Songs of Conquest is great. Sometimes you know the moment you play something that it's a belter. You can feel that sense of quality oozing through as soon as you load it up. It's in the music, the look, the feel - I love a game that plays with real zip and this does. I smile returning to it. I want to tell people about it. Songs of Conquest has me.
Caveat: I am exactly the game's target audience. A colleague summed it up best when he wandered over to watch me playing and asked if this was Age of Wonders. No, I replied. Was it Heroes of Might and Magic then, he asked. No, I replied. But those two comparisons nail exactly what Songs of Conquest is, and I love them both.
Songs of Conquest is a game about steering a fantasy hero around a map while building their army, then fighting in grid-based, turn-based battles. On the map, you find treasures and buildings to interact with for troops or buffs.
You can also grow troops yourself in towns you build, which aren't on a separate screen as in Heroes of Might and Magic (and I think Age of Wonders? My memory deserts me), but laid out on the map itself. And to do it all, you'll need resources either collected from around the map or earned, turn-by-turn, by buildings of your own.
It's all very familiar, which is part of the game's charm. You know exactly how to play it even if you don't understand the game's specific nuances yet. And the thrill of wandering around a map, scooping up treasure like a frenzied child at Christmas, is giddying. There's barely a turn that goes by without the game rewarding you, at least to begin with, and it feels wonderful.
And it looks wonderful. The comparison that keeps coming to mind is Octopath Traveler. Songs of Conquest plays around with that same 'pixelated 2D but also 3D' look, so it surprises you with a feeling of depth when you expect none. It flattens for the turn-based battles but they still look lovely. I'll never stop marvelling at how, in the right hands, so few pixels can evoke such strong characters and atmosphere. I'm beginning to realise I'm a sucker for pixel art, and this is exactly that.
For a while, then, Songs of Conquest is a giddy rush of progress and few things stand in your path. But you really begin to get a sense of the game when enemy Wielders appear and a challenge sets in.
Wielders are like you: magical-capable heroes who lead armies. So in effect, you're sort of coming up against another player, only they're controlled by the computer. And before too long, they inhabit and walk around a map as you do, doing the things you do: taking settlements or reclaiming them, looting treasures, etc. And they're aggressive: they won't hesitate to come for you, and if they beat you, it's game over, re-load. I have died to them a lot.
Beating them requires looking a bit more closely at what's going on. Do you have the most powerful troops available? Almost all have an upgraded version but accessing them means having the right buildings, which usually have prerequisites of their own. And as settlements have size limitations, you'll actually have to think and plan what to build.
You'll also begin to leak troops as you explore, losing them to trashier battles for treasures and things like that, and they can be expensive to replace. Be careless with them and you'll struggle. Being not-careless means understanding how to win fights without taking hits, which is possible but hard. It means considering move distances, height advantages, special abilities, temporary buffs, and wielding magic.
Magic I'm still wrapping my head around. For a while, it seemed superfluous, and then an enemy Wielder wiped the floor with me using chain lightning and fire balls, and I was like, "Oh." But there are schools of magic and not every Wielder has access to the same ones.
The twist comes from you building your magic resource turn by turn, and earning it from certain troops. Some might give you two pips of Chaos magic each turn, whereas others might give you one pip of Order magic. The more you build, the more spells unlock - I think they're all accessible, theoretically, from the get go - so there's a 'do I wait or spend it now?' question constantly in your mind. It's interesting and I don't know how to get the most out of it yet. I suppose that's my next challenge in the game.
So that's where I am with Songs of Conquest: incredibly impressed after several hours but not in a position to fully understand how deep the formula goes yet. I have gripes: enemy Wielders can be too aggressive and not let you catch your breath, which leads to a boring situation where you're scrambling to get back on your feet, going round and round, slowly building your army back up. Then again, this also breathes a welcome challenge into the mix and makes it more exciting to play and fulfilling to overcome, so I'm torn.
It's also important to note that Songs of Conquest isn't the finished article yet: it's only just launched in early access so these kinds of things will be tweaked and tuned. I don't know how much there is, ultimately, to play, either. There's one other campaign you can play besides the fairly straightlaced human one (which does have a nice bit where you realise the Faey enemies you've been fighting aren't your enemy and so team up), which is from the perspective of persecuted frog people, I think, and it seems interesting.
But for now, suffice to say: I'm sold. Songs of Conquest reminds me of the best of times and makes them its own.