Warlock: Master of the Arcane is little known developer Ino-Co Plus' new turn-based strategy game. You'd be forgiven for thinking that it looks a lot like Civilization V. It does. It plays a lot like it, too, from units gaining levels to stacking rules to hex grids and combat. But Warlock differentiates itself enough, and is priced low enough, to warrant a closer look.
The most obvious of which is its setting. While Civilization can take place through several epochs of time based on humanity's own history, Warlock is set in Ardania during a single age of magical spells and creations. Though its visuals and textures are not quite as detailed, it has a richer color palette suitable to its world.
Learning those aforementioned spells, which range in type and function, takes the place of traditional technology trees. One in five can be selected at a time on the points of a pentagonal tree; and the more powerful the magic learned, the longer it may take to cast it. A lesser fireball can be cast as soon as it is selected, but two turns may be required to call forth ghostly wolves unto the earth.
There are also quests to complete for gold, units and spells from the gods who assign them. These quests range from constructing a farm, for example, if your resource of food appears low to capturing neutral or enemy faction cities. They can be dismissed, but doing so can have disastrous consequences. Anger the gods too much and players may find themselves at war.
As Warlock is a budget title, however, setup options are notably limited – it's nowhere near as robust as War of Magic: Fallen Enchantress or other similar titles – but I could still customize various difficulty, world configuration and character settings. One rather unique feature is the ability to have multiple worlds per game, accessible via portals placed throughout the maps.
There are also several victory conditions, though none be configured and game does little to nothing to communicate they even exist. Players can win by conquering their enemies or by controlling holy sites throughout the map. A “technology” win involves researching and then casting a high-level spell. But the fourth condition may be the most interesting. By currying enough favor with a single god, its rivals may send a powerful avatar earthbound. If that player manages to defeat it, he or she will claim victory over all of Ardania.
For my first game, I decided to play as Anna the Benign. The selected character isn't a physical force on the map, but it does determine starting spells, passive perks and the affinity to a god or gods. In-game, several tutorial screens greeted me upon clicking various menus, but they're wholly unnecessary for those familiar with Civilization. Another difference with its cousin was immediately apparent, however, aside from control being mapped to the left-click button.
New buildings can only be constructed once per city growth level and are placed on the hexes themselves. It was a limitation I came to appreciate, as it forced me to be very aware of what I built and where. It would later become an even greater tactical decision as I was never in an overabundance of my three resources – gold, food and mana – and units and specific buildings both have upkeep requirements.
Aside from random factions and other player mages, monsters roam the lands. My first few forays into the wilderness brought me against mild creatures such as bats and packs of roving wolves, easily dispatched with my early ranger and warrior units, but deeper expeditions proved hazardous. A massive fire elemental to the south blocked my progress, exploding an entire unit to ash with a single fireball. An ogre den guarded the northern mountains. If I were bold enough to raze the den or any other, I could prevent the beasts from spawning as well as earning a reward of gold, but to do so would require an entire army. For now, I turned my attention to a nearby undead city rich with mana vaults.
While there are only three races to select from at the start of the game, captured enemy cities grant you access to their units and buildings. I was now able to construct skeletal warriors and archers and zombies. Cities to the north east provided me with swarms of rats and goblins to command.
Back at my growing capital city, I constructed a great galleon to explore uncharted, far-off lands and attack coastal units from the safety of the sea. I discovered, however, that the waters were also home to great dangers. My lone ship soon found itself too close to krakens, leviathans and whirlpools. It did not last long, but regardless of its death I was pleased to learn that there are treasures to find and beasts to slay not just on solid ground.
Despite my few losses, my empire was growing at a steady pace. But as a hungry ruler I wanted more. The rich lands of another mage, King Rrat XLII, awaited in the east. Tensions grew on the diplomacy screen as I amassed an army of goblin and human warriors and archers at his borders. War soon followed.
Assaulting enemy mages in their own territory is no small endeavor. They too can cast powerful spells, and several of my units were obliterated by massive fireballs. My forces were further slowed as his cities had high growth levels and thus high amounts of health. Standard warriors and archers could only chip away its walls. My mana soon ran dry from the protracted siege. But dozens of turns later and with the strength of my newly unlocked armored cavalry, the city fell and the gods rewarded me with gold.
I was skeptical of Warlock: Master of the Arcane at first, but it successfully elicited the “just one more turn” response I both love and hate about the turn-based genre. Its world is colorful and attractive, with danger and treasure around every mountain, stream and ocean. Destroying enemies with spears of ice and lightning is satisfying, and the game requires careful thought into when and where you cast your spells, construct your buildings and recruit your units. If you're looking to conquer more than just Earth or the reaches of space, the lands of Ardania may be a worthy home for your next empire.