Review: Beauty and brains are the hallmarks of Ravenmark: Mercenaries
At a Glance
There’s no shortage of free-to-play turn-based strategy games to choose from on the App store, so you might be inclined to dismiss Witching Hour Studios’ Ravenmark: Mercenaries as yet another app for the pile. It doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel, offering up genre standard conventions like asynchronous multiplayer and rock-paper-scissors style unit balancing.
But Ravenmark: Mercenaries is different. It’s the sequel to a well-regarded strategy game released back in 2011, coupling attractive artwork and rich lore with complex strategy and a fantastic sense of pacing—muddled by nagging technical issues that stem from a focus on multiplayer competition.
Coin rules everything around me
Much of the action in Mercenaries revolves around juggling coin and favor. Coin is rather straightforward: sellswords don’t come cheap, and you need to raise funds to hire troops to fight for you. Favor is earned and lost by fighting for and against the three nations that make up Mercenaries’ world. The more favor you have with a particular nation, the cheaper the units you hire from that nation will be. Nations are varied, so maintaining some level of loyalty can make hiring troops you fancy a bit easier—I’m a bit partial to the tech-savvy Esotre, with their mechanized battalions and gun-toting infantry.
You’ll earn cash and renown by winning battles: against other players, or dabbling in the game’s shallow single-player mode, the Contracts system. Contracts give you a taste of how combat works, and I’d recommend giving them a try once you’re done with the rather anemic tutorial. It’s divided into minor contracts and border skirmishes. Minor contracts are a hands-off affair: you’ll send your troops off to complete an objective, and immediately be told whether their mission was a success or not and be awarded some favor or coins. Units will be unavailable for a few minutes after engaging in a mission, so these minor contracts can be a good way to keep making forward progress if you don't’ actually have time to dive into the game proper.
Strategery at its finest
Skirmishes are the heart of the Mercenaries experience, and where you’ll be spending most of your time. Each battle is divided into a command phase, where players issue orders, and a battle phase, where orders are carried out. There are no “turns” in the traditional sense.
A fight’s attack order is determined by unit initiative: every unit has a different amount of initiative, with higher values getting a chance to move first. These troops also have a 50 percent chance of having their initiative rating boosted by a point every turn, and some unit abilities and status effects can alter initiative levels further still.
This level of intricacy is at once refreshing and overwhelming. You’re only able to issue six commands per command phase, which makes large armies cumbersome to control. You can get around this by grouping units into formations, in which up to three similar unit types act as one. But formations are unwieldy, marching abreast and requiring extra commands to change direction, which leaves them vulnerable to being flanked and overwhelmed by smaller, nimbler skirmishers. Troop balancing generally follows the traditional rock-paper-scissors paradigm that seems to work so well in strategy games: Calvary will crush archers, archers will mow down your infantry, infantry will take out soldiers wielding polearms, and those polearms will wreak havoc on your cavalry.
It’s ultimately a chaotic sort of elegance—especially for a turn-based game— and forces you to think on your feet and tweak your orders shift on the fly. The fights revolve around a relatively small number of units on relatively small battlefields, so careful planning and fluid strategies will be critical to success.
Slow and steady
It’s a bit of a shame that the game is so ponderously slow. Mercenaries’ multiplayer-first mantra means you’ll be spend a lot of time looking at loading screens as moves are submitted over the internet. Battles are asynchronous so you could ostensibly fire off a turn and then go about your business, but we’ve all run into those fortuitous gaming sessions where both players just happen to be sitting in front of their respective screen, and having a bit of a livelier transition would be sorely appreciated.
This is doubly true for Mercenaries’ single-player experience—what little there is of it. When you aren’t engaged in duels with friends or strangers and choose to dabble in taking on the aforementioned mercenary contracts and skirmishes, you’ll still need to wade through those “submitting move” screens as the game keeps tabs on your military exploits.
This is especially nerve-wracking when you’re first learning to play: the tutorial is rather lackluster, cramming in dense ideas about formation points and wheeling units already in place into a few trivially easy battles against NPCs. You’re largely expected to suss out the rest by playing a few basic skirmishes, though I’d imagine even the most unscrupulous players get tired of crushing waves of bewildered newbies day in and day out.
You could also trawl through the game’s Codex, a richly illustrated and detailed account of just about every nook and cranny in here. In fact, even if you’ve no interest in advanced tactics for mucking about on the battlefield I’d recommend taking a look, as the characters, lore and units—ranging from armored battle-frogs to medieval hover tanks—are... fascinating, to say the least.
In-app purchases are largely restricted to cosmetic items, which is great. Things like banner design or flag colors will require you to shell out lodestones, the game’s form of in-app currency. You can also buy silver coins to purchase top-tier units straightaway, which might net you colorful troops like Foxwing’s Flying Infirmary a bit sooner than usual, but isn’t necessarily going to win you any battles. There are also ads, but they only pop up between phases and won’t interrupt the flow of combat.
If you’re feeling especially spendthrifty you can splurge on the Elite Collector’s Edition ($50), unlocking all of the game’s content and giving you exclusive banner designs for your legions. A more reasonable standard collector’s edition ($5) offers up a few token sigils and colors and a few unique troops. Both editions will remove advertisements.
Ravenmark: Mercenaries isn’t really a tough sell. It’s an excellent take on the turn-based strategy game genre, will most certainly scratch that competitive itch, and it’s free. You’ll either gravitate towards its slow (occasionally glacial) pace, colorful atmosphere, and wickedly enthralling strategy, or you won’t. Tthere’s no harm in taking it for a spin on your iPad or iPhone (though I can’t imagine playing this on a small screen). Grab it via Apple’s App Store.