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Monday, February 19, 2024

Songs of Conquest is a great tactics game that stole my heart with musical interludes

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As someone who regularly pines for something like Heroes of Might & Magic 3 to come and sweep them off their feet, Songs of Conquest is a treat. From familiar foundations, where you control powerful individuals known as Wielders, marching across a colourful map with your army in tow and duking it out in turn-based battles, it grows into something just new enough to feel like progress without sacrificing some of that delicious nostalgia. 

I’m having a grand old time, then, but it’s the songs between missions that really make me giddy. This isn’t damning it with faint praise—Songs of Conquest is shaping up brilliantly—but it’s just so rare that I get to hear bards singing about what I’ve been getting up to that I can’t help but be charmed by their musical interludes. A strategy YouTube channel has conveniently gathered them together in one video that you can check out below. 

There’s not enough singing in games, period. Soundtracks rarely include vocals, which feels like almost as much of an oversight as the overuse of boring orchestral scores. But it’s in-fiction tunes that I really want, specifically, and for a long time my dream RPG has been one where your hero is accompanied by an enthusiastic bard, Dandelion-style. Sadly it’s just not something that’s done. Even the Witcher 3 didn’t have Dandelion following you around like the books and TV show. It’s a real shame. 

While Songs of Conquest does let you recruit minstrels for your growing army, they sadly don’t sing about your adventures while you’re cutting down giant frog-men and shifty mercenaries, but at least you know that when you’ve finished your mission you’ll be treated to a song in the nearest tavern. 

This is far from Songs of Conquest’s only novelty, and there are a couple of other things that make this more than just catnip for fans of HoMM. Sure, you’ll all be well taken care of here, racing to explore the map and build up your army before your opponents, but there are a couple of twists that stop it from feeling like it’s re-treading old ground. 

Combat maps are hexy battlefields elevated by the use of terrain, providing cover, obstacles and a height advantage (or disadvantage). Careful positioning allows you to create chokepoints where you can lay traps for enemies, and sometimes it’s more valuable to spend time getting your troops in the right place instead of leaping in for the kill. Simply placing an archer on the high ground gives you a nice damage boost. 

Battle cry

Regardless of how cautious and tactical you are, though, you’ll probably be taking some heavy losses. In battle, units are represented by single characters but may contain dozens of actual troops, each with a health pool, and one swipe from a puny little fey creature can still reduce a basic unit’s numbers in half. To recruit replacements, you’ll need to head back to your base, but you can also keep your fingers crossed for fortune by continuing to explore the map, which hides plenty of opportunities to get new troops.

Magic gives you a distinct edge, especially in fights against leaderless mobs, and proves to be an extremely clever system. Whether a spell plonks down mines, harasses the enemy with bugs or simply shoots a bolt of ice at them, each requires a specific essence or combination of them, which you gain from your own troops. Each unit has a type of essence associated with it, and at the end of their turn they contribute to your pool.

This naturally makes selecting the composition of your army even more meaningful, forcing you to consider different needs beyond which unit does the most damage. It’s worth taking a less-desirable unit with you if they fit into your spell rotation, as smart use of the magic system has a much bigger impact on your chances of victory. A wee row of mines can spell the difference between losing half of your forces and getting through a fight unscathed. 

It’s a stunning game, too, with lavish pixel art that looks sumptuous in close-ups and at a distance. It’s just so dang vibrant that I’m sad whenever I look out the window to see the muted colours of my neighbourhood. I just want to stay in my magical forest, regardless of how many things are trying to kill me. 

The two early access campaigns are also solid yarns, but bump up against the problem facing so many fantasy games: the stories have already been told, and they’re just not that exciting. A noble out for revenge, some former slaves trying to find safety in a world determined to kill them, I just find it really difficult to care. It relies on a lot of trope-filled fantasy archetypes, but within those constraints there’s some good writing, at least, and characters that I don’t hate. 

Songs of Conquest is expected to be in early access for a year, which is extremely surprising. Both campaigns are polished and full-featured, and while more campaigns would certainly be welcome, the quality, if not the quantity, is comparable to that of a game that’s already hit 1.0. What, specifically, is still needed before Lavapotion is happy to call it complete is unclear, as the studio wants to “figure out, together with the community, what features we should prioritize.” God, I’m tired of early access. 

Anyway! If you don’t want to wait for the community to spend a year giving feedback, you should just jump in now. Early access is always a bit of a gamble, but Lavapotion has already put together a cracking tactics game that you’ll quickly forget is still in development. 

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