Adding to this juggling act are the "plots." Basically small side stories that hit the player at random times throughout the game; they can lead to rewards or consequences depending on how you respond to them. There's one, for instance, where you'll receive reports about a mine explosion. The miners come to you for aid and you need to decide what to do. Giving them gold to hire more rescue workers will endear the peasants to you, but could leave you short of coin depending on your current financial situation. Ignoring them, meanwhile, is more cost effective, but it's also a jerk move that your peasants will hate you for.
I'm going to be honest and say that I didn't really like the plots all that much. While I enjoyed them at first and appreciated the flavor they added to the game, there just aren't enough of them to keep the idea fresh. Once you've played three or four extended games you'll pretty much have seen all of them. Making matters worse, while some plots vary and have different conclusions, there are others where there's only one definite right answer. The second you learn what it is, the fun of repeating that plot is drained away. Luckily, if you feel the need, you can turn the plots off. That said, the idea on its own isn't bad and it stinks you'd ever want to.
Seemingly more repetitious, at first glance at least, is the game's combat. While you do have some limited control over your military units, most battles basically amount to your army and the enemy army hacking away at each other until one side comes out the victor. While this might seem tedious on the surface, however, Castles 2 actually does some interesting things to make the combat more complex than it initially appears.
For example, the game will limit the number of units you can deploy when you're on the defense. That might sound unfair, but it becomes less so when you consider some of the advantages it trades you for this handicap. While your units might be outnumbered, they'll gain access to a defense bonus that boosts their stats enough to give them a better chance in one-on-one matchups. This puts you enemy at a disadvantage and also leaves you with troops to strike back and turn the table if you're able to push the enemy back. When you're defending, you'll also be able to choose your starting position, an advantage you don't get when you're on the aggressive side of things. That patch of trees in the middle of the map? Feel free to camp your soldiers behind it and then rain arrows on the enemy while they struggle through the woods to get to you.
One element of the combat that I didn't like that much (ironically in a game named Castles), was its implementation of castles and siege warfare. While castles themselves can be great for stabilizing rebellious provinces and improving the happiness of your peasantry, in combat they're basically just glorified barriers that provide little actual protection to the soldiers inside. When I picture a castle, I think of fortresses built to help a small force hold off vast hordes. In Castles 2, all you need to overwhelm a castle is a decent-sized army and the patience to watch your pixilated soldiers scale the walls and kill the people inside. To be sure, it's nowhere as dull as the castle combat in Lords of the Realm, and there are definitely moments where a castle can make the difference between victory and defeat. Ultimately though, they still felt a bit shallow to me and I was disappointed.
Which is okay because Castles 2, overall, did anything but disappoint me. While it possesses many of the same sorts of archaic problems that plague many older games, the overall product provides an insanely addictive experience that will kick your butt, but do so in a way that keeps you coming back for more. If you're in the market for a strategy title with a different feel and a different focus than most of the genre's modern standards, Castles 2 is a game that should definitely be on your to-buy list.
Next week I'm going to look a bit more closely at some the films that were used to make Castles 2. After that I'll be dipping my toes in the sea of CRPGs with Dragon Wars. Feel free to PM me any comments or suggestions you have in the mean time.