In the future, those who are crippled, dying, or about to be executed can opt to be reborn as cyborgs. The catch is that such a resurrection comes at a price: permanent enlistment in the Legion of the Damned. Suicidal cyborgs, genocidal aliens and Byzantine politics are all a part of this game based on William Dietz’ novels.
Here’s the twist: Legion of the Damned ($1.99) isn’t an adventure game or a FPS, it’s a hex-map TBS reminiscent of classic wargames like QQP’s The Perfect General and SSI’s Panzer General. It also includes a feature rarely seen in iOS games: a map editor. Strategy games are often light on story, but this one is steeped in a rich setting and follows the plot of Dietz’ first book. Perhaps the closest thing to Legion in the App Store is Battle for Wesnoth ($3.99), but the games are very different in feel.
Much like The Perfect General and Panzer General, Legion is a game of maneuver and information, in which the usual rock-paper-scissors formula is complicated by spotting, range and indirect (artillery) fire. Instead of a scouting radius in hexes, line of sight (LOS) rules combined with relatively small battlefields make for a tense, bite-sized game of cat and mouse.
This is particularly true in the game’s asynchronous online mode. One of my measures for good design in strategy games is whether they show an understanding of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. In Legion, victory often hinges on manipulating the other player’s understanding of what forces you have and where they are.
Games last a brief eight turns, a limitation that foces players to expose themselves by claiming victory poins (flags), and keeps play degenerating into a war of attrition. Game balance is assisted by the fact that you start each campaign mission with a fixed roster of troops (and each skirmish, solo or online, with a semi-random selection) and cannot buy more.
One map size, strict length restrictions and not being able to custom build an army (you can choose from 3 factions and 3 configurations, but the details are random) is a major limitation on the game, but it is also part of Legion’s appeal. Despite being story-driven, Legion completely eschews RPG mechanics and the forgiving design of games like Advance Wars in favor of design principles that grognards will appreciate: you work with what you’ve got, and every unit is expendable, yet none of them are replaceable.
This isn’t to say that this game is for the old-school hard-core only. It’s actually very accessible, with a few well-written tutorial missions that cover the game’s mechanics succinctly. It’s also pretty to look at: units are detailed, with standing animations and evocative but very brief attack animations (show on the map, Panzer General-style, rather than in Advance Wars-esque cut scenes). Movement is only nominally animated. I applaud the decision to keep play fast – animations take just long enough to show the player what is happening.
The game sounds good, especially in the cut scenes, which feature high-quality voice acting over black and white art with spot color, like an indie comic book. All of the dialogue also appeals in captions, and you can play your own music if you want, with or without the games sound effects, an option every game should have.
Legion’s story and gameplay don’t always mesh perfectly (you can get major characters killed in action without consequence or explanation- they’re back for the cut scenes and in subsequent missions), and early on the story, while interesting, seems unconnected to the missions the player is given. An update is coming which will let players re-view previous cut-scenes, which will help those who haven’t read the books make sense of it all.
The game’s multiplayer implementation is also a mixed bag: user friendly, but a bit limited at present, with no way to download other people’s custom maps or create a game just for your friends. Thankfully, the games devs are working on an update that will fix those oversights. That, a forthcoming tournament, and a little luck should boost the number of people in multiplayer.
Without a sufficient pool of players, versus play is irrelevant, and it remains to be seen whether Legion will sustain that critical mass. That alone may cause some people to balk at the slightly above-average price, but with solid fundamentals, an intriguing story, and devs who are dedicated to making major improvements, Legion of the Damned’s clinically depressed walking tanks should be returning fire for quite some time.