Review: Theocracy

Theocracy is a real-time strategy and empire management game, set in a world similar to Aztec world, with the invasion by the Spanish in the 1600's. The aim of the game is simple - you must survive, and preferably conquer all of Central America while you're at it.

The main menu

The game has a comprehensive tutorial and a set of "Chronicles" - stories introducing you the game, and to the history of the world. These give you a good chance to try out all the aspects of the game, before you embark on the main single player game , the "Prophecy". "Prophecy" begins with one of your priests telling you that you've got 100 years till the Spaniards arrive and crush all who inhabit your region, not just your own tribe...

The control of your empire falls into two parts - the overview "region" map and the "province" map. Each province has its own production of people and things like food, and caravans can move between the provinces to, for instance, supply an army in a poor province with food, or carry stone to build things in remote provinces, and you can move slaves from province to province, so if you can't train soldiers in one province, you can at least move them elsewhere to train.

There is a reasonable number of "chronicles" - short stories in which you play a part, to introduce you to aspects of the game

The whole economy of your tribe revolves around slaves - your people are all born into slavery and carry on from there. Slaves can be trained within a province to do a single task, although slaves can do many tasks such as farming, building and mining without any training. Slaves can also be captured from enemy provinces, should you so desire.

Onto the opinionated bits...

Obviously the first thing you do with a game is install it. Unlike most of the games I've played for Linux, this one was an in-house port (well done Philios Laboritories!) - I actually bought this off a shelf in HMV. There, sitting on the CD, was a linux directory, and in there was a readme and an file called "inst.linux" which gave me a hint or two. It's a simple shell script, and to be honest they could have done better, but I guess it was a side project in the first place. One or two annoyances - the game wouldn't install as non-root (and since I and most gamers are the only one using a machine, I want to install in my own space), it installed into /usr/games/ without asking me for a location, and it lied, and told me I could run the game by simply typing "theocracy", which I couldn't since /usr/games is not on the path. Those niggles aside, it did install without any real effort.

A farm in one of your provinces. With some Llamas, since Llamas are great.

Running the game proved to be no hassle, after I found the executable, and it starts happily in a window. There is a fullscreen option, but you have to edit a config file (as root) and it doesn't actually switch resolution, so you get an odd looking box in the top corner, which you'd have to change res and move to the top corner to use. The windowing situation further suffers from the fact that the video sections are in 640x480, but the game is in 800x600, so the window size changes during the game which is disconcerting. It would have been nice had they implemented fullscreen correctly, but as it stands, it runs very happily in a window and I was happy enough with that (annoying res changes aside) - its the sort of game that doesn't need by any means to be fullscreen. They also implemented a feature such that the mouse pointer is locked into the window in the province map, where you need it to scroll around, but in the region map where scrolling is impossible, your mouse pointer is free to reach the rest of the desktop - a lovely method of getting the best of both worlds.

Once you get started, the game is a world apart from a lot of the linux games I've been playing lately. It's solid and feels nice to use - the buttons click with a satisfying sound played at the right moment, and it feels... professional. A nice responsive game, things generally do what you want when you say do them. One or two gripes with the user interface - it's a little obscure on the province maps, with left click always being select and right click move, rather than any sort of context sensitive interface as is normal. But all the usual "select group 1" type commands from strategy games are present. All in all, once you're used to the control system, the game feels really nice to play.

A unit of soldiers, complete with wonderbows, sets out for battle.

The setting of the whole game is really well done. The units shout some strange sounding words as you order them around, the buttons have the Central American style drawings on them, and all in all its good good at feeling like it's in the correct time period. There's some interesting tales and events that pop up from time to time. The chronicles section has some good bits of story-telling in it, and the manual contains several pages of "history" and background.

Onto what is perhaps the most important part of a game... the gameplay. I have to admit that my liking for the game drops off a little here - the gameplay is quite limited. I had quite a lot of trouble really controlling the battles once they got past the massacres that mark the first few attacks you make, and ended up letting the computer deal with it all. I also never really got to be able to use the priests properly - the spells never quite seem to do any good, although that may be partly due to my dislike of using sacrifices to get mana!

My brave soldiers here are attacking an evil enemy, and being summarily slaughtered, as usual.

The battles aren't quite as exciting as the box makes out either - it claims that the engine can have "up to 50000 units on screen without any slowdown" - I'd love to know their definition of a "unit", since the battles can only have 500 or so people per side, and regardless of that, things were none too speedy on my poor P400. That being said, you could have a considerable number of units on screen, but perhaps their claims were a bit high...

The game has lots of potential early on and the first few missions you are given are quite interesting. However, soon things descend into just all out battles and they're basically boring and repetitive, and after a while I started automating all the battles (at least this is a possibility) since I had difficulty controlling the units in the first place.

The storyline, while it lasts, is quite interesting also, and well thought out, with various missions giving you extra bonuses. The game is also very free form - unlike most games where you are steered directly at certain events, here you can choose which provinces to attack and if you attack certain ones, events will happen. The story did seem to fizzle out later in the game, but this could be due to my not finding the right provinces to attack.

I may only control four provinces now, but soon all of Central America will be mine!

All strategy games suffer a limitation dilemma - how do you stop the player building 5 million soldiers and just marching them around. This game, like most resource management based games (here the resource is generally people) has a traditional unit limit, but also has other limits - your stone quarries will eventually run out of stone (after all, you cant keep finding rock down in the earth forever can you?) and this effectively limits your ability to build most of the useful buildings. I found this really irritating, since the game effectively pushes you away from experimenting with certain types of building and sticking to the more useful buildings. The same is true of jewels - eventually you will not be able to get any more, and not be able to buy alliances or build certain buildings.

This game is quite old now, as the astute reader may have realised, and obviously this gives me time to have finished the game. Herein lies a issue which could be either good or bad - I never finished the game. I did play the game for a good while, but once the story fizzled out and I reached the unit limit, I stopped playing and only picked it up recently again to review it. That being said, at least I didn't finish the game without a challenge (even if the challenge is to my persistence...). Theocracy basically runs out of steam, and the fact that there's only three different types of soldier and ultimately about 10 buildings (with a few variations in size) means the game suffers in the long run.

Overall, I have lots of mixed feelings about Theocracy. The game has got its fun points, and I liked some of the missions and the whole idea. But my gut feeling suggests the game is more of a nice idea which never really worked - it needs more variety and flexibility. Buy it? If you're after something to play, it's got a good few hours of gameplay in it, and I've certainly played much worse games. But I've played much better, too.

Gameplay7/10- The overall management was quite fun, and some of the battles were interesting, but after a while it became monotonous
Graphics9/10- I really liked the graphics - they're not full of snazzy effects but clean and well themed.
Sound 8/10- Nothing special (no sound ever seems to be special) but enough to keep the theme of the game going well.
Implementation8/10- Apart from a confusing control system, the game had little to fault it from a technical side - it was solid and had some nice features. Shame fullscreen didn't work.
Replayability6/10- The game is repetitive at times, and I can't bring myself to get back to the same point as I got to the first time I played it.
Overall 8/10- A fun game for a fair while, but eventually it just fizzles...

This review written by mrsneeze on the 2nd of February, 2002.

Buy Theocracy for Linux (or Windows) from Tuxgames.

Theocracy was written by Philios Laboratories and published by Ubisoft

Other reviews by mrsneeze