuilding in the game so far, but what’s her makes it seem like a pretty depressing place, particularly now that the undead roams the lands.
Going with the dark and grimey world is an art style that’s equally dark. The art in Shields of Loyalty is quite detailed but the muted colours and dark shading gives everything a rather ominous look, further helped by designs both for monsters and humans that look quite intimidating.
Shields of Loyalty is a hex-based game with each unit on the field representing either a group of soldiers or heroic single character. These units are animated though to what extent depends on the unit. Archers will look like they’re swaying a bit back and forth when standing idle, while gryphons will flap their wings and most other units fall somewhere in-between. Some attacks also cause an animation to play, although it does not look as good as the units themselves. For an example when a ranged unit attacks you’ll see a bunch of arrows fly from the center of the hex they’re standing on towards the center of the enemy hex, where the number of arrows is based on how many soldiers are left alive in the unit. Non-ranged attacks don’t get this kind of animation treatment though.
The design of the units feel inspired. On the human side they look mostly realistic though slightly exaggerated, like the heavy infantry has slightly heavier armour and a bigger mace than what would be realistic, while many of the monsters look downright unpleasant. It’s a good look that suits the setting well.
Going with the dark art style is also music that feels well suited for a dark fantasy world. Dark is a word that can be used to describe a lot of parts of this game, and the same also goes for the music. The tone of it gives the feeling that not everything is right in the world. Not matching the tone though are the sound effects that can be too loud and distinct. They’re not bad sound effects on their own but they do stand out too much.
If you’ve played the original Fantasy General, the recent sequel or something like Panzer Corps you’ll know what you’re getting into with Shields of Loyalty, the games share a lot of mechanics and ideas. But Shields of Loyalty still does something differently enough that it never feels like it’s a clone, it’s just drawing inspiration from the games that came before it.
Shields of Loyalty is a turnbased tactics game where you have a persistent army that you bring with you from battle to battle. Units in the army gain experience and grow in power over time if they survive, but if they die they stay dead. On every level you’re going up against increasingly difficult foes, as it should be.
Combat is as simple as moving into range with a unit and then clicking on the enemy. Melee units can only attack enemies next to them, ranged units can attack enemies that are two hexagons away and artillery more than that. But positioning is really important. Terrain does of course provide bonuses and drawbacks depending on the unit, but what’s more important than terrain are any surrounding units. Many units have abilities that triggers when a neighboring unit is either attacking or getting attacked. Heavy cavalry for an example will take some hits from the enemy if a unit next to them is under attack, while archers will provide supporting fire both when attacking and when defending. While this is not necessarily a system unique to Shields of Loyalty, it’s something that’s done to a greater extent than in most other games, and it can at times almost get absurd. Your heavy cavalry attacks and two friendly archers respond with supporting fire, as well as a gryphon that swoops in and joins the fray, and the enemy in turn has a troll throw rocks at the charging cavalry and another heavy cavalry unit gets in the way and takes some of the damage from the main target. Most of the time each side only gets 1-2 units acting as support though, but with proper positioning you can really hit an enemy hard, and on a similar token you can make sure that your own troops are able to deal with anyone trying to attack them.
Other than heroes there are 8 different unit categories, all of which can be upgraded twice. Between battles you can chose to research upgrades, at a cost, and after a few battles your upgrade will be ready and now you can, again at a cost, improve your existing units of that type, or buy new ones. The upgrades don’t fundamentally change how a unit works, they mostly just improve their stats, but the 8 unit types are quite different from each other to begin with and have different strengths and weaknesses. The enemy units also tend to fall under these categories although they’re allowed to be a bit more out there. You’re after all playing a human army and fight an army of undead, daemons and other nasties. But even so, a heavy cavalry unit is still going to function more or less the same no matter who controls it.
Scattered around the maps are different points of interest that usually contain money that can be used for research and getting new units, but they can also contain magical weapons, new units or even surprise enemy encounters. Taking them is important, but you need to be a bit careful when approaching them because of the risk of there being something evil lurking in there.
While the games mechanics are quite good, any strategy game that has permadeath run the risk of deathspirals happening, and that seems especially likely in Shields of Loyalty. You don’t get a whole lot of resources, and what you get needs to be spent on research as well as new units, so a few losses can end up being really costly. There’s nothing that really stops this from then spiraling out of control, where you keep losing more and more units because the units that you have are weak, making the game unwinnable. To avoid this you really need to be careful with your units and if you do poorly in a mission restarting it might be a better option that trying to roll with the punches.
State of Early Access
Shields of Loyalty is in early early access, and that’s noticeable in several ways. First of all when starting a new campaign it looks like you’re supposed to have the option to play as several different heroes with their own unique starting armies, similar to the original Fantasy General. There are also features that have not been implemented yet and the game will at times tell you that, like when stepping on certain terrain features. The main campaign is also not complete at the time of writing.
On top of that there’s the usual suspects of bugs and poor balance. Work is still being done on the game so the levels don’t necessarily have great balance yet, but the developers seem to be good at listening to feedback regarding what works and does not.
Despite being so early in its early access all the basics are in place and Shields of Loyalty is a fun game to play. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done on it before it’s ready for full release, but the potential is clearly there for this to become a top notch game and the developers have been good at listening to feedback and fixing the more serious bugs that have shown up. Even if I can’t recommend buying the game in its current early access state unless you want to support the developers but it’s defiantly one that people who enjoy turnbased strategy games should keep an eye on.