Ask a gamer what the most beautiful-looking game they've ever played was and you'll likely get a swathe of different answers from across a broad array of genres.
The turn-based strategy genre, though, isn't one that people typically associate with looking nice. This isn't to say that these games can't look good -- the Civilization series has grown to look rather nice in its later incarnations, and the previous title from Endless Legend developer Amplitude, Endless Space, was also quite a looker -- but for the most part this is a genre where flashiness is often deliberately sacrificed in the name of clarity. Because after all, turn-based strategy games are titles where success or failure can depend on the information you have readily available to you, and flashy visuals can often obscure information.
Endless Legend proves that you most certainly can have it both ways; even in its current, unfinished, Early Access incarnation, it's a lovely-looking game that is absolutely dripping with its own distinctive style. And yet at the same time, it manages to remain clutter-free and clear, with all the information you need to make appropriate decisions readily available, if not on the main screen then certainly no more than a click away.
Endless Legend takes heavy cues from Endless Space in terms of how it plays, despite swapping the sci-fi setting for a planet-bound fantasy adventure. The interface is almost identical, and the way you manage your empire by shifting population units around is likewise very similar to Endless Space -- so much so that it would be understandable for someone coming from one to the other to initially wonder why they were bothering to play the other game.
Over time, Endless Legend starts to distinguish itself from its starfaring predecessor, though. For starters, you have a whole lot more freedom. Whereas Endless Space initially restricted you to following specific "lanes" between star systems until you developed the appropriate technology to move freely, Endless Legend dumps you in the middle of a vast, unexplored world and prompts you to get on with it. Initially provided with a small unit of troops which you'll probably use to explore your immediate area, you'll gradually uncover the map which is initially shrouded in fog, but which "unfolds" with some gorgeous animation as you reveal more and more of the world by wandering around. Zooming out allows you to see a wonderfully crisp, clear overview of everything you've discovered so far with minimal distractions; zooming in allows you to take a close look at the world and everything in it.
The game isn't directionless, despite how it starts. Each of the in-game playable factions has a story to follow, delivered through text-based quests. These start out simple -- find something on the map, build a new city -- but effectively act as both a tutorial and a suitable guide to follow in the early stages of the game. You're free to ignore these quests completely if you so desire, however, instead seeking victory on your own terms.
Further quests pop up as you explore the world and come across neutral villages. Initially, your tribe's primitive intelligence limits their interactions to simply burning down the village and then rebuilding it in their own image, but after developing some of the in-game technologies you develop the ability to parley and bribe these neutral bystanders. Choosing to parley often sees you given a quest to complete in exchange for the village coming under your control; bribery, meanwhile, can be an effective approach for those who find themselves flush with the game's main cash-like currency of Dust, which Amplitude veterans will recognize as a recurring aspect of the Endless series as a whole.
Developing technology for your tribe takes an interestingly distinctive approach from other games of its type. Rather than following a tech tree -- or, as in the case of Endless Space, multiple tech trees focusing on specific areas of empire-building -- you're instead allowed to develop any technology from the "eras" you've unlocked at any time -- though each subsequent technology you research costs more and more science, so in order to keep up with things you'll need to gradually increase your science output over time. Once you've researched ten technologies from one era, you unlock the next, though there's nothing stopping you from cleaning up the remaining tech from an earlier era if you so desire. Like in Endless Space, the tech is divided into several distinct areas according to what you might want to do with your empire -- peaceful players may wish to build up their technologies that focus on trade and diplomacy, while more warlike players will almost certainly want to start researching new types of units right away.
Endless Legend eschews Endless Space's peculiarly hands-off combat (in which both you and your opponents played cards which triggered during the three stages of battle) in favor of something a little more traditional, though it's still an interestingly distinctive approach. Upon coming into contact with an enemy, your army and the enemy armies will square off in a sectioned-off area of the overall world map. You're then able to deploy your forces and set targets as you see fit -- your opponent is doing the same at the same time -- and then you sit back and watch what happens. After everyone involved in the combat has made a move, you get the opportunity to make adjustments to your overall strategy, then you set it off again. It's an interesting system that seems to work quite well, though tactical purists may have preferred the ability to micromanage what your units are doing. Those who aren't overly interested in combat can let it resolve automatically similar to Endless Space; prior to a battle breaking out, a simple bar chart shows your relative strength compared to the enemy, and if it looks like an overwhelming victory or defeat for either side, you can simply let the battle unfold off-screen and deal with the aftermath.
There's a fair amount of stuff missing from the current build of Endless Legend -- most notably, the diplomatic options available to you are rather limited, and the enemy AI is rather rudimentary, to say the least -- but it's already looking very promising indeed. The gorgeous graphics make it one of the more approachable examples of the 4X genre -- much as its predecessor Endless Space was -- but beneath the glitzy exterior there's a solid, strategic game ticking away just waiting for you to explore its depths.
Endless Legend is out now on Steam Early Access. It's part of Amplitude's Games2Gether program in which those who have purchased Early Access copies can contribute to and vote on various aspects of the game's development, so jump in now and you could be a part of how the final product ends up.