Alright, what's the deal with this game? It's got crappy graphics and looks like it's from 1998!
Let's ignore those facts for a moment. Suspend your disbelief, if you will. What's going on beneath the surface with the game mechanics?
As of this review writing, I've got 305 hours spent on this game (I'm a bit ashamed of that). So, there's something being done right here. It certainly scratches a lot of my itches and gives me what I'm looking for.
In terms of strategy, there are multiple layers of complexity. You're first introduced to the game in a small starting scenario which introduces the game mechanics to you. Most of the time, you are moving your hero armies around on the campaign map. On occassion, your hero will get into a tactical battle against monsters or other heros. This takes place on a hexagonal grid system and each side takes turns moving all of their creatures.
The battles are quite tactical. Your creatures come in 4 different tiers of strength. Each unit comes with certain strengths and weaknesses, and abilities. For example, the thief has a dagger strike which poisons his foes and doesn't let them counter attack. However, the thief doesn't have a lot of HP or armor, so they can easily be killed. Archers can't shoot at adjacent enemies, so they have to move away. Sometimes, your archers can only move away and can't act, so adjacent units can keep following them and killing the archers. So, you certainly want to protect the archers with blocking melee units. The game also has a pretty interesting list of battle spells. If you can't get behind a melee wall to the squishy archers, you could always resurrect one of the dead corpses as a zombie which can do the job. Just as well, the enemy could do that to you! So, to prevent that, you want to move your creatures on top of corpses to prevent their reanimation. That could also cause you to move onto a strategically disadvantageous position. Every army has a hero leading it, so the heros also directly participate in the battles. Heros can become very, very powerful as they level up. I find that an appropriately maxed warrior can pretty much solo every fight, but that strategy won't work forever.
Your kingdom consists of your capitol and any conquered provinces. Each province yields a little bit of mana and/or gold per turn. This mana and gold is used for spells and recruiting units or constructing buildings. Some provinces will have strategic resources (such as logs) which will reduce the building costs of a building within your capitol. Each province can be improved to provide more resources. It seems that every turn, there are also a bunch of random events which happen within your kingdom. You have to read each event story and navigate a dialogue tree to respond to the event in some way. Each dialogue choice has a variable chance that it creates a favorable result or a negative result. The game events work on a sort of "karma" system, where choosing the "evil" choices results in negative karma but a short term gain, and choosing the "good" choice results in positive karma but generally incurs a cost. Over time, if your karma becomes really good, your kingdom will be flooded with positive events. If your karma becomes bad, you get flooded with bad events which get progressively more expensive.
Meanwhile, you also also contending against one or more AI players who usually play with a slight advantage (cheaters!). You have to play particularly well in order to beat the AI.
The game is also a bit unforgiving. You can't really just start a level, save at turn 15, play to turn 25, and then reload turn 15 if things go bad. The save game system only allows you to go back one turn, and if you reload, it also penalizes you by subtracting from your final score. You can restart an entire scenario from the beginning, but that too has a campaign cost (in terms of astral energy). So, you don't want to screw around and experiment. In some scenarios, an enemy wizard will directly attack your home world and you have to fend them off. If you lose, that's it. Game over. You lose. Roll credits. No reloading and trying again.
In the campaign mode, you select which "shards" you want to conquer. Each shard unlocks two or more buildings for your capitol for each subsequent scenario. Some shards are extremely difficult to conquer if you don't have sufficient tech. So, you have to pick carefully which shards you want to conquer and in which order you want to conquer them based on the buildings they unlock.
This game is very fun, very interesting, and very complex. If you can look past the graphics, I highly recommend it for any strategy minded players. There is a newer version of this game out which pretty much is this exact game (in terms of mechanics) but overhauls the graphics and UI (ooh, pretty sparkles!).
There is only one significant downside to the game, and that is the drawback of its unforgiving save game system. I encountered a problem midway into one of my campaigns where my save game file got corrupted somehow. Since there wasn't any previous saved games, I lost hours of progress. I almost lost my entire campaign! I had to restart my shard scenario from the beginning.
Currently, I haven't been playing this game lately because I am stuck on a particularly difficult invasion. An enemy wizard decided to attack my homeworld and the AI difficulty is set very high. In the three times I've tried, I can't seem to beat him. I must fight him off, and if I lose, the game is completely over. I've given up for now, but maybe in a few months I'll try again.