Total War Saga: Troy Review12 Aug 2020 3
Total War Saga: Troy Review
Released 13 Aug 2020
A part of me was expecting not to like Total War Saga: Troy. At Gamescom last year I got to speak to Todor Nikolov, the lead designer on the game, about its central ‘truth behind the myth’ concept, and while I thought it sounded amazing on paper, like many of us, I was a little skeptical. But the truth of Troy is a little more complicated.
It’s certainly a better game than Thrones of Britannia was, and far more successful if you view it through the lens of the Total War Saga mission statement - to represent flashpoint conflicts throughout history. Everything about Troy’s setting feels focused towards Ancient Greece, from the gorgeous visual aesthetic, to the papyrus fog of war which burns away as you uncover the map.
But it’s slightly less successful in other regards. Let's start at the beginning…
Total War: Saga Troy is a game about the Trojan War, the mythic period immortalised in Homer’s Iliad. But rather that going full blown myth, Creative Assembly Sophia took what history was known about the period, and used it to rationalise those myths. If Three Kingdoms is history as myth, Troy is myth as history, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Legendary heroes like Achilles or Hector may be powerful, and have strong battlefield abilities, but they won’t be tanking entire units without a scratch.
Similarly, the mythological creatures of the setting are re-imagined - Centaurs become horsemen, Sirens become prostitute slingers, the Minotaur becomes a big bloke in fur, Giants become big blokes with clubs, and the Cyclops becomes a big bloke with an elephant skull, and so on. Though a few too many err towards being heavy entities, a fair few distinguish themselves with smart battlefield roles.
The Harpies, for example, are a fantastic ambush skirmisher unit and do what you’d imagine harpies do - harry the enemy. There are also the Siren slingers, who like their namesake, can lure units to chase if they get a little too close. Exploring Greece and its islands to find the settlements where you can recruit these units was one of my favourite parts of the game, and feels very in touch with regional folklore.
The main campaign for Troy has eight playable factions - four from the Trojan side, and four from the Achaeans. Just as in Thrones of Britannia, each faction has its own unique mechanics to differentiate playstyle and characterize the famous figure who leads them. Achilles, being a legendary warrior, receives benefits as long as he’s fighting and winning, but if he starts losing, he gets penalized. Paris is a lover, not a fighter, and so can move Helen between settlements - like the puppet Emperor in Three Kingdoms - granting buffs to both the settlement she’s in, and for Paris when he’s nearby.
The only issue is the characters don’t feel especially nuanced considering the source material - gruff grisly Achilles is kind of boring, Paris is over-the-top flamboyant, and Menelaus, who I spent the most time with, is just plain angry. I feel like ‘larger than life’ was the goal, but it comes off quite plain. I don’t think it’s enough to particularly spoil the game, but it doesn’t feel like a complex appreciation of source material to me.
The gods also play an important role in campaign, and you can build temples, or offer hecatombs to increase favour. As you increase the base favour with your deity of choice, they give you battlefield and campaign buffs, as well as letting you invoke a prayer with a specific benefit. Poseidon’s max level prayer makes you immune to sea attrition, which is pretty darn useful in the Aegean. You also need a max level of favour with a deity to recruit their mythological unit, such as the Minotaur for Zeus, or the Cyclops for Poseidon. On the whole, the system is a nice layer of flavour that I found affected the way I played - it also made the special units a fun personal campaign goal to aim for.
Troy also has a few elements which distinguish it on the battlefield - when two heroes engage in combat, they very rarely perform Three Kingdom-esque duel animations, which is a nice touch when it triggers. The battlefields of Troy also play with terrain in a far more comprehensive way than just trees up and trees down, with long grass, mud, and forests of varying sizes granting different effects. Reflecting the period, Troy also doesn’t have much cavalry, but foot troops are more varied because of this.
One of my favourite battle features is actually the little duel that the two heroes have post conflict. The spotlight, ornate Grecian background, weirdly bassy chanting, and fantastic animations make it for me. I think its the closest I came to feeling the Iliad was being captured - heroes fighting with all-out brutality on a stage, as an unseen audience judges them. We’ve certainly come a long way from the Total War: Attila animations where people used to impale each other with maces.
On the whole, Troy does a great job of representing the period, and even if it doesn’t always push the characters, I think the way it plays with mythological elements is super smart. I also believe Troy should be applauded for finding a perspective on history that CA hasn’t yet tried in its 20 years of making Total War games. But I don’t personally think that makes the concept more palatable.
Do people want a historically justified unit of giants who will perform realistically on the battlefield? Or do people want a unit of giants that will obliterate a battle-line? Do people want Achilles to charge screaming into a unit and kill like two guys? Or do they want him to decimate that unit? The reason we still tell the story of Troy isn’t because of the history, it’s because of the myth, and myth is exaggeration. Reverse engineering myth back into history is incredibly smart, but in the end, I don’t think it makes for a better story.