Disciples: Liberation is the latest instalment into the beloved turn-based strategy series. The title is developed by Frima Studio and published by Kalypso Media for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and PC via Steam.
The developers describe the game as a mature, dark fantasy story that invites the players to venture into Nevendaar once more. It is up to you how the story of the child of Iron and Sky, Avyanna, will pan out. Which factions will you befriend? Who will stand beside you? Who lives and who dies? The choice is everything in Disciples: Liberation, and there is only one way to see where it leads.
What is going to be your story?
The events of the game take place in a fantasy world of Nevendaar, previously featured in other games of the Disciples series. Those familiar with it would instantly know that it means running into the highly unique factions later down the line, including but not limited to the demonic Legions of the Damned and Undead Hordes.
The story starts off humble before gradually increasing the degree of epic and the stakes behind your decisions. Players take on the role of a seemingly ordinary mercenary named Avyanna, frequently referred to as Avy by her companions.
Together with her friend Orion or Ori, she received a highly dangerous but well-paying contract to kill a priest of the church of the Highfather venerated in the Empire. While the characters fail to finish the job, the attempt places the Twilight Twins mercenary duo in the hot water where the Empire is concerned.
Thankfully, due to the use of Avyanna’s unique and up until that moment unmentioned powers, the mercenaries end up in a mysterious ancient city, Yllian.
This is where your journey starts.
Hounded by the Empire, Avyanna and Orion will need to look for unlikely allies. Their attention is drawn by four factions: the Elven Clans, the Legions of the Damned, the Undead Hordes and the rebels fighting against the Empire. While the game does seemingly have a specific order in mind when it comes to pursuing alliances based on the achievements, you are free to go to the four factions in the order of your own choosing. Would you like to ally with the Elves first? Go ahead! Is it the Undead Hordes that caught your eye? Just say the word!
Admittedly, the game does not present its story very well in the beginning. It feels like Disciples: Liberation is missing a lengthy prologue that should have introduced you to the characters and the setting because a chunk of very important information is missing. What is so special about Avyanna, where do her up-till-then unmentioned powers even come from? The only mention you will see of them is her short bio in the character screen and a few sparse comments done by Ori. What is Yllian, who built it, and why didn’t anyone before Avyanna find and bond with the mysterious city? Is it because of those secret super powers she possesses? No answers just yet.
Either way, it is time to select a destination and set out to find some allies. Each faction features a variety of units and corresponding named companions to join your cause if you will allow them. That includes special abilities and – wait for it – romances!
The world exploration in Disciples: Liberation feels pretty unique. It is a neat blend of classic RPG gameplay with turn-based strategy visuals and feeling.
The traveling is done in real-time. Outside, Avyanna looks like a familiar figure from HoMM, King’s Bounty or earlier Disciples title: a resolute rider on a noble steed traversing the fantasy landscapes with a great army sitting in her pocket. Inside various dungeons, temples, caves, etc, Avyanna dismounts and runs on her own instead. That pocket still holds the army, though.
The real-time approach to exploration changes the overall gameplay quite a bit. No longer are there enemy heroes taking their turns and advancing on your base or mines. In fact, with Yllian being placed in a separate dimension, it is in no threat of being attacked at all… yet. Similarly, 30 hours into the game I have not yet had an enemy base/town/castle to besiege myself.
Enemy units patrol the area in real-time and would give Avyanna a lengthy chase if the heroine comes within a certain aggro radius. You can attempt to outrun your opponents as they will stop and return to their initial position after a time or hop into the fight, switching into the familiar turn-based grid combat.
Disciples: Liberation features 7 resources for Avyanna to collect in order to be able to upgrade Yllian, purchase armies, train units and companions, get gear and so forth. And, in true turn-based strategy fashion, that means conquering their source. Throughout the world you will find a variety of mines guarded by their respective faction. Simply defeat those defenders, and the mine will start providing you with its resources. However, with the game utilizing real-time perspective, the way it goes about it is a bit different from early Heroes or Disciples titles.
Instead of automatically receiving a certain number of resources at the beginning of every turn or at the start of a week, you will passively accumulate gold, wood, arcane flux, etc. However, the catch is that you need to routinely return to Yllian to gather those resources as the mines will stop producing after reaching a certain maximum.
Traveling through the world also gives Avyanna a chance to loot chests, interact with obelisks and shrines, open locked doors and employ her companions’ abilities in order to get to the previously blocked areas. For example, Ormeriel can destroy ice that blocks your path forward, Corisandre will remove corruption from your path, etc. You do not have to have the companion active, simply unlocking that ability and having them employed altogether is enough.
Base-building and hiring units
When you are not traveling, chances are you will be spending time in Yllian, preparing your protagonist, companions and armies for the upcoming challenges.
Much like the world exploration, base-building in Disciples: Liberation has its own spin, only partially affected by the game’s switch to real-time perspective. The unique thing about Yllian is that it allows you to build structures that belong to all four factions, at once!
Want the infantry from Undead Hordes, mages from Legion of the Damned, healers from the Empire and archers from the Elven Clans? You can… theoretically.
Yllian features four designated slots to build in. It is up to you which buildings to construct there. You can go full-on, say, Elven Alliance and build your army entirely of the Elven units. Or you can build three Legions of the Damned structures and one Undead Hordes one and so forth. You can change your mind at any time, and phase out a building from its spot. Later, if you have a need for it, you can phase it back in for a price.
There is a catch: the reputation with the corresponding faction determines your access to the stronger units and how effective their fighting prowess will be in battle. So, in general, you might want to limit yourself to having a “main” faction with the strongest roster with maybe some extra units from the second-best allied side. The opportunities to build reputation with the respective sides are limited, so pick carefully!
How does the real-time nature of world exploration affect recruitment? I’m glad you asked. The basic recruitment is no different than any other turn-based strategy: you proceed into the corresponding building and hire the unit you want. Later, for extra price, you can instantly upgrade them up to the same level that Avyanna has. In practice, it means that as long as you have resources, you can instantly replenish Avyanna’s losses with no sacrifices.
At worst, I found myself thinking “Aw, man, I will have to teleport to Yllian after I’m done with this dungeon to get more troops”. No waiting a week to be able to purchase a new army and then another 17 turns while your courier heroes deliver the new units from all corners of the map to your main general stuck in the ass-end of nowhere. With the resources available around in plentiful amounts and provided by the mines at an impressive pace, this particular aspect of base-building and unit-hiring feels very safe, especially when you consider that Yllian itself is in no danger of being attacked. And it is not always a good thing for a strategy/RPG game.
You can bring up to 10 units with you into combat, depending on your leadership score. Most basic fighters have the leadership cost of 10, with stronger allies having an increased cost. Additionally, Avyanna can bring two of her companions into combat and add three units to Backline.
Backline is a new feature unique to Disciples: Liberation. You can assign three different units to backline to provide you with various passive effects such as granting Physical Might to allies until the end of the combat or buffing the unit with the least health at the end of the turn with Protected and Resilient. There is a lot of fun to be had with the feature.
Beware, enemies have a backline too! There is no way to block the backline units from doing their thing, so you will have to account for it in your turn-based combat.
Speaking of it…
Those familiar with Heroes of Might and Magic, King’s Bounty, previous Disciples titles and other turn-based strategies will feel right at home when it comes to the good ol’ grid combat. The line of the initiative, the option to have your unit postpone their turn or to take a defensive position – the age old classic canvas of combat is back in business.
However, as with all things Disciples: Liberation, it comes with a twist.
In addition to defeating enemy armies, the combat will also task you with different objectives such as surviving a certain number of rounds, killing a certain character, keeping certain companions alive and even featuring boss battles. The 3D grid features various elements that need to be taken into account as you vage battle: archers and casters cannot attack through obstacles, there are a number of buffs and debuffs scattered around, etc.
All units have two Action Points that come in three varieties:
- Blue can only be spent on movement
- Red can only be spent on action: attacking or using a spell/ability
- Orange can be spent on movement or action
Usually, units have one blue and one red AP, with rarer fighters having blue and orange. What it means in practice is that usually any unit can move and attack in the same turn, or attack and then move away. Fewer can do double-movement or double-attack.
Not spending an AP, for example, attacking and remaining in the same position or simply skipping a turn completely, heals your character for a certain amount per AP.
The combat also features a variety of status effects that can be applied to units: poisoned, bleeding, burning, blind, resilient, etc. The most important one is Flanking, achieved when two units are standing on the opposite sides of the afflicted one. It increases melee damage done to that unit by 20%. Try to flank as much as you can while preventing your own units from getting surrounded!
Altogether, it is an interesting way to shake up the usual turn-based combat gameplay. However, it comes with a drawback. Namely, pacing.
Even with the ability to increase the combat animation speed to 200%, the separation of movement from action and healing on unspent AP gives every unit a way to restore some of their health, dragging every battle out for a prolonged period of time.
Imagine this scenario: you finally corner an enemy archer. However, instead of attacking you, the unit runs half across the map and skips its turn, using the remaining AP to heal the damage done to it and then some. Or attacks and runs away still, forcing you to give chase. If you are lucky, your chosen unit can move as far and slowly whittle the enemy down with attacks.
But if not, it turns into an exercise in frustration. Add to it the fact that backline characters can heal and certain named heroes and units (especially those of the Empire) have AoE healing and regen abilities, and the battles can drag. On. FOREVER. Two, three battles like that in turn, and even as a veteran TBS player I felt the need to take a break from the game.
It also deals a heavy blow to the overall pacing of Liberation as it feels like you spend barely any time exploring and then a few hours at a time stuck in combat. At the very least, I hope that developers add a way to speed the combat animation to 300% to off-set some of that.
The game also features the so-called Conquest feature. If the strength of your army overwhelms that of the army you face, you can defeat them in one click and still get all the rewards you would for fighting them manually. It is my most beloved feature in the game!
The Conquest does not work on quest-related armies.
It seems the developers of Disciples: Liberation have intended to add a healthy sprinkling of RPG progression to the game when it comes to Avyanna, and they have largely succeeded in their endeavor.
Avyanna can reach the cap of level 80. In that journey, she can acquire a variety of gear split into various categories based on its rarity. There are even some legendaries, but finding them will not be easy!
As you level up, you can spend points across three trees – Combat, Nephilim and Magic – for some passive bonuses. Additionally, Avy can learn spells from five schools of magic: Martial, Twilight, Divine, Primal and Unholy.
The other characters are much more limited both in terms of the gear and how flexible in their abilities they are. To be precise, you can only provide them with new weapons and emotion shards (basically, a trinket with a passive bonus). It pays off being a protagonist, right?
At some point, Avyanna will also unlock four unique classes: Warlord, Hexblade, Seeress and Witch. Each has their bonuses and drawbacks, including the limitation in using certain types of weapons. There is no option to multiclass.
Altogether, Avyanna reminded me a bit of Hawke from Dragon Age 2: she is bold, loud and not afraid to take what she believes is hers. Through the dialogue system, you can choose how Avyanna will react in a certain conversation: Will you act with mercy? Attempt to bribe your way out of a situation? Kick someone who is already down? Or let it go and let Avyanna in her own unique chaotic way?
All of that is possible and leads to different results in dialogues and quests. Generally saying, the quests usually have at least two unique ways of solving them that involve picking sides.
To sum it up, Disciples: Liberation is an intriguing mix of turn-based strategy with real-time RPG. It features many unique takes on the classic features of both genres and attempts to bring them closer together.
In general, the game feels like a breath of fresh air, aiming to revitalize and redefine the genre and push it forward. However, not all of the systems fit together smoothly, and at times Liberation shows its rough edges. The best elements of the RPG/TBS union are brought down by the way the systems and features connect, with the biggest victim of the game being its general pacing and the ratio of exploration vs combat.
In one sentence, Disciples: Liberation is something special if you can look past it not being Disciples 2.
Note: the Steam key was provided for free for the purposes of this review
- King’s Bounty: The Legend, Might & Magic: Heroes 6 (in the turn-based grid combat)
- SpellForce 3 (in the way it combines RPG & strategy elements)