Capitalizing on the phenomenon that is Game of Thrones, developer Cyanide Studios with the help of publisher Focus Home Interactive, has released an intriguing and unique experience set in the expansive world dreamed up by fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin. What could be termed as a diplomatic RTS, A Game of Thrones: Genesis is focused on telling the story of the origins of the Seven Kingdoms. It must be noted that this is not based on the book series, but rather the events leading up to it, specifically the time between Nymeria’s invasion of Dorne and the Usurper War, which brought Robert Baratheon to power.
In essence, the game allows you to take control of the various major characters who are tasked with protecting their good name, while vying for total power over Westeros. Using all means available to accomplish your objectives, this game is principally based on deception and influence more so than military might.
In full disclosure, you should know beforehand that this is not an easy game to pick up and play. Going through the hour-long tutorial to comprehend the basics of the gameplay is essential in knowing what to do when you start playing.
There are hundreds of variables to take into account, and knowing specific strengths and weaknesses of units is necessary for success. Considering the following line is part of a scenario you go through during the tutorial, you can start to comprehend what is to be expected throughout the course of the game:
“Look, the enemy hired an assassin. But he is in fact your infiltrated spy. Let’s watch this turncoat assassin attempt false assassinations.”
Yes, this is actually a plausible, and quite common, scenario during the game. So knowing exactly how to play is important before attempting the campaign.
With such an involved process to grasp the basics, this is the definition of a hardcore gaming experience. So if you do not want to put in the time, then Genesis may not be worth a purchase. On the other hand, if you love the world George R.R. Martin has created, and would like to get a better understanding of its origins, Genesis is a quality way of doing so, while also providing a fresh approach to the RTS genre and some satisfying moments.
You will start the game as Nymeria, the warrior queen of the Rhoyne, with the task of conquering the southern land of Dorn as your main objective. As the game progresses you will be able to follow the storylines of Aegon Targaryen, Orys Baratheon and many of the other dominant characters during this era.
Rather than using the common RTS strategy of amassing a large army that overwhelms your opponent, Genesis focuses on the diplomatic side of world domination with the application of both friendly methods of expansion as well as duplicitous means to achieve victory. Many missions can be won without the use of force, but a strong army is still an important aspect of the game. They provide the collateral and protection necessary to allow your more influential units to do their job unimpeded.
Even with less of an emphasis on combat, this game still moves at a very fast pace, with a laid back approach effectively getting you nowhere in this environment. This game does require a certain type of aggression not commonly used in most RTS titles. Rather than press the enemy with your military, you attack in the form of alliances, spy work, underhanded techniques and assassinations. I guess you could call this a passive-aggressive strategy game.
Right from the start, you are required to use this strategy and become a strong delegator while keeping tabs on every aspect of your movements. If you forget to make use of a character or fail to do what is necessary to continue to expand, you will quickly see your lands become fragmented and eventually swallowed up by your rivals.
To make sure this does not happen, you have various units at your disposal. Starting with the envoy, who is an ambassador of sorts, you forge alliances with towns and castles which are scattered throughout the map. This allows merchants to collect gold on your behalf, eventually providing you with the means to raise an army.
You then use a number of spies to open sight lines, inspect friendly towns and castles, and set up secret alliances in the areas that are controlled by rival houses. Alliances alone will not lead you to success, so the introduction of assassins and rogues are a welcome addition to your inner circle, with the former sneaking into towns to take out enemies secretly, and the latter being a catalyst for town uprisings or buying off rival envoys and spies. Because of this ability to bribe rival characters, you have to keep in mind that you could be the victim of a traitorous envoy or spy in your camp without knowing it.
This Machiavellian sense of conspiracy and paranoia is what truly allows the game to shine. Knowing that you could very well have seemingly loyal envoys acting in a deceitful manner, is a strange and uneasy feeling when you first start playing. But this wary mindset also allows you to immerse yourself in the effort of preventing situations, rather than reacting to them. Genesis is one of the few games that plays in a chess-like fashion, requiring the player to think multiple steps ahead just to keep pace with their opponent.
The book’s perpetual power struggles and thin-ice alliances are conveyed well in Genesis through its gameplay. An RTS approach that is heavily military based would have been a major mistake in my opinion. The developers seemed to have a respect for the subject matter, and it shows.
Unfortunately there are negative consequences to this complexity, with the occasional manic search and placement of your units being the most apparent. Unlike many military RTS games, where it is cut and dry what is happening on screen, you have to keep continuous surveillance of your units while looking for very small indicators of what they are doing. Continually “plugging leaks” in your alliance gets somewhat tedious, making certain parts of the game seem like work rather than play. This is something that you do not want in a game. Luckily, it becomes easier to handle as you get used to the pacing, but this problem does not ever fully go away.
With regard to the interface and the actual playing of the game, it is deceptively simple compared to the strategy involved. If you know exactly how to use your characters, it soon becomes quite easy to direct them around the board. There is rarely the need to pan the camera around for different viewing angles, so issues with reorientation that are common in other RTS games is basically nonexistent in Genesis. Choosing what characters to develop is easy and finding your way around the map is a breeze, considering your focus is almost solely on towns and castles, which are always visible on the always useful, and well placed, small map.
The graphics are quite good, even on low settings. with some noticeable highlights, including some impressive looking dragons. A colorful yet sparse environment is nothing special, unfortunately, and has a tendency to be repetitive. Anyone who has seen the intro to the television show will be underwhelmed by the cookie-cutter style of the castles and towns. Originality is not this game’s best feature.
The art and character design is quite disappointing, especially when comparing it to the rich world Martin created. The characters who are described with such richness in the novels, are plain and generic, seemingly coming from a nondescript fantasy novel with that famously bland cover art you always see at the book store. It is as if they did not get the rights to the content and went with rudimentary substitutes. This is the most visible aspect of the larger problem with this game.
The gameplay is deep and satisfying for the hardcore gamer, but the overall design of the game lacks identity. If you did not see Game of Thrones on the cover, and replaced the major houses with different names, you would have almost no clue that you were playing in the Thrones universe. For all I know, this could have been a fully developed game that had everything except for a creative direction, and when Game of Thrones became mega-popular, the publisher slapped the namesake on a blank-slate RTS that they already had queued up for release.
In other words, I found myself forgetting that I was playing in Westeros, and could have just as easily been playing another, less interesting, fantasy world. Fortunately, if you do have a good understanding of the subject matter, you can just use your imagination to fill in the gaps the game contains. It is still dissapointing though.
The writing itself, while obviously not on par with its inspiration, does a decent job of guiding you through the era in which this game is focused. Unfortunately, there are some weak efforts at times, with lazy description scattered throughout, such as using the term “numeric inferiority” when discussing your lack of manpower. That sounds more like a biology term than something that would be in a fantasy story. Come to think of it, I am not sure if they were trying too hard, or not hard enough. Either way, the fact that someone else was doing the writing becomes obvious quickly and does not help the titles literary appeal.
All in all, A Game of Thrones: Genesis is a quality RTS that provides a passable introduction to the early years of the incredibly complex world. Even though I enjoyed my time with the game, Genesis should only be played by those who are looking for a hardcore experience which requires a mindset that is open to the gameplay style it follows.
Instead of an instruction manual they should just give you a copy of The Prince to read before getting a steady dose of deception in this surprisingly addictive diplomatic RTS. Even with a rather ugly exterior, the fresh gameplay focus of Genesis is recommended for all those who are fans of George R.R. Martin and his world.
This review is based on a copy of the game which we received for review purposes.