Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars Plot

Normally I'd basically poke holes in the coherency of the narrative. Most stories have a basic plot that has coherency problems, or pacing problems, or missed opportunities, etc.

Not in this case; Shadow Wars basically doesn't have a plot.

... I'm exaggerating a little, but not by much. Most of the constructive narrative is filling the player on context toward the beginning of the game or happens before the game starts, with no internal references to these events.

For example: in the original Spellforce, every faction was a monogender in its military. (Probably primarily because the military only got one lineset across all unit types) In the case of the Dark Elves, there's actual lore justification for this boiling down to 'Dark Elf women can't be a part of any of the military classes'. Come Shadow Wars, and suddenly Dark Elf troops are a mix of male and female, slightly biased toward female; off-screen a Dark Elf woman came to power, murdered large parts of the existing warrior classes, and restructured Dark Elf society.

Exactly none of which is ever even hinted at by the actual game. I actually didn't know about the relevant lore until wiki crawls stumbled onto it when I was fairly late into playing through the campaign, and thus initially just assumed this was purely about the switch from mono-voices to each individual unit getting a lineset. Nobody in-game is surprised by the sudden massive change in how the Dark Elves operate, nobody even makes an indirect allusion that only makes sense if you already know what they're talking about.

That actually sounds like a really interesting story that could've made for a decent chunk of campaign in its own right.


Okay, here's how the campaign starts; you are a Shaikan, which boils down to being semi-immortal and mistrusted by all non-Shaikan because all the gods quite literally hate your entire race. (Sorta) The Dark Elves have been making raids into Shaikan territory lately, and there's evidence they're going to make a big attack. The Shaikan aren't confident in their ability to fend off a serious push, what with being a Fantasy Minority, and so Dragon Dad (The dragon your entire race is sorta descended from) sends you off to go fetch some help.

That's all reasonably straightforward and okay, even if there's piles of details I'm leaving out that don't work so well. Buuuut... your quest to organize allies is basically an excuse plot for progressing through the Realm faction's tech tree, starting by convincing Humans to help you, followed by Elves and then Dwarves. The actual events you deal with have no bearing on the central plot thread, with the semi-exception that the Human king grants you ownership of a fiefdom that's more trouble than it's worth, which canonically becomes the new Shaikan home after Shadow Wars. Free Play mode actually spoils this bit, weirdly enough, being set after Shadow Wars' plot is over.

But helping the Dwarves drive off Beastmen? The Beastmen are never explained and have nothing to do with the villain plot thread. They're just enemies for you to fight because this is a video game. The demon raiding the Elves, which you drive off so the Elves will help you fight? Just... random demon portals in the swamps. No explanation. No connection.

This is all lackluster, but worse yet the alliance-building is all for naught anyway. Before you can really use this Realm alliance to accomplish anything plot-meaningful, your Shaikan homeland comes under attack by the Dark Elves. You valiantly rush over to try to save Dragon Dad and any Shaikan survivors, but Dragon Dag gets kidnapped and there aren't really any Shaikan survivors. The Realm alliance basically just serves to get a bunch of Dark Elves killed plus a random super-demon that is only half-explained by the plot because its real purpose is to be a boss fight.

And then the Realm alliance suddenly turns you out and wants nothing more to do with you for dumb reasons I don't care to get into, to serve the gameplay purpose of seguing into the next faction instead of doing the logical thing and using Realm forces to try to rescue Dragon Dad.

So now you're in the realm of the Clans AKA the Orcs, Trolls, and Barbarians. A plot point I skipped past earlier is that you saved/spared the life of an Orc warlord so he could pass on a message to the Clans at large, and your character decides to call in this life debt to try to get Orcs on their side to save Dragon Dad. This... derails into a whole big thing where you're just constantly running errands for Orcs and one time for Barbarians (Bizarrely, Trolls are a narrative non-entity in the game) and incidentally thus building of a Clans alliance except in narrative terms the game really just treats it as you being backed by a horde of Orcs. Which is a weird disconnect in and of itself, but my point is that the majority of what happens in this sequence only connect to the core plot in the very indirect manner that you're once again building up an alliance to achieve your goal.

Thankfully, this time it's actually narratively somewhat purposeful (Except not really, but I'm getting there), in that you successfully march on the Dark Elf lands with your Clan forces. Except... the whole thing gets completely derailed by the bizarre point that you had secret dealings with a Shadow, where by 'secret dealings' I mean 'convinced their entire race-thing to stop helping the Dark Elves', which somehow gets found out by the Orcs (Even though it's an explicit plotpoint that nobody can see a Shadow unassisted, so the scene as presented really makes no sense), only they inexplicably interpret 'hey, you're talking to a Shadow and all the other Shadows conveniently failed to help our enemies' as 'YOU'RE A DIRTY SHAIKAN TRAITOR AND I CAN'T BELIEVE I EVER TRUSTED YOU FOR A SECOND'.

Note that the Clans are literally on the doorstep of the Dark Elves. They could march on the city right now, and a notable part of how they were talked into this attack was the prospect of loot. Even if I accept the basic notion that they've kicked you out of their club -which would, admittedly, make for a plotpoint actually illustrating racism against Shaikan, a plotpoint that's ill-supported by the game- what possible reason could they have for picking up their toys and going home instead of marching on for glory and loot?

Oh, and then your party promptly walks through the portal into the Dark Elf lands anyway, as if they expect seven people to have a chance of accomplishing anything other than die instantly. At which point the Dark Elf boss-lady, Sorvina, shows up, uses classic Cutscene Magic to teleport everyone where she wants them while everybody sits around and just lets her do this, and you're all helpless and mostly dead now. Making the entire Clans thing pretty much moot; nothing that happened really mattered except 'somehow made it to the Dark Elf city', and barely even that because of the other plotpoint at work here.

See, Dark Elf boss-lady -Sorvina- kidnapped Dragon Dad because of silly backstory stuff. Once upon a time, there was a man named Malacay who did some bonding thing with Dragon Dad eleventy billion years ago. This was how the Shaikan race started. Furthermore, when the gods came along and tried to do terrible things to Malacay for his crimes (Note: we never find out what his crimes were that all the gods hated him so much), Malacay did some magical trick sealing his soul into the meta-concept of the Shaikan bloodline. Sorvina knew enough to know she needed someone with Dragon Dad's dragon blood if she wanted to pull out Malacay's soul, which she wanted to do because... I honestly don't know. The game didn't really explain this. What she didn't know, though, is that Malacay's soul has spent the centuries doing this weird thing of randomly selecting a Shaikan to lurk inside, talk to, and occasionally even possess their body, and of course that Shaikan is you.

(This whole 'you are carrying Malacay's soul' plotpoint was actually established toward the beginning of the game, but this is the first scene it matters in)

Conveniently, she managed to torture Dragon Dad into giving up this information about thirty seconds before you entered the portal, hence why she teleports your party around instead of murdering everyone on sight. Note that this is another layer to why getting the Clans backing you doesn't really matter to the plot; if your character had given up on Dragon Dad and tried to live peacefully, Sorvina would've eventually just hunted you down anyway, and we'd end up at basically this exact same point with no real change.

The thing is, though, all of this is really an oddly convoluted way of justifying the final faction switch of the game; Sorvina drinks your blood, expecting to get phenomenal cosmic power out of the deal, and instead Malacay possesses her and immediately teleports out to go hole up somewhere and do... Something Villainous. (Note: we beat the game without ever finding out what his Villainous Plot is. He... makes bug-things, and this is made a big deal of? But this doesn't explain anything) With Sorvina gone, suddenly and for no actually explained reason the Dark Elves have broken up into two major factions, and for even less reason the rebels decide you let you be in charge of them, thus justifying your switch to playing the Pact faction instead of the Clans faction.

I'm really not exaggerating here. No explanation is offered for the sudden civil war, and the 'explanation' for why you've been put in charge of the Dark Elf rebels is to present it as sort of self-evidently obviously good of a decision and not offer a reason for it to be a good decision. I frankly have no idea why the devs didn't just have your party throw themselves behind the rebel faction and just make it obvious that you being in charge of these Dark Elves is pure gameplay.

So the Realm arc had basically everything you did irrelevant, and so did the Clans arc. Guess what? The Pact arc is the same! There's a series of fairy random, plot-irrelevant battles that don't even make geographic sense (How did the Clan and Realm forces get ahead of you? There's no portals to justify this!), culminating in you going to Malacay's super-secret fortress of villainy with the only non-Hero/Avatar troops at your disposal being a handful of Shadows who exist purely because the mission has a puzzle gimmick centered around them. The Pact forces don't help you fight Malacay, or share information on Sorvina's weaknesses, or anything that connects to the core plot thread. They're just disposable soldiers helping you with your cause because... um... the plot has told us Malacay is a threat to the entire world? Why do all the faceless Dark Elves even believe this, let alone have enough loyalty to abandon their city that was just drenched in blood from a civil war instead of, you know, rebuilding and all?

This is a lot of words boiling down to:

-Sorvina kidnaps Dragon Dad and kills most of the Shaikan, kicking off your vengeance/rescue quest.

-Sorvina kidnaps you, drinks your blood, becomes possessed by Malacay.

-You kill Malacay.

That's really basically the entire core plot of Shadow Wars, when you strip it down to the essentials.

That's a surprisingly threadbare plot for a campaign that's going to take 20+ hours to beat.

To be fair, a big part of the problem is the semi-gameplay-semi-narrative design decision to switch from Rune Warriors in the prior games (Which provided a ready-made excuse for giving the player whatever forces in whatever areas the developers wanted to give the player, with no need to expend plotpoints on justifying a given case) to the player being a Shaikan, which gameplay-wise primarily serves to justify Hero/Avatar resurrection mechanics. (It's a largely-ignored plotpoint that Shaikan can resurrect other Shaikan if they die, so long as they're fairly quick to follow up) Rune Warriors and the Monuments mechanic explained not only why you are using whatever force the map wants you to use, not to mention why on some maps you don't field an army at all, but also explains why you always have to start over from the beginning, rather than just marching an army through a portal to attack an area. Spellforce II's RTS mechanics thus demand much more narrative effort to progress vaguely appropriately, and still end up with more suspension-of-disbelief issues. (ie why aren't we just marching huge armies through portals to attack? Why are we able to field-manufacture troops at all?)

On the other hand, I find it utterly baffling that Spellforce II abandoned the Rune Warrior conceit at all. It directly created all these problems to no benefit whatsoever.


One final flaw with the narrative is the nature of the protagonist.

In a lot of ways, the early portion of Shadow Wars reminded me strongly of Winter's Breath's campaign. You have two friends, one of whom is a man whose gameplay is primarily that of being a warrior and who as a character has a dark sense of humor, the other of whom is gameplay-wise a caster with a bent toward healing and character-wise is the more compassionate of the two. Your character is, to be blunt, a bit of a jerk as well. I actually like the Aryn Campaign's story, though it could've used more polish, and I was cautiously optimistic by this comparison.

The deeper I got into the game though, the more this comparison highlighted a major issue.

The Aryn Campaign's protagonist is, as I just said, a bit of a jerk. They tend to be demanding, and more hostile than necessary. They often employ sarcasm, usually to make someone else sound/feel stupid. And as the campaign progresses, their jerk-ness increases...

... but the Aryn Campaign protagonist has good cause for these. As a Rune Warrior, they spent much of their life a slave to abominably powerful wizards who basically destroyed the world, where said powerful wizards presented themselves as working for the greater good of the world. Then over the course of the Aryn campaign the world just seems dead-set on screwing with them. Initially it's in relatively small ways, but eventually it turns out one of their companions is actually the servant of what amounts to a Satan-figure that the protagonist's own actions free. Worse, the Satan-expy cannot be slain by most weaponry, with the only available weapon to do so -the Shadow Blade- eating your soul and turning you into a Shadow if you wield it. The Aryn protagonist retrieves the sword and uses it without complaint or angsting, but it's easy to connect their increasingly unpleasant personality to the stress of the entire awful situation, not even getting into the possibility that the transformation process is already altering their personality in a more overtly magical way.

Shadow War's protagonist, by contrast, is someone we're told is a member of an oppressed minority that is constantly treated badly through no fault of their own, but said oppression goes largely unobserved outside a few unpleasant remarks that mostly fade away past the earliest portion of the game, and worse yet from pretty much the beginning of the story Shadow War's protagonist behaves like someone benefiting from extreme privilege. They do not beg, or plead: they demand. When people do not immediately move to comply with their demands, they become angry, and make no effort to actually explain why their cause is so important, instead berating these people for being stupid etc. There's no compassion or understanding, no bargaining with an awareness that you are operating from a position of weakness. What's particularly bizarre is how ineffectual they are while behaving as if they're operating from a position of strength: they make demands, insult people when they don't get instant cooperation, and when their tantrum doesn't help any they just walk away. The only reason they accomplish much of anything is because other people get inserting themselves in and offering to help of their own volition.

They not only don't act like an oppressed minority, but are so ill-behaved that if their behavior is representative of Shaikan it's all too easy to imagine that the real reason everyone hates the Shaikan is because they're all massive jerks, with the Shaikan pretending to themselves it's an irrational hatred driven by ancient myths, as this behavior problem is there right from the very first time they're interacting with outsiders. In conjunction with the inexplicable recurring helpfulness I laid out a second ago, it paints a very ugly picture of the Shaikan, when the game so clearly wants us to be sympathetic to them.

So: a barely-there story with an unlikable protagonist. A lot of positives that should have been there just aren't; the switch from Heroes being equipment to being characters who grow with you had no impact on the narrative. (Your Heroes aren't plot-relevant, though the writers occasionally remember to give them dialogue) That kind of thing.

Now, to be fair to the creators, Dragon Storm's storytelling makes me suspect the devs recognized they'd actually made the Shaikan into racist jerks instead of a minority suffering at the hands of racist jerks, as its characterization of the Shaikan is much more consistent with Shaikan-as-jerks. Also to be fair, Dragon Storm has a less threadbare plot, and Shadow Wars was not, as I understand it, given all that much development time.

Still. I really like Spellforce 1, and yet recognize it's deeply flawed. I'd looked forward to Shadow Wars on the idea that it would smooth out these flaws. It technically does smooth out certain flaws, but... well, I'll cover that in another post. The point of this post is that Shadow Wars is not really something to be played for its story.


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