There are few things as satisfying as seeing your painstakingly-designed castle operate flawlessly, turning away a siege while your cheese farms and bow-makers churn away endlessly.
Real-time strategy (RTS) games have been highly influenced by a few key titles, such as Starcraft and Age of Empires. However, there’s another less-known classic that’s equally as influential: Stronghold.
Originally released in 2001, Stronghold helped define the “castle-sim” genre, providing deep and complex strategy options that revolved around crafting and defending your own self-sufficient castle. It blew up into a whole franchise, but now Firefly Studios has returned with an expansive remaster that brings the very first Stronghold back for modern audiences, with meaningful changes that make it better than ever.
Like most RTS games, Stronghold has a split focus between establishing a booming economy and producing a military. As a “castle-sim,” it falls somewhere in between traditional RTS titles, such as Age of Empires, and city-builders like Anno. What this means is that there’s an extra layer of complexity, but not so much that you’ll need to spend hours learning the ins and outs.
With all this in mind, there’s a clear formula to matches and missions, as you’ll always need to establish your economy first, taking steps to produce wood for buildings, stone for castle walls, iron for weapons, and of course, sourcing food. On top of all this, you need to keep your citizens happy while also defending from hostile forces, meaning you’re constantly juggling tasks. Stronghold’s strategy does a fantastic job of always giving you something to manage or improve, even if the overall game speed is slower than a game like Age of Empires. You need to think five steps ahead, about what kind of defenses you need and how your economy needs to grow, instead of getting caught in the minutiae.
It’s a winning formula that countless other strategy games have tried to follow, even more recent releases like Going Medieval. To this day, though, nothing has managed to hit the same sweet spot of city-building and real-time management that Stronghold has, except, well, other Stronghold games.
Stronghold’s gameplay foundations are rock-solid, and the Definitive Edition does a fantastic job of updating everything for a more modern audience. There is, of course, a graphical update with high-quality textures and widescreen monitor support, but Firefly has also made a host of changes to make gameplay more approachable. There’s now a modern control option that’s in line with modern titles, and the number of units that can be on-screen has been bumped up significantly.
The visual upgrade is phenomenal and makes the whole game more readable and easier to track. There’s a real vibe that’s unique to Stronghold as your units mill around and comment on everything, sweeping orchestral music swells in the background, and trees sway in the wind. Despite the sieges, Stronghold can be a calming experience as you meticulously craft everything.
The original Stronghold was already jam-packed with content, and the Definitive Edition brings back everything, on top of adding a few new options that mix things up. From the original, you have a military campaign, economic campaign, economic missions, siege missions, and a free build mode where you can simply build your dream castle.
The military campaign is a particular highlight, casting you as a young commander taking back England from a quartet of Monty Python-esque villains. Stronghold has a fantastic sense of humor, with goofy bumbling villains that are a joy to take down, and little details that add to the overall feeling, even down to amusing NPC names like “David Wortbottom.” The two new campaigns are set during the events of the original game, with dynamically designed maps that are tough to beat.
Then, there’s a Castle Trail mode that has ten maps based on real historical castles. This mode is particularly interesting as each castle is pre-built for you, making each map feel more like a puzzle as you figure out the right way to build against and withstand a siege. All of the additions feel meaningfully different from the core game, providing longtime fans more than enough reason to dive back in, while giving newcomers a pipeline to end-game content.
Strategy games, and the RTS genre in particular, have admittedly had a rough go of things in recent years, with popularity waning and a lack of innovative titles. That’s exactly what makes it so great to see such an influential title like Stronghold get so much love and care. What’s there is already a healthy helping of strategy, but Firefly Studios has also committed to a lengthy roadmap with more updates and campaigns. If you’re a fan of strategy or sim games at all, you owe it to yourself to give Stronghold: Definitive Edition a try.