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Etherlords 2 Review

publisher: Strategy First
developer: Nival Interactive
genre: Strategy

PIII-800, 128MB RAM, 16MB Video Card, 2GB HD
ESRB rating: T

release date: Sep 30, 03
» All About Etherlords 2 on ActionTrip

Two years ago, (although it seems longer for some reason) FishTank Interactive released a surprisingly addictive and visually pleasing title called Etherlords. The game was a mix of Heroes of Might and Magic resource gathering, as you trooped around the map, and Magic: The Gathering-style combat where damage was done to foes through spells that were randomly 'drawn' during the battle. Whew! That sounds like an unlikely mix but it proved to be a lot of fun. (Like some "cocktails" I tried in my time - 2Lions) Since FishTank Interactive is no more (they're now called JoWood - 2Lions), Strategy First and Nival Interactive have risen to the challenge and given us EtherLords II. While the game still has the same look of the original, some things have changed enough to warrant calling Etherlords II a sequel rather than an add-on to the original game.

When you fire up Etherlords II, you have the opportunity to take a short tutorial that covers movement around the map and combat. I decided it would be a good idea to run through the tutorial since it has been two years and a great number of games since I was in the Etherlords universe. The first change that I noticed was that, while the map looked reminiscent of the original, the environments appeared to be slightly more colorful and detailed. The environment is animated so volcanoes have rivers of glowing magma flowing from them, trees sway in the breeze, and from time to time, a bird of prey will pass over your head. This time around, however, you have a much closer view of your hero (and the surrounding areas) as he or she travels around the map. This is good and bad. It is good because it fits with the focus of the rest of the game: You do not have multiple heroes to control as you did in Etherlords. Rather you focus on your one hero and their trusty steed that you guide through the story as it unfolds before you. Since you are only dealing with one hero, the game keeps you zoomed in on this lone warrior. It is bad because while you have the ability to zoom out a bit (using the mouse wheel), doing so will move the camera straight above your hero, not really zooming out too much at all, and it does not show enough of the surrounding area. (Is everyone "borrowing" tricks from Warcraft III nowadays!? That's the same way you zoom in and out in Vivendi's LotR: War of the Ring, too! - 2Lions)

In order to check out unexplored sections of the map that are still shrouded in darkness, you simply need to point and click to amble over on your mount. Since movement has changed in Etherlords II, this is not really much of an issue, just mildly annoying. In the previous game, each of your heroes had a pool of movement points that could be expended each round. After you were out of points, your turn was effectively over unless an enemy hero decided to jump you. Movement points have gone the way of the Dodo. Now there is a Day counter in the bottom right hand side of the screen that increases automatically as you wander around. This way you can concentrate on getting though the campaign, and if you want to try a level again later to try to beat in fewer days than the fist time through, you may. People who are not concerned with the amount of time it took to complete a level need not bother with it.

As you move around you encounter allies and enemies that will talk to you and move the plot forward. The voice talent for these encounters is delivered in a variety of accents, Scottish, Irish, and something that is eastern European that my ignorant American ears were unable to pin down. (Curse your ignorant ears! - 2Lions) Regardless, the voice acting is done well enough even if some of the dialog is a bit silly. Overall, it gets the job done and does not detract from the game.

If the dialog is with an enemy, combat almost certainly follows the conversation. You are presented with an information screen before you go into combat that details what type of creature you are going to fight, what level they are, and how much life they have. You may then decide to call off the battle and go another route, or forge ahead and engage the enemy in combat. In combat, you do not go hand to hand with your adversary; instead, you have a book of sixteen spells that you take into battle with you and cast using Ether points. From the sixteen spells in your book, six are dealt at random to your hand at the beginning of combat and another spell is added at the start of each round. Enchantment spells can be cast that can benefit you and your creatures, or work against your enemy. You must also summon creatures that are needed to deal damage to the other hero. Some spells are defensive as they can buff or heal your troops, take down enemy enchantments or add more life to your hero. Offensive spells include direct damage spells like fireballs or lighting strikes that can be directed at the hero or his troops or enchantments that impair abilities of enemy combatants or affect the battlefield (such as forcing flying creatures to land, so they can be attacked by ground troops). (I'm getting a spell overload here, Mo! Slow down, man! - 2Lions) You will typically start with a single Ether channel (unless you have an artifact or some enchantment to give you a head start on your opponent). Each round you gain another Ether channel, which is a good thing because the stronger summoning spells, and enchantments cost more. Also, as each round starts, your Ether pool is refilled dependant on how many channels you have. Ether not used at the end of the round does not carry over, so it is important to plan your strategy carefully. (For one, don't sniff it! - 2Lions) Use your summoned creatures to attack the hero directly or defend against his/her creatures that are sent to attack you. After either you or the enemy hero's life reaches zero, the combat is over and you have the chance to gain new spells to use in subsequent combat encounters. (Well, not if you're dead. - 2Lions) After each combat, you are awarded experience points based on the level of the opponent you just defeated. After enough experience is gained, your hero will increase in hit points and you get to choose from rewards that add to your hero's versatility.

The arena you travel though has resource caches scattered about that you can use to purchase new spells. As you move about you will find areas blocked by enemies that must be defeated before you can pass. You can right click on the enemy to see its hit points and level before you engage it, but that is only part of the equation. Each creature has its own unique spell library that requires you to adapt your fighting style. In this way, the game is a bit like a puzzle. (So was the original as I recall - good stuff. - 2Lions) It is common to have to rebuild your spell book before each combat. Generally, I find myself entering combat with a stock spell book hoping to be able to hit my opponent hard and fast. If I fail, the handy auto-save before combat reloads and I rebuild my spell book based on the spells the enemy used to defeat me. Sometimes an enemy is just too difficult to defeat until you get to another part of the map where you can either buy a spell key to defeating a previously invincible enemy or you take control of shrine that bestows combat bonuses.

Some people may not like the puzzle-like aspect of game, but I did not think it detracted from game play too much, though sometimes I did get discouraged after trying to defeat an especially hard creature blocking my way and no combination of spells seemed to help. Usually taking a break from the problem (and the game) for a short while helped me to approach the problem from a new angle when I loaded it back up later. (It's like having that special kind of performance anxiety. Rest a bit, take a deep breath and try again! - 2Lions) Usually the solution lay in analyzing the attack style of the enemy and then tailoring my spell book to exploit their weakness (of course). (It's not that easy with women though. - 2Lions) While it sounds easy, sometimes you must get the necessary spells from another creature or part of the map that is not yet open to you.

While much of the original graphics and style remain the same from the first game, as your hero gains levels, his look changes with him/her. As my Chaot Warrior progressed through the game gaining levels, his look became grander with a huge cloak, larger armor and a belt of skulls. Sound effects and music are well done as is the extra environmental samples that play during combat and as you travel around the map.

The only irritation I had with the game was during combat you only can choose between four different camera angles. I was using a unit that could cast lightening bolts and found several times I struck my own hero by accident when I was trying to target the enemy hero. In addition, when you have a large number of units that are going to block incoming creatures, there is no way to identify which creature is blocking which. Sometime I had to send everyone back to square one and then just assign them from left to right to ensure I was not missing any attackers.

Strategy First and Nival Interactive deserve credit for putting out a great looking game that is engaging, requires some thought to defeat some of the opponents and has multiplayer support to boot. (And remember, kids; if you're having performance anxiety suck on some crushed dried deer nuts! It will make the fear go away! - 2Lions)


8.0   Very Good

Nice animation, sound and visuals, unique and engaging game play, races are different and have distinct play styles;

Graphics are limited to 1024 x 768, sometimes hard to keep track of blocking creatures in large battles, hard to see around a large map because of close viewing angle on hero.



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