Disciples: Dark Prophecy, the follow up to Disciples: Sacred Lands, has been around for quite a while now. I originally heard about it from people who thought I'd like it, since I was an avid Heroes of Might and Magic (HOMM) fan. This title will certainly appeal to players with similar tastes to mine D:DP is a turn-based fantasy strategy game in the same genre as HOMM, which to some might sound a bit out-dated now but, like HOMM, D:DP has certainly stood the test of time. It spawned three expansions, ('Servants of the Dark', 'Guardians of the Light' and 'Rise of the Elves'), and the whole bundle has now been released by Strategy First as a single package: Disciples II: Gold Edition. At 9.99 for the whole lot, it's excellent value for money.

The original Disciples was fairly good, but the difference in appearance between that and Dark Prophecy was astounding. Even though it's 2D graphics, the landscape and the characters are beautifully rendered. You don't have to wait for hours while the AI takes its turn, which in some turn-based games can be a bit of a pain. And the play, while relatively simple in comparison to more recent titles, is extremely addictive. There's an easy-to-use map editor, which enables you to create your own scenarios, and a wealth of fan-produced maps on-line, so the game has longevity too.

Although I've played Disciples II and its add-ons for some time, I began again at the beginning to refresh my memory and have thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the territory. For its type, there isn't much to complain about.

Some of the main features include 200 individually animated units and 100 animated spells and multiplayer for up to 4 players through hotseat, LAN or Internet. Each of the main races in the game has a unique Saga, or campaign, which means the main storyline is told from different perspectives, thus creating a brand new story for each one you play. There is no upper limit for the upgrade of units and leaders and you can export/import your best leaders to other quests.

Dark Prophecy

Following on from Disciples: Sacred Lands, DP returns you to the magical realm of the Sacred Lands, where four races continue their battle for the destiny of their gods.

To begin playing, you have the choice of a Saga or a Quest, the Saga being the game campaign of several scenarios, and Quests the single missions. You can opt to play any of the four races. The Empire is comprised of mainly human units whose towns are in verdant pastures; the Legions of the Damned are the fire-favouring infernal beings whose territory is volcanic; the Mountain Clans are the dwarves who inhabit snow-bound regions; and the Undead Hordes are well... the Undead, who live in a black, ravaged land. Each race plays very differently, and you have to learn the strategies of how best to deploy them. Each also has a special advantage. The Empire, for example, has the benefit of healing and resurrecting units, while the Legions have units that can petrify or transform enemies into harmless imps. The ghosts and phantoms of the Undead can paralyse your enemies (later on, the vampires give you the added advantage of stealing opponents' life energy, transferring it to friendly units, almost like the Empire's healing), and the Clan dwarves are just plain powerful, with their more advanced units using devastating magic.

From the opening screen, as a peal of thunder crackles out, the atmosphere builds up. The music too is very atmospheric as is the sepulchral tone of the voiceover actor. Once you've opted for a Saga or a Quest, and which race you wish to play, you choose your Lord. You select a ruler portrait and decide between a Warrior Lord, a Mage Lord or a Guildmaster. Each Lord begins the game with the appropriate party leader for his or her type.

The Warrior Lord gives the advantage of brute force and the ability to heal more rapidly than other types, but this selection prevents you from researching the top level spells. This isn't always a problem, since (especially in the scenarios available online) there are spell shops in the game where you can sometimes purchase the best ones. The Warrior uses close combat and can only strike one enemy at a time.

If you select a Mage, his party leader is physically weaker, but of course has better magic skills. Spells can be cast twice a day, instead of once, as for the other Lord types, and they cost half as much to research. You can also research level 5 spells. You need to put a Mage leader at the rear of your troops, because one blow from an enemy unit is likely to kill him outright. Unfortunately, in the early stages of the game, before you build up his stats, he's also very vulnerable to arrows. But his magic attacks affect every enemy unit, which is a plus.

Like the Warrior, the Guildmaster is limited to level 4 spells, but gives the advantage of cheaper city upgrading and more actions for your thieves. The Guildmaster party leader is an archer and travels greater distances per turn than the other two types. He can only shoot at one enemy unit per turn.

Some leaders have the bonus of being able to fly, which is very useful when travelling over water, which normally is an extreme impediment to speed (unless your leader has acquired the special boots that overcome this, or you have the Mountain Clans spell that aids water travel). Once you've decided upon your Lord, main hero type and the difficulty level you require for the game, you're off!

Each turn, you get to move your main leader (and any other party leaders you've recruited), build in your town and research spells. First, you need to recruit troops for your leader. The party comprises two rows of three, but to begin with you can only have four units. Later in the game, as the leader acquires skills, you can select Leadership a couple of times, which increases the amount of units you can have to the maximum. This is undoubtedly an essential skill, along with Pathfinding that increases movement. Each leader type comes with a couple of skills to start with. Your units improve through acquiring experience points, but you have to have the required buildings in your main city in order for them to level up. You start off with nothing, and it's best to get the first level buildings for your troops before anything else. They level up quite quickly at the start, but don't amass any more experience points until the relevant buildings are in the city. So, it's wasted points unless your town planning is in order! Apart from unit buildings, you can build a temple, which allows you to pay for healing and resurrection in your towns, a magic tower that enables you to research spells and a guild where you can recruit thieves.

You can buy new party leaders of any type - Mage, Warrior or Ranger - but they don't provide the advantages that a Lord of their type would give. Still, it's useful to get a variety of leaders, since some enemies can be slain only by magic. Other leaders include the thief and the rod-planter. Thieves travel alone, so are very vulnerable to attack, but at least are cheap. They gather information for you, by infiltrating enemy groups so you can see what you're up against, poisoning parties, and nosing through various buildings in the landscape to see what hostiles inhabit them (these buildings provide treasure if you loot them). You can also use your thieves to try and steal from the various merchants dotted around the countryside, but there's a risk they'll get caught and hung. As some of the really good spells cost quite a lot, it's often cheaper to recruit a few thieves to try and pinch them.

You need resources to research spells and build up your town, and this is where the rod planter leader comes in. Physically weak, and rather slow, he or she is allowed only one unit in their party to protect them. They plant special rods at mines and resource nodes, which gives you ownership of them. Other races' planters can sneak up and remove your rods, replacing them with their own, so you have to have quite a few of these sadly death-prone units running around securing what you need. It is possible to acquire experience points for planters and therefore eventually build them up to acquire that longed-for Leadership skill, but the only way you could feasibly do that is to get your main leader to level up a unit to an extremely hard level and pass it over to the planter. Even then, it's very difficult to build the planter up when they only have one unit to attack with. It's more feasible just to keep recruiting new ones when the others get splatted. That happens a lot. Once a rod is planted, the terrain of your race type begins to spread out from that point.

Each scenario, whether part of a Saga or a single Quest, has an objective. Once this is achieved you've won. Unlike other games of this genre, it's very rare that you have to destroy all enemy towns in order to win. This is because you have your Lord squatting in your main town and he is virtually invincible. You can't put him in a party and move him out; his purpose is simply to protect the city. Sometimes, the Lord is purposefully weaker, because the objective is to keep him alive and kill another race's Lord, but generally enemies leave your main city alone. This doesn't prevent them audaciously planting rods all around it though, thereby stealing your resources and converting your terrain to theirs, so you also need to keep a party leader in residence to deter these interlopers.

It is possible to kill a Lord, but you need an extremely high level leader and party to do it. If you can, though, it's quite fun to attempt. The leader would have to have the ability to carry artefacts and possess a weapon that can paralyse, since the Lord will dole out unfeasible amounts of damage to your party on every turn. If you can paralyse him, it's just about possible, with a high level healing unit in the party to save everyone's skins on the occasions when the paralyse 'misses', to gradually wear down his 900 hit points, but he's very resistant to damage.

In the landscape, your leaders will come across enemy parties of the other races but also of neutrals. There are several races that are non-player characters, such as the Greenskins, who are lizard-like beings, the Elves, the Orcs, the Barbarians and the Mer-people who haunt the oceans. These races are just as interesting as the main four, and if I have one complaint about D:DP it's that it would have been good if more races had been available for you to play. Obviously, it wouldn't be possible to play the Mer-race, since they can't move onto dry land, but the rest would have been fun. There are also dragons of various types to be encountered, each favouring a particular strand of magic. They are extremely tough, and dole out nasty damage, so you can only take them on later in the game.

The combat is fairly simple, but you do need to know how to manipulate each unit to best effect. It isn't just a case of slugging it out. If your enemy has paralysing or petrifying units, for example, you need to concentrate on taking those out first and they will of course be in the back line, away from the crunching blows of your close combat warriors. So, good archers and magic units are required. Archers, healers, petrifiers and magic wielders all have extremely low hit points to begin with, so it's not easy to level them up, since they're often taken out pretty quickly. Again, strategy is required, and judicious choices about which enemy parties to attack. It's best to leave the ones with good ranged ability alone until you've levelled up your back row.

In combat, everyone on both sides takes a turn at attacking an enemy unit, or performs their special ability such as healing. The healers always go last, so they are very vulnerable to being destroyed by ranged enemies before they get chance to wield their medicine. The ranged units are the most nimble, so usually get first go. They can attack any unit, but the close combat warriors, the front line, can only attack those in front of them. They have to hack through the enemy's toughest units to reach the fragile lot at the back. And in the meantime those magic units will have been chucking lightning, ice shards, death spells or fire at you, depending on the race type. Though magic users don't have the best initiative, their attacks affect everyone. You can buy potions from merchants to improve initiative, thus shoving your wizards up the assault queue. This could make a difference between life and death, but works out expensive to do regularly, since the potions are only effective for one full turn.

One of the best aspects about DII is the fact that you have unlimited upgrade on all your units. This means you can build up some terrifically powerful parties, and the pleasure of playing with these characters in the hardest scenarios is exquisitely visceral! Add this to the export leader facility, and you can spend a lot of time building up an uber-leader capable of surviving and winning quests set at the most difficult level.

Servants of the Dark and Guardians of the Light

Both of these expansion packs really only provide new Sagas and Quests rather than anything radically different to Dark Prophecy. In SotD, the storyline involves the Legions of the Damned or the Undead Hordes, while GotL concentrates on the Empire and the Clans. Dark and Light. Simple enough. Still, despite a lack of innovation, these expansions provide many hours of game play.

Rise of the Elves

This is not only the icing, but the cherries and the sparkly bits on top of the DII cake. In this expansion a new race has been added to the usual four. For the first time, you can play as the Elves. Not only that, a new neutral race appears; the Dark Elves, and other units have been added to the existing neutral races.

The city screen for the Elves is really beautiful, and the units are fun to play. If you use the map editor to create a Quest, you can give players parties of the neutrals to control, which means you get a chance to have a gang of Dark Elves on your side. The Dark Elves are so cool I would have liked to see them as a player race, full stop. If the ordinary Elves are seen as sort of 'good', it wouldn't have been amiss to have a dark compliment to them, as with the other races.

The barbarian and orc neutrals have been given some powerful new units to detain your parties and generally cause you massive inconvenience with their fierce attacks. Both races now have magic attack units, which added to their brute force make them even more formidable. But the good thing about it is that once your leader is capable of taking them on, their slaying provides a nice amount of experience points.

Although the prevailing fashion in games nowadays is for RTS, a good turn based strategy title still has its place. DII is a well designed, fluid and polished game that does pretty much all the things you'd require for its type. If I'm forced to find something negative to say about it, it's that there could be more things in the landscape to pick up, such as in the HOMM series, which is chock full of artefacts and places to visit and various bits to gather along the way. I've heard the criticism that the combat in DII is too repetitive and simple, but I personally don't have issue with it. Because leaders and units get more and more powerful, I think the combat gets more exciting as you dare to take greater risks with what you attack.

The Disciples II Web Site has plenty of goodies to download, including a big selection of scenarios created by players.

Disciples III is currently in the pipeline, and it's been announced it will be 3D. It will be interesting to see where this successful series goes next. Can we play Dark Elves next time? Please?