My first hour playing SpellForce III: Reforced on an Xbox Series S had me thinking “this looks good and the performance is solid“, but also “damn the UI is dense”, “targeting is imprecise”, and “was porting this game to console really a good idea?”. Five hours in, I found myself ruminating on why RTS-RPG hybrids have been relegated to a few mid-tier IPs, with little recognition, despite the success of 2002’s WarCraft III. Twenty-five hours in – having sidelined everything else I was meant to be playing – I found myself thinking back on how many so-called “bad” console ports had introduced me to genres and IPs I might never have experienced otherwise.
It’s not easy to explain why SpellForce III: Reforced enraptured me despite the obvious issues. If I had to try, I’d say it has comfortingly nostalgic sensibilities and is greater than the sum of its parts. The role-playing elements – with dialogue choices, character progression, and gear – are deep enough to keep you engaged without becoming overbearing. Similarly, the real-time strategy elements are stressful and require some multitasking, but rarely excessive micromanaging. Each element is present in the right proportions and – at least on the normal difficulty setting – the degree of challenge feels consistent between them.
Fantasy kingdoms, rogue mages, ancient curses, and religious zealots
SpellForce III: Reforced is unlikely to redefine your expectations of fantasy narratives and relies on familiar Tolkein-inspired tropes. However, it serves as a prequel to the older PC games, has a cohesive story, and several standalone DLC campaigns – making it a great entry point for console players.
The original 40-ish-hour campaign kicks off with a hefty prologue that gets you up to speed with the setting, factions, and many significant characters. A failed attempt to stop what would become known as the “Mage Wars” ends with the rescue of the lightly-customisable protagonist – the magically-gifted son or daughter of Isamo Tahar – a rebel mage rebel who would go on to cause untold suffering to the kingdom. The player, however, only experiences the aftermath of the war, with the story picking up right after Tahar has become a member of the elite Wolf Guard – having been recruited and trained by the general that rescued him or her.
A mission to a nearby village to assess the spread of a new plague, the “Bloodburn”, goes awry. A past grudge leads to violence, and Tahar’s heritage sees them branded as a traitor. Tahar manages to escape from the capital, alongside their first additional party member, but they’re left with no choice but to join forces with the leader of a radical, mage-persecuting religious group known as “The Purity”. Events escalate and Tahar’s quest to discover the true source of the Bloodburn – while surviving encounters with their former mentor and overzealous Purity splinter groups – forces them to seek allies from different factions. Naturally, they all want something first.
It’s an overused but effective narrative setup and serves to highlight the ridiculous amount of fully-voiced dialogue in SpellForce III: Reforced – both mandatory and optional. Despite being a genre hybrid, Grimlore Games did not skimp on the storytelling element, even if – outside of the flashy opening and closing cutscenes – it’s told through talking-heads and rudimentary in-engine cutscenes. If you’re a fan of RPGs with layered narratives, lore entries to sift through, and the ability to delve into your companion’s backstories, you’ll find no shortage of opportunities here.
A bit of WarCraft III, a bit of Baldur’s Gate, a bit of Diablo, a bit of Age of Empires…
It’s crazy to think two decades have passed since Blizzard released WarCraft III but I’d argue it served as the template for early RPG-RTS hybrids – the emphasis on the real-time element as turn-based-RPGs had been around since the mid-1970s. If you’ve played it or watched someone play it, the structure is broadly similar – albeit with more hero-RPG elements, less linear progression, and streamlined RTS elements with a focus on controlling territory.
You always control a persistent team of heroes, with ever-improving attributes, expanding skill trees, and gear upgrades. When you’re simply exploring points of interest on a map, conversing with quest givers, fighting neutral mobs, or gathering loot – it can feel like a mix of the classic Infinity Engine cRPGs and Diablo’s free-flowing kill-and-loot cycle. Unexpectedly, there’s plenty of player choice in both dialogue and how you tackle optional quests. However, they don’t lead to the same divergence you might expect in a traditional CRPG as the story trajectory is guided by pre-existing lore. Rather, they define your protagonist’s motivations and morality – altering future dialogue and events – and impact how many forces you have available for the finale. It’s a nice touch, that again highlights the impressive amount of voice work, and makes your playthrough feel unique – even if the broad strokes of the story don’t change.
On several maps, Tahar’s status as a corporal – and numerous plot contrivances – grant you control of a faction army and the RTS elements kick in. Rather than bog you down with dozens of structures and unit types, SpellForce III: Reforced emphasises expanding territory by capturing sector flags, and then establishing outposts to ensure a steady flow of resources through an expanding workforce.
Your maximum population limit allows for a large army but the main settlements and outposts can only support a limited number of workers that have to be spread between resource gathering, army-producing buildings, research-based buildings, and defences. The AI is also like a parasite if left uncontested, so understanding the terrain and deciding which points to contest early is vital if you want to create defensible chokepoints and avoid enemy outposts popping up behind you.
Once you’ve got a feel for how outposts and resource-gathering work, you’ll quickly realise there’s limited complexity. Each of the three factions you can command has a limited roster of broadly similar units and structures, with the focus on upgrading existing buildings and units to make them more effective – upgrades that are either found during exploration or purchased from faction leaders back at your base of operations. There are unit counters but a mixed force – think melee, ranged, and siege – coupled with your squad of heroes is usually enough to clear out peripheral outposts or carve a path towards the AI’s main settlement to defeat them in one risky push. It’s a design that rewards multitasking, but intense micromanagement is only necessary for higher difficulties.
One of the things I enjoyed most about SpellForce III: Reforced’s gameplay loop – in addition to the balance it strikes between the gameplay elements – is that it rewards cautious and methodical progression. Very few locations throw you into the thick of the action, so you can explore for secondary quests, loot everything in sight, and potentially level up your heroes before pushing on with the main quest. You could easily spend 2-3 hours exploring everything a single location has to offer. Similarly, the RTS sections reward preparation – such as uncovering the map and finding “Godstones” that can function as two-way portals for your army – and systematically dominating the map, reducing the size of the army your enemy can field. If you want to play fast and loose, you still can, but this design makes it far more accessible.
The console experience has a learning curve but it’s worth it
Now, talking of accessibility, it’s obvious SpellForce III: Reforced was originally developed with only a PC in mind. As a result, there’s a limit to the degree of gamepad support and UI optimisation. For many, the biggest issue will be that all elements rely on using the thumbsticks to emulate a mouse cursor. There is an option to lock the camera to selected units but there’s no direct unit control and the constrained camera position just felt like a liability during the RTS battles. Ultimately, you’re going to have to wrap your brain around combining thumbstick-driven cursor movement and screen scrolling to stay on top of the action.
When it comes to common inputs like unit selection, triggering abilities, forming command groups, building menus, and camera snapping, the gamepad shortcuts work admirably when combined with a smart targeting system that seems to prioritise more powerful foes and shifts building foundation outlines to the closest viable area. The face buttons cover the standard move and attack-move command, while the d-pad allows you to toggle between units in a mixed group so you can counter enemy types or target buildings with siege weapons quickly. Depending on your preferences, bringing up radial shortcuts – for structures, hero abilities, command groups, and squad behaviours – can either slow or pause the game, ensuring you can adapt to changing conditions or take a breather to strategise. Not everything is intuitive, however, and I’d advise you to take note of the tutorial pop-ups. It took me ages to realise I could only manually populate the radial ability shortcuts from the skill tree window.
Playing on the couch comes with another challenge – the cluttered HUD and small text size. Playing on a 49” display from about 2-meters away, it was hard to see what I selected in the menus, inventory comparison screens or notes were a pain to read, and in-game text pop-ups – think critical damage taken, XP earned, or gold collected – were so small they might as well be removed. Despite these issues, several sub-menus and stat windows don’t make full use of the screen, and there are extraneous elements on the HUD that could be removed – such as a hero ability bar that has no functionality given the radial shortcut exists.
A reminder that even the clunkiest of console ports are worth having
Now despite the issues I’ve just highlighted, the narrative twists and hybrid gameplay loop hooked me and I quickly learned to adapt and accept the clunkiness after a few hours. Sure, there were ongoing moments when I found myself cursing the interface, but they did little to detract from the experience and sure didn’t stop me from picking up the chunky DLC campaigns that promised even more playtime. If you’ve got a reliable gaming companion to coordinate strategies, you can even tackle the entire campaign, skirmishes, and a freeform Mercenary mode in co-op.
The experience and sensation took my mind back to playing Command & Conquer, Red Alert, and Dune 2000 on the PS1 (with only a d-pad); Deus Ex and Max Payne on the PS2; DOOM III and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind on the original Xbox; and, more recently, the Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, and Neverwinter Nights “Enhanced Editions” on Xbox One. They’re all console ports that, subjectively and objectively, look and play worse than their PC counterparts – sometimes far worse. Yet many of them introduced me to IPs I would have otherwise missed, not having had a gaming PC in my household. Others gave me an excuse to replay influential titles from my youth.
All things considered, SpellForce III: Reforced on console is an imperfect port, with multiple control and interface issues, but I’d still consider it an essential, worthwhile, and engrossing RTS-RPG experience. CRPGs have a mixed history on consoles and RTS games are rare. SpellForce III: Reforced provides a satisfying mix of both in a compelling and well-balanced package that I’d recommend to any console player curious about the genre.
A code for SpellForce III: Reforced was provided to gameblur by the publisher.