So here we have our first strategy title (and I’m only going to do a few strategy games before moving onto a different genre/subject here: they’re complicated and writing the articles on them is a pain in the arse) – Celtic Legends. Despite the name this has nothing to do with Scottish football, nor does it have anything to do with the actual Celtic legends. In fact, this game is set in the completely mythical world of Celtika and, apart from the sounds of some bagpipes in the opening sequence (yes, yes, I know they’re not properly Celtic but they have associations), that’s all it really has to do with the peoples of ancient Britain. So, the name is a bit misleading but don’t let that put you off because what we have here is an interesting and somewhat neglected strategy title for the Amiga from the misty days of yore (1991).
Needless to say the actual plot isn’t all that interesting being some sub-Tolkien stuff about a mystical realm and ye powers of good and evil having a jolly good rukus; evil being lead by a wizard called Sogrom and good being lead by another wiz calling himself Eskell. The actual landscape the game takes place over is more worthy of note. The action all takes place over a number of islands in something called the Rochebrum archipelago. These islands are dotted with Cromlechs, a natural source of magical energy which look uncannily like stone circles only with a big magic star in the
middle. Thing is, these Cromlechs are places of worship for savages who regard them as sacred and the wizard-generals leading each side as profane and so will fight against either side to protect them. If either side controls a Cromlech it gets a boost to its magical powers (the savages don’t use magic, they think doing so is dirty) so they’re important tactical objectives in each battle. Oh, and the savages use the Cromlechs as “gateways” to the islands (which they presumably don’t regard as using magic – maybe they don’t realise it is magic and think all doors work like that, the stupid numpties) meaning if neither wizard’s troops control them then more of the scruffy buggers appear so that’s another incentive to capture them quickly.
So, that’s the background but the thing we’re most interested here is how it plays. Well, there are two different stages to gameplay: the big tactical map and the little tactical battles. Let’s have a look at these.
The big tactical map shows a mini-map of the current island; a bigger, scrolling map of the same; the armies of Sogrom, Eskell and the savages (incidentally, the savages can be switched off in the main menu making it a straight two-way fight but I think this damages the atmosphere of the game) and information about the armies and the magical power possessed by the two main sides. This phase of gameplay is essentially about moving armies around the map and occupying strategic areas. It also allows the player to split or join these armies, build new castles (more on these later) and zoom in to see any army at the smaller tactical level. Whilst the graphics used for the big tactical map phase aren’t brilliant they’re well-suited to function although I do think that the way the smaller map is laid out makes it seem much bigger than it appears in the scrolling map which has lead to a couple of occasions when I’ve misjudged the distance of an enemy army, but this is something you can get used to pretty quickly.
The smaller tactical level can be seen at any time but is usually used for when two armies meet. When this happens, the opposing forces go to battle using a turn-based system similar to that used by games like the Heroes of Might and Magic series. As well as hand-to-hand combat, magic-users can also cast spells to help, hinder or injure units on the battlefield. It’s worth mentioning the graphics on the small tactical maps – they’re rather chunky and cartoonish but full of character with the units gesticulating by waving their weapons around (with the exception of Sogrom’s sorcerers who don’t have any weapons and so wave their hands in the air, presumably like they just don’t care). Castles and Cromlech’s are of particular note since holding them provides bonuses. Both have magic stars allowing for the summoning of troops (and a handy escape-route for the wizard if he stands on the star itself and does his incantation) and holding a Cromlech gives 150 points of magic per turn whilst castles supply an extra 50 points of magic to their owner per turn and give the defender an advantage in battle since the attacker can’t use magic and the defender can summon extra troops whilst in battle. However, building castles uses up 2000 magic and they can only be built on plains. Oh, and the wee gargoyle above the entrance sticks his tongue out when someone passes below him which is a nice touch. The battlefields also have different designs based on the geographical terrain (eg swamps, mountains, plains) with some even having specific hazards such as the lightning in the mountains that can strike units dead mid-battle, and yes that is pretty f*cked-up but it does make the mountain-based battles quite tense. In addition, nearby terrain, castles of Cromlechs can be seen in the background of the battle screens. The presentation in these is really excellent, shows a lot of thought has gone into the game and provides plenty of atmosphere.
Now, Sogrom and Eskell have arrived on the islands without much muscle and they’re going to need more to both fight off each other and the savages. This is where summoning comes into play. Essentially, this is the same as troop-building in a modern Real Time Strategy title: as I mentioned earlier each side has a magic level which determines how many spells their wizards can cast in any one turn and summoning uses up magic so essentially magic takes the place of the resources in an RTS. The wizard-generals can summon creatures at any time provided the wizard’s army is somewhere where there’s a magic star (ie a Cromlech or a castle). Next the player zooms in on the army, then all the wizard has to do is move next to the star and cast the “incantation” spell and then choose which troop type to summon. There can only be eight troops in an army but the “split army” function on the big tactical map can be used to summoned troops to any army in a neighbouring square. This means that with a lot of magic, large armies can be summoned and deployed pretty quickly.
Whilst I’m on the subject of troops, both sides have their own specific forces. Eskell’s armies are made up of soldiers (lowly footsoldier types), lords (bigger blokes with more strength), magicians (like mini-Eskells), cyclopses (guess), angels, hydras and archangels. Up against this lot Sogrom has goblins, orques (who presumably can’t spell), trolls, skeletons (excellently, the manual says these are all of Eskell’s old apprentices he sent on suicide missions – what an exquisitely evile c*nt), sorcerers, dragons and demons. Oh, yes, and the savages have kobolds (who used to be human but went all wonky because of too much exposure to magic – just say no kids), wolfen (basically wolves on hind legs and a bit brighter), snakes and minos (ie minotaurs). I probably don’t need to tell you that the stronger creatures like Demons and Archangels take the most magic to summon whilst the weaker ones take less.
So, essentially each island-based campaign becomes a contest to secure castle and cromlechs (and also build in the case of castles), summon creatures and overwhelm the enemy. Once an island is completed the player moves to the next island and has to do it all again. Weirdly, Sogrom himself always commands the opposing army and the stage ends with his defeat and yet he’s back in the next level with a whole host of new ‘orribles to defeat. Must be a resilient lad but then the bad guys very often are: look at a lot of ’80s horror films.
So is it any good? Well, yes, it’s pretty good actually (we’ve finally got to the important bit). It all looks and sounds quite nice and the battles themselves are pretty good even if the large strategic map is a bit boring (this would be a pretty dull game if it were possible to turn the battles off). I think my only real complaint is that there’s a large random element to the troops attacking each other meaning that a very weak troop can land a very damaging blow on a stronger troop and that stronger troop can respond with a very weak blow. Whilst a small element of this is good in strategy games it feels a bit overdone here and can undermine the strategic aspects a bit. The combat can also be a bit slow but it’s possible to use a “speeded-up” mode so that’s not really a big problem here. I also found the AI to be a bit stupid at times (it seemed rather fond of throwing a single orc orque into battle against me for some reason) but then this was published in 1991 after all. This game is no Laser Squad but it’s definitely worth a shot if turn-based strategy is your thing.