I struggled with what to rate this for some time. I am of two minds, and so leave it unrated. Some issues I feel will only be relevant to myself have been marked before and after with dashes - to show that they are issues I believe will only matter to those like myself.
Call of Elysium 3, or CoE3, is another turn based strategy from Illwinter Games - the designers of previous games in the Call of Elysium series the more micromanagement-intensive Dominions 3 series. You take control of one of several individuals/groups struggling for supremacy in the world of Elysium, all of them (very, very) loosely inspired from mythological and religious roots. This has long been one of the strengths of Illwinter Games - besides throwaway references in other games, most media tends to use only a few limited mythological offerings in their work; the only one I can think of that has similar breadth would be the Shin Megami Tensei main series. Needless to say, to theologians such as myself this is interesting not only as a turn-based game but as an interesting look into the minds of the developers.
But how does it look, and how does it handle? Some will mention that the graphics are dated - if by which the user means they aren't 3D, the answer is yes. The illustrations are detailed and interesting however, and the spritework tends to be very diverse. It can be very hard to see do to shrunken and stretched images that work better on different resolutions, but most units look good, and interesting. You watch the seasons change, and terrain has a feel that brings to mind the fantasy craze of the mid-80's.
The gameplay is much more concise then Dominions 3, which at first appears to be fantastic. Even as a fan of that previous game, the amount of micromanagement necessary to do well became very grating, very quickly. You select a leader, press 't' for tactics to select which units they will take with them, and off you go! You can also change what spells your mage-commanders have memorized... That will be your only option in battle tactics however.
Although fans of real-time battles might feel bothered by this, it speeds up the game and does a good job of making you feel that your troops are autonomous - though there are several options that seem oddly non-present, such as switching unit ranks (front, middle, back). Though you could argue this as a function of said autonomy, it makes it very frustrating to replenish your squads and have a formation where a good portion of your units with both ranged and melee attacks find themselves unoptimally placed.
But if that is a complaint, it is a minor one - the gameplay itself is smooth and interesting and, unfortunately, almost completely unplayable out of the box. Not unplayable as in glitched or broken or difficult, but extremely unenjoyable. I'm sure we all remember the siege of Istanbul by wild deer, or the great snake invasion of Pine Woods?.. in Conquest of Elysium, the wildlife will take your cities and structures and regularly. This is not so much a problem for the player - very annoying and very stupid, but usually something that can be dealt with if you are guaranteed a decent starting location enough to buy reinforcements... Which you aren't, because the game is very random - a 'balanced starting locations' option that would guarantee relative accessibility of resources would be a huge boost.
But the reason random hostiles render the game almost unplayable is this: the computer is terrible at dealing with them, even on (especially on?) the higher difficulties. It will not be a surprise to see the enemy go down and know instinctively that they left their Citadel (home base) undefended yet again. The AI in general is very poor at understanding relative risk/gains, which is not unusual for AI and forgivable for a two-man team. Like it's spiritual sibling, Dominions 3, the single-player campaign is only really there to teach you how each group works; the heart of the game lies (unfortunately for individuals like me, who have no interest in playing online) in multiplayer.
By applying the Less Agressive Animals + Fix the Wildlife mods (Search that exact phrase, + possibly Call of Elysium) you make random encounters less mobile in general, and thus less of a headache for the CPU, meaning your chance of actually encountering a challenge from them is greatly increased. I am sure it will also help new players somewhat, though you should still keep an eye on your Citadel. Truly, if there were mod that completely removed the ability of monsters to move I'd install it in a heartbeat. The CPU might still throw its troops towards objectives it wants but is unlikely to take, but hopefully less.
The other thing you start to notice as your game goes on - there is no load or quit to menu button. While this may seem like a minor inconvenience, for those just learning the game it will become a pain to be unable to load and fix a mistake. For those who don't need or want to see what they did wrong, it is somewhat fine until you realize that if you are tired of a current campaign and want to start a new one, you must close the game, restart it, and then start one from scratch. As the feature to quit to the main menu was present in Dominions 3, there is no reason for this not to be present. And there are a lot of little issues like this, which leads to the beginning of points that may only be relevant to me.
I've been with Illwinter for some time now - I actually missed the news about CoE3 though due to it not being released by their custom distributor, Shrapnel. Because they are pretty much the only company out there who features some semblance of mythologolism in their turn-based strategy, I feel somewhat as if I don't have a choice. I've watched them grow and change with each game, often improving on their mistakes - but just as often leaving those same mistakes in and not speaking out because they are, of course, just two guys.
But for some reason, CoE is different to me. After playing every group several times, they all start to feel somewhat same-y. Survive first winter, get troops via herbs/fungi/blood sacrifice/gems, stock up on big ones with good resistance or regeneration before anyone else does. If both you/opponent have such troops, survive to second winter, summon stronger troops, repeat. While one could argue this is the fate of all TBS, in Dominions 3 I still somehow felt that my army of Satyrs and Dryads was unique compared to the Fallen Legions of Ermor or the Magisters of Man. In CoE, my troops feel all the more a collection of numbers, perhaps because the gamespan even on large maps is so relatively short.
In addition to that and the user-interface issues, something else that's always bothered me is the slightly Folkish (from a mythological/religious use of the word) as opposed to Universalist perspective of the games. In Dominions 3, the game tended to feel somewhat like a teenagers view of mythology - relatively few non-monstrous women in power besides your character if they were one, blood sacrifices that were represented by a rather specific category, some of the more blatant unit design. In Conquest of Elysium, I for some reason though we'd be able to choose which gender our leaders were in most cases - I mean, you can't tell on the sprites alone, and most leaders would work fine as either gender.
It may feel a complaint, but why can't I play a male Witch, a Seidemann? Or perhaps a female Warlock? Something that I could ignore, or perhaps was supposed to ignore because it was after all 'just two people' has become harder to ignore as I've grown older. That and the 'cannibal villages' (really? at least there was Machaka in Dominions 3, not that was much better...), the end-game sameness (y