Hot on the heels of Heimdall, the greased pig-toting Norse warrior sim from Core Design, comes another departure form the usual rote of role-playing games - Ubi Soft's Celtic Legends. Like Heimdall, and like the recent Shadow Sorcerer from SSI, Legends offers a sprite-ly overview of the action, but in spirit it's very different.
In fact, with its hex-based movement on all levels (both map screens and closer-quarters character movement) and decidedly strategic-cum-tactical bent, it at first appears to be taking a diametrically opposed approach to Core's light-weight, puzzle-based offering.
On closer inspection though, they do have a fair amount in common - both games, in their different ways, work because they remove much of the complicated, trainspottery stuff from role-playing, allowing the layman to get straight into the action.
As Celtic Legends has been programmed by a Frenchman, I anticipated something a little out of the ordinary, and I was right - there's oddness from the off. You're plonked into a scenario that has little to do with the Celts of their legends (a shame) - there's not a tree-worshipping Druid in sight, though at least the intro sequence comes with an 'interesting' bagpipe tune!
What it offers instead is a swords and sorcery-style soiree featuring an assortment of monsters, a mythical land called Celtica and much fighting - AD&D fans will feel very much at home. (As will fans of 8-bit classic Chaos and the more disappointing Amiga follow-up Lords Of Chaos, but we'll get to that in a minute...)
The story is simple - there's an evil sorcerer (Sogrom the Scarlet to his mates, but Demog the supreme magician to you and I) on one side, and an equally powerful - but nicer - wizard (you) on the other. As all-round good-egg Eskel the Blue you're charged with the familiar task of vanquishing anything that shows up positive on the obnoximeter - and as far as the land of Celtica is concerned this basically means pitting your forces against the hordes of Demog in a series of battles.
These take place over a series of local islands, built up of a number of hexes on the map screen which each represent - once you've moved to combat mode - a single screen. Once you're in combat mode you'll see the ground is made up of lots of smaller hexes too - each individual character's moves are made from hex to hex, and when two guys from opposing 'teams' meet on the same hex they fight. Anyone who's ever seen a wargame will know exactly how this works.
So what's new? Well, quite a bit as it turns out. For a start, the game sets out to free the player from all the tedious mucking about the basic human needs and petty actions - eating, sleeping, going to the loo and so on - that seem to pervade the hard core of role-playing games. Legends offers an action-orientated to-do which, through losing much in the reality stakes, should help it find favour with the blood-and-guts brigade. It also completely dispenses with D&D's obsession with parties of characters and quests and the like - it's all-out-war we're talking here.
THE CELTIC PITCH FOR SUCCESS
The game kicks off with a strikingly impressive parallax-scrolling intro screen (presentation is generally top-notch), quickly whizzes you through the choice of one or two-player option, then gives you a strategic view of the particular isle chosen for conquest. Things start easily enough: you're standing about near a castle and have several legions of soldiers at hand to do your bidding. The enemy is shown as a red figure at the other end of the island and it's up to you to acquire the wherewithall with which to acquire the wherewithall with which to smite him.
And boy, there're a zillion ways to go about it. The game really scores on the number of combat options at your command, from direct sword-wielding confrontation between two characters to your using a welter of cunning spells. As you progress through the levels you gain the ability use higher level magic and your henchmen become more able fighters - during combat, statistics on both your forces and the enemy's are conveniently shown at the edges of the tactical screen, which makes the matching of adversaries to your own advantage a quick and painless affair.
Such fun tactics as blasting the opposition with fireballs, giving them diseases and transforming friendly troops into more powerful fighters make the early stages of the game a right old roisterous romp not unreminiscent of the fights in Populous. Don't be mislead by the initial impresion that Legends is a little too easy, though! Each successive campaign gets more vicious as bigger, badder and bolder monsters begin enter the fray - you'll find you've soon got more work cut out for you than a Beirut brickie.
So how do you actually go about trying to win? Well, to start off wit, the use of magic is vital. Only efficient use of magic is vital. Only efficient use of magic can ensure you sufficient firepower to counter the gathering momentum of Sogrom's campaign, providing a whole battery of spells, from simple fireballs to the all-encompassing Fatal Fire - the last word in anti-personnel conjuration - which handily zaps every foe on the screen.
Similarly, magic enables you to create new legions of entities to join in the good fight at any of a number of pentacles found in the castles and sacred sites that litter the landscape - at lower levels, more soldiers and expert fighters called Lords can be summoned, but as you powers increase, such fiendish creatures as cyclopes and archangels can be called.
You'll certainly need your creature chums too. Sogrom is no slouch when it comes to world domination and his efforts become more formidable from island to island. I frequently found myself in all kinds of bother as his forces streamed across the landscape, picking off my weaker legions and isolating Eskel from strategy-saving magic sites.
As mentioned before, fans of Julian Gollop's Chaos will be familiar with much of the gameplay - in fact, the whole game comes across as 60 percent Chaos, 40 percent wargame (if you can imagine that).
From the opening screens Celtic Legends is a very good looking game. Graphics and sound are generally impressive, although it has to be said that some of the sprites move in decidedly mysterious ways - soldiers twitch their weapons about as it afflicted with St Vitus' dance when they're not fighting, for instance. Even so, combat is a hoot to watch, particularly when a cyclops lays in with his club, say, or spells like Transformation and Teleport are used, accompanied by a theatrical puff of smoke.
The backgrounds to the tactical screens are full of nice touches too - snow in the mountains, the sun glistening on the sea in fenland - and atmosphere sound effects of frogs breeking or the wind howling complete the picture.
The only dodgy bits really are the game's speed and agility. The computer opponent takes quite some time to decide its moves, which - while giving you time to think - rather detracts from the all-action impetus. And it's impossible to move your legions through hexes occupied by friendly legions for some reason too, which leads to strategic headaches on narrow terrain.
But overall, the game is a winner. It looks good, has plenty of action and there are numerous ways to win each fracas, be it a simple punch up on the tactical screen or a long-range action plan over a whole island.
Such scope means all the controls on offer must be used to the full - there's no cure-all combination of spells and moves that will work in any given scenario. As such, Celtic Legends proves a real challenge to master even against the computer player, while the two-player option brings to light numerous new ways of completing the game. Rather surprisingly, it proves to be absolutely fab.