Disciples Liberation – Off the Beaten Path
PC, Xbox Series/One, PS4/5
I wouldn’t call it captivating… but I would call it intriguing.
That’s what I wrote down about 10 hours into Disciples: Liberation. In the beginning, I wasn’t entirely sure this game was going to stick.
B-grade, generic fantasy. You know the kind. Humans and elves. Demons and the undead. Swords and magic. I was sure I was about to round the corner and see a drunken dwarf swinging a battle-axe.
Except… I didn’t. Dwarves did exist in this world, once. But that was in epoch’s Past. In the current day, they are extinct. Oh, and did I mention that the Second Woken – Disciple’s name for the undead – live within the carcass of the extinct race’s God Wotan, whose slowly rotting flesh is strewn across a huge mountain?
It feels very much like the world of Disciples starts with the kernel of the familiar, holding true to many traditions of Tolkienesque fantasy, before blooming out into an incredibly deep, dense world of its own. The lore bible for this game must be hundreds of thousands of words.
You play as Avyanna, a character I can only describe as an amalgamation of every female lead protagonist you’ve seen in a video game – badass, sassy, good at absolutely everything. The game opens up with best friend Orion accompanying you on a mission to assassinate a priest, at the behest (and significantly heavy purse) of the Empire. Of course, the mission goes awry, and you find yourself… owner of an ancient celestial city. Because, why not?
That was the mode I fell into with Disciples, at least for the first major chunk of the game. It’s best to let everything that’s happening wash over you, taking everything in stride as you go. Oh, the high church seems like it’s up to no good? Sounds about right. The only way to earn respect from the Demon Horde is to compete and win in a gladiator-style fight to the death? Makes sense.
All of this plays out in two major modes of play. First, you’ll be exploring open maps and the occasional basic dungeon from a top-down perspective. In this mode you are basically wandering around looking for three things – to talk to people, to find loot, and most important of all, to fight.
In the meat of what Disciples has to offer, you’ll spend hours upon hours staring at a 7×11 hex grid battlefield, ordering units around in turn-based fashion, using their abilities to your strategic advantage in order to defeat your opponents.
Aside from Avy, you can have up to nine more units on the battlefield to command, with up to two of these being Dragon Age style companion characters. A “Leadership” value will keep you from just placing all of your strongest units out, so thought and care must go into making a well-balanced team. There are also three slots available for “backline” units, which don’t appear on the field but can provide buffs or debuffs depending on their special abilities. Generic units are produced RTS style, costing a certain amount of resources (both found lying about the world and generated over in-game time through taking over buildings) to spin up and train.
The variety of units is honestly impressive. Each of the four main factions has over a dozen units each, and every single one of them is not only distinctive but is worth using depending on your builds, strategies and the enemies you’re facing. There are also the occasional “special” versions of these units, which sit somewhere between the regular unit and companion character. Generic and special units that are defeated in battle are lost forever, but companion units and Avy herself will be revived with a slice of health if they fall but you manage to still be victorious.
The difficulty and power curve is gradual, so you get a good chance to get your feet wet before you really need to wrap your head around taking every advantage you can in battle. At first, I was almost a little underwhelmed, but the more variety in units I came across, the more I couldn’t rely on my army of Warpriestesses to get me through safely.
Where initially it will be hit for hit, gradually things like positioning and optimal use of AOE and status effect inducing abilities will become more important. Synergies between units will be the deciding factor between whether you breeze through a battle with no losses, vs. coming out the other side worse for wear – if at all.
There really is a lot to sink your teeth into with these strategic forays. I haven’t even mentioned the gear Avy can find and equip, the almost overwhelming stats sheets (I still don’t know what the difference between power and strength or intelligence and initiative is), Avy’s access to dozens upon dozens of spells, a shard merging and equipping system, a whole array of status effects including but not limited to poison, blind, weakened, inspired, motivated, burned, chilled, silent, incorporeal and resilient, not to mention physical/unholy/primal/divine damage… It’s a lot.
It’s crunchy in every single way. It’s the type of thing where you’ll either feast for days, or stumble through oblivious as to why one battle is going so poorly even though the units you’re facing are nearly identical to the previous one.
Before I talk any deeper about the game, a caveat – I have not finished Disciples yet. My hour count on Steam sits at 44 hours for the past two weeks of play. I am a good chunk of the way through what I believe is the second of a three-act game. While I feel satisfied in being able to speak on the game, I have not seen the final crescendo just yet. I don’t expect it to colour my thoughts one way or the other, but, fair warning.
Through the first major act of the game, you will traipse across the four corners of the land in an attempt to gather allies and build your formidable force. The reasoning behind this is… kind of flimsy. Sure, at first Avy is worried the Empire themselves – the ones who sent you on your initial quest to assassinate a priest – is going to come bearing down on you. Fairly quickly though, you come to realise they aren’t interested in killing you off for your failure to accomplish your task. You could theoretically just walk away – but hey, you’re an RPG protagonist. Of course, you’re going to become the Chosen One who will be the Deciding Factor in The FIghts To Come.
It’s all a bit loose, to be honest. It feels more like there is a story that is fleshed out amongst the world but there needed to be some beginning excuse to actually get you there.
Thankfully, this is where the “slow burn” nature of Disciples comes in full swing. Once a few (kind of foreseeable) plot reveals come about, along with the aforementioned world-building getting deeper and more interesting, things start to kick up a few notches.
One of the loading screens caught my eye early on, making them nearly roll to the back of my head. “Most citizens of Nevendaar are deeply religious, and would rather die than speak ill of the Gods.” I’m paraphrasing slightly, but my initial impression was that this was a cop-out to explain the radical nature of each race.
After several dozen hours, that screen popped up again, and I realised I now saw it in a completely different light. Nevendaar’s beings don’t just worship some unknowable deities – the gods they speak of are, or have been, actual living creatures. Incredibly powerful, yes, but also, importantly, fallible.
The demonic horde’s bloodthirsty worship of Bethrezen, the church’s unspeakable acts in the name of The Highfather, Mortis’ clutches on the second woken – these dilemmas and the different perspectives and motivations of the beings under them become much more grounded when their gods are a very real presence in the realm of Nevendaar. They may not be physically present – at least not yet from where I’m up to in the story, anyway – but they aren’t some detached beings unconcerned with the lives of mere mortals. These stakes not only raise a cavalcade of questions that I want answered, but are a driving force to seek out more lore, more story, and more history.
That history being so front and centre is the glue that binds all of this together. Not only are you playing through a time of great upheaval in the world, but the entire ten epochs – millennia upon millennia of time – are known. Well, not entirely – history is messy, and often is something many denizens of the world have conflicting takes on – but this history gives a real richness to the world. There’s a sense of massive world-spanning civilisations and conflicts fought and lost long before your time, of the battles you are being wrapped up in just the next in a long, long line of power plays and balance shifts.
The only thing missing from Disciples, given all this, is a proper in-game lore bible. The Steam page boasts an “80+ hour single-player campaign”, but I would spend half that again reading old scriptures, recountings of epic battles fought by heroes and villains and dense scrolls full of fascinating details of the clashes of gods any day.
As is always the case with these massive, sprawling, epic RPGs, there’s still so much to talk about. I barely mentioned the lost city you quickly call home; the balancing of faction standing between the four major races; the satisfying array of your traditionally untraditional companions; the more interesting side quests that are worth your time vs. those that are just filler. But that’s the nature of these things, isn’t it? Even with 1,500 words, I can only ever scratch the surface.
Disciples: Liberation isn’t necessarily going to be the next Witcher or Dragon Age. It fits firmly into publisher Kalypso Media’s wheelhouse – games that have a decent mechanical depth, that is more interested in being intriguing than focus tested down to a bland paste. You probably can guess whether this “mature, dark fantasy strategy RPG” is for you from a glance at its Steam page, but from where I’m sitting, if you’re on the fence, it’s worth taking the stab on.
Disciples Liberation was reviewed on PC with code kindly provided by Kalypso Media