I am not a PC gamer, never have been, never likely to be. For whatever reason the PC gaming scene has just never clicked with me although it’s not been for want of trying. Among the PC games I’ve owned down the years is Sid Meier’s Civilization II, which despite commonly being regarded as one of the best games ever made simply didn’t do it for me. That’s about as good an indicator as any that PC gaming isn’t my thing but every rule has to have an exception, and in my case it’s Disciples.
Disciples – Sacred Lands is a turn-based strategy RPG released in 1999 that ticks a lot of the same boxes as Fire Emblem. Set in a world of high fantasy called Nevendaar the game revolves around the struggles of four unique races, The Empire (humans), the Mountain Clans (dwarves, also giants), the Legions of the Damned (demons) and the Undead Hordes (pixies, okay not really but you should be able to guess). You can choose to play as any race you wish and take on any of the given one-off quests or challenge their respective continuing saga each of which comprises four maps.
Success depends on getting the best use out of various parties of units and controlling the important resources. You can hire a party from any town under your control and send them out to explore the lands fight battles and gather items on the way to your ultimate goal of completing the primary objective which ususally involves defeating conquering a certain town or raiding a particular ruin. Your operations are controlled from your capital city from which you can research spells and build structures to enable your units to level up. Each race has their strengths and weaknesses with no clear cut advantages given to any side and the units and spells available to each are largely comparable.
Every party you control must have a leader of which there are five types. The Warrior Leader such as the Empire’s Pegasus Knight is the one you’re likely to spend the most time with as this is the most effective fighting unit and as such are blessed with high attack power. Secondly we have Scout Leaders which have high movement points and are best use to scout the lands (areas of the map you haven’t seen yet will appear black under the fog of war) but are also useful in a pinch. Mage Leaders aren’t as tough but can make use of staffs and scrolls (skills you can teach other leaders when they level up. Next there are Rod Planters who can use magical rods to transform the terrain (necessary for controlling resources) but aren’t usually very offensively minded and at level 1 can only travel with one other unit. Finally there are the expendable thieves which cannot fight with other units or level up but can steal items from shops and enemy parties, infiltrate spies into the enemy army and provoke enemy leaders into duels amongst other things.
Joining your Leaders you will need a number of other units and they fall into four categories for each race. Not only is the type of unit you choose important but so is their deployment as you have a front and back row. It’s no good placing attacking units that can only strike adjacent foes in the back row where they can’t reach an opponent to land a blow. Likewise any units capable of striking enemies from range do well in the back row where their tougher front line team mates can protect them. Each race has its attack-minded fighter units. Joining them are mage units which are generally able to strike all opposing units in battle. Then there are range attack units who can aim at any one opponent and often make good use of high initiative to get the first strike in which can be good for scoring a quick kill. Finally there are support units which boast particularly useful stats or abilities.
You must learn to exploit the strengths of each race’s unique units to succeed whether that means making full use of the Empire’s healers, the Mountain Clans’ hobbit-like tenderfoots that can boost the attack power of allies or the Undead Hordes’ paralysing spooks. Combat itself generally consists of two opposing parties facing off and taking turns to hit each other until one team doesn’t get back up. There’s some strategy involved in choosing who to attack with whom but the outcome of most fights is entirely predictable if you weigh up of levels and stats. The real strategy and key to success is in preparing for battle and making good use of your various resources to ensure you have the edge before ever going into battle.
This means booting your own party’s stats with potions and spells or reducing your foe’s by the same means. One strong tactic is to monopolise available experience to train a single all-conquering super party made up of the most powerful units available to you. Most quests are restricted by level caps applying to both leaders and units and it will take an entire four-map saga to train up your main leader to the maximum level 8. There’s a huge amount of satisfaction in grinding your way to a powerful ideal. Disciples is one of those games you just don’t want to stop playing. The turn-based drip feed of progress is irresistible which can be a problem because quests tend to be long-winded affairs and by playing this game you risk losing hours of your life to continuous play.
Considering how old this game is, it’s remarkable how well the presentation stands up. Maps are packed with detail and evoke a fantastical realism to present fairly believable landscapes resplendent with trees, ruins and towns and the variety is quite impressive especially in the different types of terrain unique to each race. Only the slightly cartoonish battle animations look truly dated but the same can’t be said for the sound which is top quality. The innumerable sound effects and voice cues are full of character while the music hums menacingly hammering home a decidedly bleak and serious tone.
The vast amount of content on offer and the hugely addictive nature of the game will keep you occupied for a very long time even if finishing an epic saga does arrive with a sense of anti-climax. If you enjoy a spot of retro PC gaming and missed this give it a go. I don’t think I need to be a connoisseur of the platform to make a recommendation.
Presentation – 9
Gameplay – 9
Graphics – 9
Sound – 9
Longevity – 9
A hidden gem bursting with quality and addictive gameplay. Disciples might be old but the things it does well remain fundamentally entertaining.