Stronghold: Warlords Review
A new coat of not-so-fresh paint on an old formula
The Stronghold strategy game series isn't one many would have expected to keep going for as long as it has. It started out as a 2D castle management game that honed in on a unique medieval setting and offered some fun wall building and unit directing mechanics. But succeed it did, and the series reached even higher with the great Stronghold: Crusader in 2002. However, in the decades since then, despite numerous entries and switching from 2D to 3D, the franchise hasn't been able to recapture the magic of its first few entries. Now in 2021, and still with the same developer in FireFly Studios, Stronghold: Warlords hopes to entice newcomers and returning fans with a new East Asia setting and one or two new mechanics.
Like its predecessors, Stronghold: Warlords is a real-time strategy game where you take control of a castle keep and use your peasants and armies to emerge victorious. The key to success is still gold (used to purchase troops and certain buildings) and peasant happiness (unhappy peasants leave, which shuts down your production buildings and removes your military recruitment source). You cannot control peasants directly – you just place down buildings, and those peasants who don't have a job yet will head over to them. To increase your workforce, you construct houses. Keeping the peasants happy is done by controlling taxes and food rations, adding extra food types, or making fine clothes – you can make adjustments at any time, which brings immediate mood swings. You can also construct better homes, or festive / fear structures, which have their own drawbacks and benefits. Keeping happiness in the green is one of the primary tasks to balance at the outset of the game, but after a while it's not something you have to worry about often, apart from occasional large swings (for example if you run out of meat, which was keeping the populace happy enough to ignore your large taxes) .
As in any typical RTS, you can rotate the isometric 3D view to get a better angle at your lands, and put down structures where you see fit. You'll want to get woodcutters and farmers going early, so that these two critical resources are always in stock. The resources are gathered in real time and then the workers walk them over to the stockpile, which means there are delays to account for if you have materials coming in from distant gathering spots. In a pinch, you can buy and sell certain materials for gold. Wood is needed to construct most buildings, such as different types of farms (rice, meat, tea), military shops, and so on. You can place faith buildings that provide a bonus to other structures in their area.
Returning fans have now probably realized that very little has changed for this entry, when it comes to the gameplay mechanics. It's all quite simple and feels familiar to the game from 20 years ago. On the other hand, newcomers may need a few campaign missions to come to grips with some of the finer details and get a feel of balancing the peasant happiness – the included short tutorial mission only covers some of the basics.
Things are also still familiar when it comes to the military side. To create military units, you must have a pool of unemployed peasants which are then converted into army units. You can start off creating a simple melee and ranged unit, which require just gold. But for a stronger military, you'll want to setup crafting buildings like Fletcher shops and armories, where bows/crossbows and armor are crafted from raw materials. Creating armored units costs more gold but they offer much larger health pools and attack power. There are also some unique units, like heavy mace wielders that have a larger attack radius, or those that motivate units around them. There's even a flamethrower type unit that can potentially cause friendly damage. Still, there are only a handful of units and so most armies will look rather the same. There are multiple factions to play as, however all of their buildings and mechanics are exactly the same; the only difference being some unique military units that are available, such as the flamethrower units, mounted archers, and samurai.
Unlike peasants, you do control military units directly, as with any RTS. The combat mechanics are pretty rough in Warlords, as your units awkwardly mush together and try to get an angle on each other for melee attacks. Pathfinding can be quite poor, even on open plains, nevermind around complex castles. Placing units on top of castle walls is awkward, and rebuilding collapsed pathways causes even more confusion; it notably takes a while for units to realize when new paths become available or existing ones become blocked. Units often refuse to attack or move to an attacking position when they are in range. You can set their behavior to be aggressive/defensive/stand their ground, but the setting is often lost when dealing with multiple armies, or when reinforcements are added. The same issues occur with holding one of the two available formations. Total War, this is not.
The castle assaults – meant to be the exciting center piece of the combat – haven't evolved beyond the game's early 2000's sensibilities, like the rest of the gameplay. You can build walls and create towers, where archers gain a bigger range and defensive bonuses, but your fate lies in just how many units the enemy plans to throw at you. You can also place new structures on the walls, such as covers from incoming arrows, and rock-throwing emplacements, to show the enemy catapults that you can hurl objects too. The attackers have similar units, to cover them from arrows and allow them to climb walls. It's all a bit shallow and basic, and plays/feels the same as it did 20 years ago.
You'll get familiar with all of the mechanics on offer through the game's decently long 30 mission campaign, which is comprised of a series of disjoined missions from a few different perspectives. Although you will play as the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mongols and the Vietnamese nations, nothing changes between their gameplay. All but one of the campaigns are military-based, meaning you eventually have to build up an army and attack/defend yourself. On Normal difficulty, the campaign is relatively easy and it's just a matter of patience, gathering your army for one all-out assault on the enemy on the other side of the map. Where difficulty spikes come into play are in the missions where you're just dumped as a roaming army with no base and no way to reinforce, or in the Economic campaign.
The Economic campaign initially tasks you with producing a certain amount of resources within a time limit, which seems interesting and may require you to restart a few times to get the build order right. But it's not long before you are tasked with again defending/attacking, as well as annoyances such as fires, random diseases that kill your harvest, and reduce happiness. The difficulty can be quite sharp and not in line with the rest of the military-focused campaigns. At least you can still instantly rebuild castle walls at any time, as a sort of cheap trick when under assault (assuming you have stone). The campaign missions offer enough variety to remain entertaining, with unique scenarios like having to clear a destroyed castle from debris and rebuild, survive until reinforcements, and so on.
The campaigns also introduce players to Warlords, the titular new AI, however this headlining feature is quite underwhelming. Warlords are basically a simple version of City States from the Civilization series, where they can be taken over by either force or sending them more "diplomacy points" than anyone else. They often have just the main keep and barely any structures or walls – though you can spend more diplomacy points to upgrade them. Once they are allied to you, you get some minor passive buffs, and can request a little bit of resources. However, these Warlords are otherwise totally passive, and don’t even make any military units after their starting ones are eliminated. To earn diplomatic points, you just have to construct a diplomacy structure. In the campaign, the Warlord system makes very little difference, as your main opponent will only try to control one Warlord at a time, while the rest (two or three) are yours to claim.
Warlords also appear in multiplayer, where their dynamic becomes more important. Up to 4 human players can participate in a deathmatch mode, with up to 8 combatants on a map, though the other 4 have to be AI. Players can create teams or do a free-for-all. The multiplayer is lobby-based, and players can tweak a variety of settings, such as bonus starting materials and peace time at the start. A key to success is knowing the correct build order and rushing your military units out, and since all factions play functionally the same, it can be a bit dull once you've got your formula figured out. As mentioned though, Warlords are also found on the multiplayer maps, and controlling them allows you to basically have forward bases. Multiplayer battles play smoothly, without any lag issues, though this isn't a game where a lot of precision is required.
Another interesting option is the ability to play in online co-op. This lets two players handle the same castle, with both having full control. You'll have to communicate with your partner on who's going to do what and how resources should be spent. Other offered modes include Custom Skirmish and Free Build, and there is even support for user-made maps.
Regardless of the mode you play, Stronghold: Warlords is not a visually impressive game. Its East Asian style is extremely generic and simplistic, with largely dated visuals and minimal audio effects. It's a nice touch that the sound of your army rushing forward grows more numerous in voice as it does in-game units, but then you realize it's the same repeated audio clip every time, and contains horses galloping which aren’t present on the field. The music sometimes just ends and another track doesn't kick in. UI looks rather low budget as well, with strange things like an expandable material storage tab, the portrait of the faction leader simply not loading sometimes, and the tooltip popup of your own structures featuring a generic and very low quality profile art. In missions where you don't have a castle, the right side of the screen simply has no UI (where you usually manage peasant happiness), which looks like a quick and lazy fix.
The presentation isn't great a technical level either. The art style is fairly generic and you can only zoom in so far to see the details on your units. There are anti aliasing hitches when zooming in/out, and often some of the effects don’t work, like the fire arrow barrage simply doesn't appear and only the audio effect plays. The effects that do work – like rocks clashing against castle walls or into a pile of enemies to send them flying – look unimpressive and low in detail. There are even minor issues that still need sorting out – for example the fact that placing a farm that overlaps a castle wall just deletes the castle wall.
Stronghold: Warlords is a game that refuses to give up chasing its initial success, even after decades of decidedly lackluster results and being unable to revitalize the series. The developers have tried sequels, reboots, spinoffs and HD remakes, all to no avail. The original formula may still have a unique flavor to it, but it hasn’t changed or grown much, and even if they managed to recapture the magic (which Warlords does not), it would instantly feel outdated. If you're craving a castle sim, you're better off playing one of the fan-favorite entries from many years ago.