Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Multiplayer: Local 1v1
Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.
The mighty Roman Empire is ingrained in my head, such a big role it has played in history. But while many people can envision marching columns of Roman troops conquering everything they came near there are huge swathes of their history that is much lesser known. It’s in one of these lesser-known eras that Numantia has settled its strategic routes, telling a tale firmly entrenched in reality and embellished with a few heroic characters.
Numantia takes place during the Second Celtiberian war when the Romans accused the town of Segeda of building defensive walls which was a breach of their treaty. Due to Segada’s walls not yet being complete, they retreated to the town of Numantia when the Romans came knocking, a town that would cause the mighty Roman war machine a lot of headaches. Or at least, that’s what appears to be going on as the game’s story is often vague about time periods and what’s going on, so if you don’t have any historical knowledge about that specific time period everything basically boils down to a blur of “brief peace, Romans attacking, repeat.” with important battles and certain events barely getting named or given the weight that they should be. For a game so mired in history, it doesn’t seem to ever give it the respect it deserves.
Without a multiplayer mode – aside from a baffling 1v1 local play, which while appreciated seems an odd choice over full multiplayer – the two campaigns serve as the meat of the game, allowing you to take up arms as either the Numantians or the Roman forces intent on conquering Iberia, which is modern-day Spain. Interestingly it feels as though the developers heavily favoured the Numantian forces as they typically seem to dominate the Romans in close combat and have better initiative, allowing them to get the incredibly important first hits in this turn-based game.
Everything revolves around the turn-based combat system where you pit your troops against the enemy. It’s standard enough stuff with just about enough strategic thought required to keep you feeling engaged. Flanking bonuses provide an incentive to get behind the enemy lines, especially with certain types of cavalry who earn extra damage if they travel far enough in a straight, while smartly positioning your troops and taking advantage of their abilities is satisfying stuff. However, the game is terrible at providing information, and thus whether you got a flanking bonus or not or whether an enemy troop is currently in defensive mode is tricky to know.
There is a morale system that affects your troops performance, too, although unlike other games soldiers can’t be broken or routed completely even if their morale drops to zero. Roman soldiers like to be adjacent to each other whereas the Numantian forces can be a tad more spread out. However, I never felt like morale was playing all that much of a role, leaving me to command troops to move an extra hex or go it alone without the disadvantages of doing so affecting my choice. Again, the game refuses to divulge much information and so you’re always left in the dark as to how much morale actually affected an attack or defence.
A few other things keep this a lighter strategy, such as the fact that the vast majority of terrain can block movement but won’t affect ranged units, so you can’t carefully position your cavalry behind some rocks, for example, in order to keep them safe until the opportune moment. Indeed, ranged troops don’t get affected by anything other than distance, the utterly boring battlefields being nothing more than flat and featureless. There are no strategic hills to fight for control over or anything like that.
Unusually for a game of this style, there is no area of control. What this means is that even if you assault a group of archers with a pile of heavy cavalry the archers can simply run away on their turn and shoot you from a distance. There are no penalties for disengaging from the enemy, which often means a fight can come down to a comical situation where both sides spend their turns running around to the back of the enemy for a flanking bonus. It’s utterly stupid.
Visually the game just isn’t up to par, either. Murky battlefields, poor textures and ugly, stiffly animated troops do not make this a visual delight. Nor is the scale correct, as the battles you fight in range from a few dozen troops up to maybe a hundred or so with the same numbers of the enemy side. It’s not reflective of the size of the battles fought at that time, although I concede that budget constraints would likely have played a huge part in the developers keeping things small.
Outside of the battles there is some light management of your army to be done via the settlement screen where you can overlook your little town or Roman encampment, and ignore all but two buildings; the barracks and the marketplace. At the start of each chapter the council will convene and based upon some of your prior decisions will hand you a pile of silver and supplies that you can then use to bolster your forces by hiring new troops, disbanding old ones and upgrading existing ones, as well as equipping them with some gear like new javelins or some heavy axes. There’s not a massive roster of soldiers to pick from, or of stuff to equip, but the different units feel like they all serve a distinct role and their varied costs make deciding on your army composition somewhat interesting, even if a few types of soldier seem to be an objectively better choice than others.
As for sticking some new gear on your troops, it’s….I mean, it’s alright, I suppose. New items pop up in the marketplace and their randomized. Equipping them is a pain in the backside as for some reason the screen can’t simply display the item, it’s stat boosts and whether or not it’s currently equipped in the same pane, meaning you have to click the middle mouse button to double-check another unit isn’t already using it. It’s a small gripe, but my overall issues with the interface, something we’ll get back to, are representative of the game as a whole. Your troops can also acquire much more interesting items as the spoils of war, although the game weirdly never lets you know that they’ve gotten them so the only notification is a small icon. More annoyingly the game keeps insisting on doing things like giving a powerful item that only benefits ranged units to a bunch of infantry, and when you attempt to unequip the special item it simply disappears into the mists of time, never to be seen again. The number of useful bonuses I lost because of this was frankly insulting.
The other buildings on your settlement/encampment/home screen do absolutely nothing. They are decoration only.
There is a world map, too, that is utterly horrible to look at since it appears to have had a tub of Vaseline dropped on it. This map is utterly useless since you can’t do anything on it.
So why is it there? Well, besides battles the other driving force of the game are the events which give you the opportunity to make various decisions that influence the story as well as the money and supplies you have available. Events pop up on either your settlement map or the world map and you double-click on them, and then click again for some damn reason, to enter into them. Once one is completed you move on to the next one.
Early on you’re told that the decisions you make during events will have a lasting effect on the story, but sadly this isn’t particularly true. The choices you make are pretty basic affairs such as choosing to side with one person over another or picking whether the merchants or the civilians can take refuge in your city. These little story moments usually have an instant effect and then, later on, will alter the resources the council grants you, but since you never really know how siding with one person or the other has influenced the council it ultimately feels meaningless. How much did helping some people out at the cost of your city change the resources you get to fight the war? You’ll never know. Regardless, I always seemed to have enough silver and resources to keep my army bolstered, only occasionally struggling.
Perhaps the event system would have worked if the story was more engrossing, although in fairness the developers do what they can with a limited budget. Nearly static screens of quite nice artwork and text do the best they can to flesh out the heroes of the story and do a decent job, but never does quite manage to get you feeling very invested in the action. Still, I commend the developers for giving us specific people to focus on rather than just presenting the historical tale.
The heroes of the tale get to fight on the battlefield, too, and to my surprise I actually did manage to forge a small connection with them, although it was less due to their personality or bravery and more because a hero unit can take considerable punishment and dish out a lot of damage, meaning they alone can swing the tide of a whole battle.
The event system can also cause some issues due to the fact that soldiers and heroes don’t heal or replenish their ranks until the end of a chapter, so some poor luck early on can leave you struggling. Now, to be fair you can mitigate this buy not spending all of your resources straight away, instead keeping them back to replace units when and as needed. But I did wind up in one frustrating battle where I had to take three specific heroes into a fight with no other backup, and since one of those heroes had been involved in a hefty battle earlier and had almost zero health getting through the fight was rather tricky.
There are a bunch of signs that the game was designed with console in mind and then tossed onto PC without any of the changes that one would expect. A trip to the graphics menu makes this perfectly clear when you discover a mere three options; resolution, V-sync and fullscreen or windowed mode. There are no options to alter any of the graphical settings, although thankfully it isn’t a demanding game so most people should be able to run it without a problem.
You also can’t rebind any of the controls which left me feeling pretty annoyed as the game’s default control scheme and the interface is clumsy at best, seemingly determined to inject extra steps into everything. Take your soldiers special abilities which are mapped to 1, 3, 4 and F1 by default and cannot be changed, or the fact that finishing your turn is done by holding TAB or that in order to see a units information, including special abilities, you need to hold ALT and then click on them. And then there is the woefully slowing camera panning speed that you can’t change, the baffling barracks menu which still, even after numerous hours of play, feels weird and a variety of other little niggles I have with the user interface. It all adds up to a game that feels needlessly awkward.
As I finish writing this review at some ungodly time in the morning while surrounded by piles of beer bottles, shattered dreams and probably several corpses I’m deeply saddened. I wanted to like Numantia, I really did. Historically driven games are of particuilar interest to me, as are strategy games, so this was really a perfect combination and a potentially welcome change from the Total War series. Now obviously given the much smaller budget I was expecting Numantia to rival the Total War franchise, but there are just so many poor design decisions here that I can’t recommend it. Nor can I even recommend it to those looking for something that does justice to its own historical inspirations.