India, year 1800: The formerly dominant Mogul empire has been on a downwards spiral for a long time already. A new British Viceroy arrives to cement British supremacy once and for all. However, the French and the other Indian realms should not be underestimated. Somewhere in between, there are the Thugs wreaking havoc.
Considering the success Cinemaware had in the 80s, it was only a question of time until other companies began imitating their style. Champion of the Raj is such a colourful genre mix in the same vein as Defender of the Crown and Lords of the Rising Sun: Armies are being built and shuffled around a map of India, hoping to expand one's own territory. As a basis, the economy and aspects of society can be developed in order to ensure the financial basis of the campaign and prevent civil disturbances. Actual battles are then fought on a simple tactical map in real time – usually, the larger, better equipped army will simply win.
Things are more interesting on the sidelines of the military events, though. For example, you can attempt to get control over a territory through diplomatic means. You can improve your reputation by holding elephant parades or by playing two mini games: elephant races and tiger hunting. Another action scene is triggered when you have to face an assassin (a sword fight reminiscient of Pirates!) or when you are trying to storm another ruler's palace.
These well-intentioned and somewhat entertaining action scenes are not quite up to the standards set by the rest of the game both in graphics and gameplay, though. The controls are not as exact as they could be, the perspectives are confusing and sometimes, the outcome seems to be more or less random anyway. Nevertheless, they are fun. The fight for India is further loosened up through random events: natural disasters and Thug raids will keep you occupied amongst other things.
Apart from the varied gameplay, the attractive presentation and easy controls have to be mentioned in the game's favour. Some screens clearly show the game's ST origins insofar that only few colours are used at the same time, but the game makes the best of it by selecting aestetically pleasing colours at least. Small details, like the visible aging process of the player's avatar standing next to the map (greying and receding hair, visible wrinkles) don't fulfil any gameplay-related function, but they nevertheless contribute to the positive overall impression.
On the other hand, there are a couple of annoyances which (apart from the naturally limited strategic depth) degrade the game experience. First, the intro cannot be skipped – which is fatal, because after the end of a game, you cannot just start over, but you have to boot the game completely again. Second, the copy protection (based on asking for a specific word from the manual) not only appears once per game as usual, but every few rounds. Third, at least in the German version of the game, some texts don't fit into the frames they appear in; so in these cases, you have no idea what question you are supposed to answer with 'yes' or 'no'. Four (and this is not really the fault of the game itself, but correlates very badly with the previous point), the English version, in spite of claiming otherwise, is not cracked, and of course, I only own a German manual – so that version is unplayable for now (if you've got a manual scan as opposed to the plain text version which is useless for copy protection purposes, please send it in!).
Nevertheless, Champion of the Raj is a worthwhile adventure. Its motivating aspects clearly outweigh the downsides and even genre newbies should feel right at home. That's the way it should be.