Morality is a weird thing in video games. When morality first became a concept that games felt capable of tackling most developers tried to gamify it, turning it into a mechanic that measures good and bad deeds on a binary scale. In the years since then, we’ve mostly come to the conclusion that this is a terrible way of dealing with morality in video games. Indeed, the most interesting takes on morality are similar to the way games like The Witcher 3 does things: make you care about the world and characters, then present you with narrative choices that have no clear right or wrong path. Well, if the latter part of that process is what really matters, then let me present to you Disciples: Liberation, the best morality-based game ever made.
Disciples: Liberation is a strategy RPG from the folks over at Frima Studios that puts you in the shoes, or rather the sabatons (google it), of Avyanna, a mercenary living job-to-job in your standard dark fantasy city. With her best friend Orion, she sets out on a job that turns out to be more complicated than she ever expected, which ends up with them both thrust into a mysterious dimension and launching a rebellion against the powers that be from the back foot. Guided by a mysterious fate, you must gain allies, build up your home, and decide what sort of person your version of Avyanna is going to be.
The main thrust of the gameplay should be pretty familiar to anyone who’s played a strategy RPG in their lives. You have various units, including powerful companion units, which you can move around the battlefield on a grid. You use AP to perform actions, from moving around, to buffing and debuffing, and of course, attacking. The game is turned-based, using initiative to decide the order that characters move. It all sounds pretty standard so far, but there are a few nice little tweaks to the standard formula that make it a bit more interesting.
Firstly, rather than using AP points, your AP is decided by colored crystals above your character, with the different colors denoting what they can be used for. Blue crystals for moving, red for attacking, and yellow for all-rounders that can be used for either. Each character type also gets special abilities that correspond to those different colors, though they usually stick within the aforementioned color scheme.
This colored crystal system makes Disciples: Liberation a bit more interesting than your standard strategy RPG. You have to carefully choose how you use each character since their capabilities on the battlefield are honestly more to do with their AP crystals than it is to do with how strong they are or what their specific abilities are. For instance, one of your starting characters, the rogue Orion, is actually one of your most useful. This is because he has two yellow crystals meaning he is incredibly versatile. He can move twice, attack twice, or mix and match, and on top of that, he has the ability to turn invisible for a few turns, delivering a devastating poisonous blow when he attacks in that state. He’s a great example of how the combat in the game makes you think about how your units can control the field.
Another interesting element is the backline/frontline dichotomy. You can either place units in your frontline, directly on the battlefield fighting with you, or on the backline, overlooking the field and casting ranged abilities. Backline units don’t take up leadership points, which you need to spend to put units into your team, but they also don’t count towards your team, meaning they don’t need to go down for you to be defeated. These backline units can make or break your team, supporting your other units with buffs, or debuffing enemies on each turn. Having a character constantly weakening powerful enemies really does make the difference, so you have to make your choices carefully.
The combat in Disciples: Liberation is fresh enough that it’s interesting while being familiar enough that it’s easy to jump into if you’re a fan of the genre, but that doesn’t mean it’s all roses. The fields you fight in all have very similar patterns of hexagons. Sure, as the game goes on the layouts are a bit more diverse, but they’re still just a rectangle of hexagons with different obstacles. This gets a bit dull, especially over a long play session. It would have been nice if there could be a bit more variety in the actual layout of these battlefields, maybe add some different height levels, and have different shapes of the grid to keep it fresher.
Luckily there’s another mechanic that does help to assuage the boredom a little. As with many RPGs, you will probably need to grind a little to get past certain challenges, in fact from the get-go it’s a bit necessary because before you’ve got the ability to recruit any extra soldiers many of the missions can get a bit overwhelming. However, when you hit a certain level, coincidentally for me this was right around the time the main missions were starting to tax me a bit, you get a new option in your battle screen called ‘Conquer.’ This option is activated whenever you’re facing a non-quest enemy who is far weaker than you and lets you automatically win the fight and gain some gold and experience. I think the game mentioned something about this being slightly less than fighting them normally, but honestly, the trade-off is worth it as this turns the chore of grinding, into a fun way of exploring areas that you previously neglected and that is now completely beneath you.
There’s also another major side to the gameplay in Disciples: Liberation and that’s base management. You see, when you end up in the new dimension you find a castle and perfect territory for building your own base to house the revolutionary army that you’re planning on amassing. As you go through the game, you gather various resources in the world, either by finding them randomly or by taking over specific builds that produce them at regular intervals. Then, you need to occasionally travel back to your base, upgrade buildings, build new ones and use them to train new units and buy/upgrade your equipment. It ties into the regular gameplay well too, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the rewards you get for doing well with your base management and resource collecting aids you in combat. It helps you recruit and train new forces, and build better buildings to upgrade equipment further. On top of that, there’s no real barrier between you in the overworld and getting to your base again. You tap a button and you’re pretty much immediately there with almost no loading time. The only exception to that rule is while you’re in a dungeon, but they’re usually pretty easy to just walk straight back out of again, at least early on when constant access to your base really matters. You’re also incentivized to return to your base because the resources that your buildings produce aren’t automatically collected, so you need to occasionally stop to empty your collection bins, and hey, might as well upgrade your sword and armor while you’re there.
I think it’s also worth talking about the morality at work here. Disciples: Liberation has a very complex relationship with morality, while simultaneously managing to avoid the trap of using an actual morality system. There are various factions you need to curry favor with on your journey, to gain soldiers and build blueprints. These factions are the human empire filled with religious zealots who persecute people, a bunch of Elves who murder anyone (even children) if they enter their territory, zombies, and literal demons. None of the factions are what you’d call good, but shockingly, none of them are wholly evil either. As you interact with these different groups, you need to make decisions about who you’re going to side with, and occasionally this means making hard choices.
It’s sort of difficult to put into words, but the world has a strange moral ambiguity to it. Half the time, even making what feels like the right decision ends up with the wrong result. The other half of the time, there really is no right decision to be made, you just have to go with your gut instinct. Throughout the start of the game, I agonized over my choices, before having to finally just lean into the moral ambiguity of the situation, though it’s a sign that the game is doing something right if I’m attached enough to give a crap. The only real ‘punishment’ for making bad choices is the reactions of the characters around you, and while it’s not that big of a deal when it’s random people in the overworld, you definitely feel it when it’s one of your companions.
There are a few minor negative points about Disciples: Liberation that is certainly worth mentioning before wrapping up the review. Firstly, the difficulty curve is all over the place. At the very start, before you’ve collected a decent collection of allied unites to fight on your side, the battles can be tougher than a lot of the later fights are. Once you do have units though, the main story missions have a horrible tendency to jump up randomly in difficulty out of nowhere. This is mostly because even weaker enemies can be nearly impossible when they’re piled on too thick, and the game seems to love doing that during story missions. It’s also the only time that you can’t back out of a fight if you accidentally start one, which can be immensely frustrating if you realize half a second too late that you’re not ready for a fight.
This is even worse if you don’t have a save right before the fight, or if you lose a powerful character in the battle, but don’t want to have to do it again to try and preserve them. Your companions are pretty much immortal, which is always a bonus, but any of the unnamed units you have are gone for good if they die. It’s not too big of a deal, since you can recruit and train any units pretty much immediately, but it is annoying if you’ve gained a powerful unit before you had the building to construct any more of them. The only other thing that erks slightly is that every so often the enemy AI feels very rudimentary. They almost all tend to react in the same way between unit types, prioritizing flanking or hiding in corners after their attacks.
Overall, despite any tiny little annoyance here and there, Disciples: Liberation is an excellent strategy RPG with an enjoyable world and characters that presents you with a level of moral complexity that you don’t often get to enjoy in a game with such solid gameplay focus. Balancing issues aside, a clever player who uses everything they possibly can to their advantage is going to come out on top. If you can ignore the slightly predictable AI and the occasional difficulty spike, you’ll find a lot of depth here that’ll keep you coming back for hours to come.
TechRaptor covered Disciples: Liberation on Xbox Series X with a code provided by the developer. The game is also available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Xbox One.
- Very strategic combat forces you to think before you act
- Super interesting take on AP and deployment systems
- Nuanced take on morality that actually makes you think about decisions
- Occasional spikes in difficulty can be unforgiving
- AI can be a bit predictable