A new Lavapotion game, published by Coffee Stain Publishing, launched on Early Access on both Steam and the Epic Games Store. Let's take a look at the game's strengths and weaknesses in our Songs of Conquest Review [Early Access].
What is Songs of Conquest?
Songs of Conquest is a turn-based kingdom-building strategy game developed by Lavapotion and published by Coffee Stain Publishing. While not a lot of people would know about Lavapotion, Coffee Stain has been a prominent publisher of quality indie games in the past, like Satisfactory, Goat Simulator, and Valheim. The name of the publisher helped the game garner attention in media, and the game's marketing on social media allowed the game to remain in the public eye until its release on Early Access on May 10, 2022.
The game is heavily influenced by Heroes of Might & Magic III by 3DO and New World Computing, an old-school PC game with similar structure. While Songs of Conquest is an entirely new IP, HOMM 3 is part of a much larger universe, the Might & Magic universe, which also spanned dozens of games. With the last entry to the Heroes of Might & Magic franchise getting its release way back in 2015, fans of the series are very hungry for a sequel or at least a similar game. And here we are with Songs of Conquest. Let's see if it quenches the thirst for the Heroes of Might & Magic itch, and if it can even stand on its own legs and make itself distinct enough from its influence in our Songs of Conquest Review [Early Access].
Songs of Conquest Review: Gameplay
Songs of Conquest is a turn-based kingdom-building strategy game with an overworld map and a hexagon-based battlefield.
Players usually start with one settlement and one Wielder (i.e. Wielders of Power). Players take control of Wielders, which act as players' meeple in the tabletop-like overworld. The overworld is scattered with resources to be collected, treasures and artifacts to be discovered, enemy armies to defeat, and structures to claim. A player's turn usually involves moving around the Wielders across the map to interact with the game world.
When one army meets another army, the scene shifts to the battlefield. Before combat, players can take a look at the relative size of the opposing army and arrange their troops. Troops are consolidated stacks of units, with each unit contributing to the entire Troop's stats – Health, Damage, Resistances, Defense, etc. Troops, when attacked, receive damage, and depending on the damage, lose units. So let's say, a Troop of 50 Militia has a total Health of 300, and would deal 50-150 damage each hit. When attacked by an enemy trip for 50 damage, then the Militia will lose 8 units, falling down to 42 Militia with a total Health of 250, and would now only deal 42-126 Damage each hit.
Troops take turns in moving and attacking on the field, with the Troops with higher Initiatives acting first. The terrain in Songs of Conquest is improved compared to HOMM 3 as there are elevations on top of terrain modifiers that already existing in the aforementioned influence, which adds an additional layer of tactical gameplay. However, most battles, just like in real life, boils down on numbers – players with larger forces will win most of the time. This is where the Wielders come in – Wielders are your Heroes in this game, and they can cast spells in battle with various effects – modifying stats, inflicting buffs and debuffs, modify the terrain, or outright deal damage at the enemy.
In terms of balancing, Songs of Conquest fixes one design flaw that has existed for so long in older Heroes of Might and Magic games. Troops stack up to only a specific number – you cannot have more units in a Troop than allowed for that specific creature. The stack limit differs from one creature type to another, which helps add a semblance of balancing in the game. So say, Militia are only allowed to have only up to 50 units per stack, and any excess Militia you'd like to bring to battle will have to be on another stack. This prevents players from just amassing large armies under one Wielder, forcing players to have a more flexible structure within their armies.
Where one other balancing problem comes in – though. Wielders act as sinks for the different structures players control that produce units, taking in any units produced and brought to battle. However, players can also only have a limited number of Wielders. Hence, there will come a point that the units produced by structures will have nowhere in your army to go to, leaving them to stagnate, unrecruited. Whether or not this is a good design choice will be seen when the game's multiplayer scene comes active – which currently isn't as active as someone would like.
Going back to the topic of Wielders, they act as generals of the army who stay back while the Troops do the battle themselves. Wielders introduce a slight RPG element to the game, as Wielders have stats of their own that affect the stats of all units under their control. Wielders also accumulate experience as they interact with the environment and win battles, giving them opportunities to learn new skills, new spells, and improve their stats even further.
Songs of Conquest's spells system is a bit of a whack, though, and it takes some getting used to. The short of it is that it's too complicated for its own right. The spells aren't as game-changing as you'd wish them to be, yet casting them takes too much planning. Wielders gain different colors of mana depending on the Essence of the units in the Wielder's party. Hence, bringing the wrong kind of units to battle might mean your Wielder will end up not having the right kind of mana to cast the spells they specialize in. As a mechanic, this has a lot of potential, sure, giving the game another layer of strategy, but in practice, it's overly complicated. Hopefully, Lavapotion can still find the right mix of complexity and practicality.
Each map will have its own objective. Most matches boil down to who can take down all of the other players in the game. Some maps have special win conditions, like taking control of Beacons of Power scattered throughout the map. Some maps have multiple win conditions or even multiple ways to win.
As for diversity in gameplay, Songs of Conquest, as an Early Access game, only has enough to keep you interested for a while, have you take a break, and then come back once the next big patch comes out. Currently, there are 4 factions in the game, which allows players to pick one unique faction in a 4-player game. However, the game allows up to six players on a single map, so there will be duplicates. Two of the factions are mostly human, so that also stings in the fantasy department. Hopefully, the developers introduce more factions, as that will make the gameplay even better.
Songs of Conquest also didn't simply copy HOMM 3 and re-skinned it with its own IP. Lavapotion actually introduced a lot of quality-of-life improvements such as movement ranges and Troop management UI to make the game much easier to play, and even included some QOL changes implemented in HOMM 3 mods and reworks that greatly improved HOMM 3's gameplay.
Games like Songs of Conquest rely a lot on its campaign to immerse new players into the game. With a bad campaign, it'll be hard for players to ease into its complex, and often confusing gameplay. Thankfully, Songs of Conquest's campaign has enough scaffolding and structure to help players learn the ropes as they go through the story.
Sadly, I'm not a big fan of the game's story. The main story of the game follows the Arleon faction, the remnants of a now-defunct empire. The campaign follows the efforts of a scion of the old ruling family in restoring the glory of the former Empire.
The writing isn't so bad, but it's hard to relate with Cecilia Stoutheart, who, many times throughout the early parts of the campaign, showed very little to no mercy to opponents, ruled with might, and had very little empathy for her (former) subjects. It's hard to get through the first few scenarios of the campaign with her as the lead, but thankfully the story gets better as time goes on.
A second campaign is also available which focuses on an escapee Rana, which helps flesh out the conflict between the Rana and the Arleon. The Rana story plays out similarly to the main campaign of Winter of the Wolf. Escaping from slavery, Rasc has to find a way to survive along with her people, eventually amassing both wealth and forces to build up a faction of her own.
Thankfully, it's easy to use the game's custom campaign maker, and hopefully, the community can come up with their own campaigns that can help fill in a very big hole that Songs of Conquest currently has for a compelling story and narrative.
Of course, comparing the game to Heroes of Might and Magic 3 would be unfair – that game has an entire universe to draw lore from. But the game can still learn a lot of things from the way Heroes of Might and Magic 3 tells stories. In HOMM 3, every artifact has a deep story behind it, and the game's map is used wonderfully well as environmental storytelling. Sure, HOMM 3 came out during a time when reading long paragraphs of texts for exposition was the norm, but that really helped players get immersed in that game's story and lore. However, to its credit, Songs of Conquest does make use of a lot of modern storytelling techniques that, quite honestly, fit better for today's short attention span audiences.
The game features stylized retro pixel art graphics. Admittedly, the game is charming, sure. However, it's also hard not to wish we can play the game, or actually, HOMM 3, with modern, Unreal Engine 5 level kind of graphics.
That's not to say that Songs of Conquest's graphics is bad. My wishes notwithstanding, Songs of Conquest has a very flavorful style. The pixel graphics is also very distinct and it's easy to differentiate different units, different items, and world elements from each other. The art style is also cohesive, making sure that there's a common denominator between all of the factions, creatures, and monsters. There's nothing that looks out of place in the game.
Music and Sound Design
The game's music and sound design fit the game's theme. It's not as wonderful and as epic as the soundtrack composed by Paul Romero, Steve Baca, and Rob King for HOMM 3, but that's a very high bar to overcome. The Songs of Conquest soundtrack is also flavorful and gives each Faction a unique vibe to them.
The game's sound design gets extra brownie points for sounding very responsive – it really informs you that something got picked up, something hit, etc.
There aren't a lot of accessibility options for the game, sadly. No color blind mode, no sliders for options aside from audio, etc.
I also don't know if it's just because I'm coming into Songs of Conquest as a HOMM 3 fan, but I find the UI very confusing. There's no single UI window where you'd look for newly-opened windows to show up. Instead, almost every button and window is attached to the unit or building that it interacts with. This means looking at different places for doing the same things – like activating unit skills having to be clicked with buttons beside the units, instead of a single button that can be utilized for all kinds of unit skill activation.
The game offers two difficulty options for its AI: Normal and Easy. Each scenario's maps can also be adjusted to have more resources available, scale the neutral enemy strength, to adjust the scenario's difficulty to the player's liking.
Songs of Conquest Review: Verdict – Is Songs of Conquest worth your time and money?
Songs of Conquest scratched an itch that I've had for a long time. Although I enjoy playing the game's scenarios more than its main campaign, Songs of Conquest launched with just enough scenarios to keep me busy for a long while. I'm confident that as long as the game receives enough attention and players would purchase and play the game, Lavapotion will be able to expand the content of the game. We'll continue expanding our Songs of Conquest review where applicable.
So that's right, Songs of Conquest can definitely stand on its own. However, as a longtime HOMM 3 fan, playing Songs of Conquest just made me want to replay HOMM 3 even more, which is exactly what I did after finishing the game. Hopefully, knowing that Songs of Conquest is inspired by HOMM 3 so much, they'd take this statement as a compliment – that they've succeeded in reviving an old classic. On the upside, after replaying HOMM 3, I can also say that there's just enough original content for Songs of Conquest to have it stand on its own feet. There are enough pros and cons between the two that it's hard to just say “play HOMM 3 instead of Songs of Conquest” or vice-versa. The two can be enjoyed together, and that's the best outcome for a game like Songs of Conquest.
Score [Early Access]: 8/10