Endless Legend is challenging—but not in the way you think. It's not rubbing my face in the dirt with a warmongering AI, or making me poke and prod through a hundred inscrutable menus without any tutorial. Endless Legend isn't the Dark Souls of anything.
What it does challenge, however, are my preconceived notions of science fiction and fantasy fiction, dragging me, kicking and screaming, into a world of science fantasy. It challenges my ability to judge people-books by their people-covers. And it challenges me to throw away my safety net, put my nose to the grindstone (rather than continually hit restart), and to be okay with not having every decision I make be informed by overwrought in-game spreadsheets.
Basically, Endless Legend turns some of what I know about strategy games sideways. Mostly, the game challenges my expectations right from the character select screen. These are not your average strategy game tropes. At least not when they're all thrown into one place like this.
There are emo wizards that love cutting themselves. Parasitic ghost knights. Twitchy religious mannequins. Librarian dragons. Flesh-eating locust people. There are spacefaring Vikings and Nordic spelunkers that are technically separate species, but are so closely related that their Wikia links mistakenly go to the same page. The druidic elves with head tentacles and Prince of Persia merchant warriors are as close as any race gets to being "normal," so there you have it. I ended up taking the non-dwarves from under the mountain, but even their architecture is dark and alien when transplanted from their deep caverns onto the scintillating surface of the planet.
I just had to accept that this was the new normal.
But along these same lines, I was most shocked when I came across the minor factions, the NPC races. These minor factions exist in small networks of city-states. Sure, some of them are normal in appearance. But I was definitely on edge when I met the demonic-looking Kazanji. Or the H.R. Giger alien folks—they're even called The Eyeless Ones, so I could tell they were sniffing me a little too much. Or the hydra-like Erycis; they have, like, seven serpent heads. How am I supposed to negotiate with these minor factions when they have more mouths than Tiamat in Dungeons & Dragons? Is there shocking appearance supposed to startle me into a declaration of war? Because they don't look human, am I supposed to dehumanize them further and subjugate them? Because I'll tell you, the idea is working. Hey, when you meet up with The Haunts and their enormous spiky ethereal ghost-shredded clothing, then you can judge me. Until then, you tell me if it's a good idea for me to undertake a quest to pacify any of these super-scary species in any sort of friendly manner...or if I should just put them to the sword and be done with it.
So, again, I just had to accept that this was the new normal.
And to their credit, how a species looks has (almost) nothing to do with how it behaves. The demon people I first met? They're great. They asked relatively little of me, and now they contribute bonuses to my empire. They even let me recruit some of their giant flying Satans into my army. The hydras? I couldn't pacify them, but that wasn't their fault. I shrugged away from them for several turns, afraid that—because of their looks—that they couldn't possibly be a viable ally. Once I finally took on a quest to make them cool with me, the circumstances of victory conditions were cut short by an unusually short winter season. That's a thing that can happen.
I just had to accept that I couldn't judge these books by their covers. Not in the utterly mind-boggling landscape and social-scape that is Endless Legend. A lot of the normal rules don't apply here.
This game is continually surprising. I've only reached about turn 150 or 200 in my very first game. That means I've been through maybe six or seven winters, I can't recall. The notion of time can be vague here. But I still have a lot to learn. Every time I think I've got something figured out, I mouseover a different image, or I click a text link I hadn't noticed the first 150 turns, and then another pop-up or entirely new menu screen I've never seen before spills out more turn-based strategy goodness.
I've been playing Sid Meier's Civilization games my entire life. I'd gotten tired of the formula years ago. Endless Legend, by making seemingly familiar conventions become something wholly different and explorable and fresh and scary, is turning this into my new favorite strategy game of probably the last 10 years. Again, I've got a long ways to go and a lot to learn before I get there in Endless Legend, but so far, I'm up to the challenge.