'Age of Wonders 4' Review: This Magical Mystery Game is Hoping to Take You Away
The mighty hero Caseus Maximus surveyed the battlefield. Enchanted rat-like warriors of the Mystic Trash nation faltered, looking to their leader for encouragement. It was a risky battle for their ever-expanding empire, but they needed to capture the last remaining stronghold of their Elven rivals. More importantly, Caseus Maximus needed to triumph to ascend and become a Godir, the deities that rule over the realm of mortals.
Working quickly, the Mystic Trash leader summoned a pillar of lightning onto some Elven archers, severely crippling them and damaging two adjacent enemy units. Mounted on his trusty unicorn steed, Caseus Maximus rounded the hill to flank the opposing army. The maneuver was successful: His superior positioning made it impossible for the enemy Elves to parry his devastating magical attacks. As his army finished off the remaining enemy soldiers, Maximus looked up into the sky. He could see the gates to the Astral Sea opening, waiting to take him to the ethereal realm of the Godir. He could see victory.
More than any moment in the game's epic story, Caseus Maximus' success thrilled me. I hadn't just guided his conquest — I had created everything about him.
Return to the Valley of Wonders
Age of Wonders 4 is the newest installment in Triumph Studios' 24-year old fantasy strategy franchise. You play as the mortal leader of a nation trying to grow the strength and influence of your people, with the eventual goal of becoming a Godir yourself. Along the way, you must fight back powerful wizards and beings of yore that travel between dimensions and constantly threaten your nation.
It's a plot-driven game with seriously complicated lore, but there's no need to delve into the events of the previous installments if you're new to the series. In fact, as a relative newbie myself, I found that I enjoyed the game way more before I tried to understand the backstory. The context given by the in-game cinematics is more than adequate.
If you've ever played a strategy game from Paradox Interactive before, the mechanics of Age of Wonders 4 will be very familiar to you — which is fitting because the Swedish publisher acquired Triumph Studios in 2017.
Unlike some strategy games, however, you're not limited to pre-determined factions or heroes. You create your nation and its leader. Nearly everything is customizable, from the length of their arms to their magical powers. Create the ultimate race of forest-wielding naturalists, or a dark force that can smash their enemies to bits without lifting a sword. The choice is yours.
The gameplay is turn-based, and each of your units has a set number of actions they can complete on each turn, like moving across the board or attacking an enemy army. Your proud nation needs to generate Gold in order to buy things, of course, but you'll also need Mana to cast spells, Imperium to build or absorb other cities, Food to sustain them, Research to help advance your magical technology, Production to speed along building within cities, and Draft to supply your armies with people.
These resources are closely tied to each other, and neglecting one can create a rubber-banding effect I like to call getting "Paradoxed." One of your cities is burning down because you weren't generating enough Food? You just got Paradoxed. You're taking a heavy Mana penalty because you accidentally went over your city limit? You just got Paradoxed again.
Otherwise, the main engine to securing a victory over your opponents come from enchantments and power-ups that are researched from "Tomes." Each Tome contains a specific set of themed powers — some are ice-based, some are necromancy-based, and so on — that can be researched once the Tome is activated. Herein lies what Triumph and Paradox tote as ultimate flexibility in Age of Wonders 4: You can transform the people of your nation beyond whatever traits you assigned to them at the (very detailed) creation screen.
Never let mechanics get in the way of a good story
Mercifully, the work of researching Tomes and balancing resources is somewhat mild compared to other Paradox games like Stellaris. Instead the story takes center stage.
So how is the story in Age of Wonders 4? It's... just fine. I gleefully created my own race of magical rat-like beings called Mystic Trash, testing out each tiny customization until I was satisfied. This already gets you invested in the plot: I created Caseus Maximus. I care for him. I want him to win. I cheered when he ascended from mortal to Godir.
After that, I lost the plot. Not that there weren't narrative elements at play during the rest of my campaign — there's plenty of exposition before beginning a storyline — but they fade behind mundane micro-managing. Sure, the game snaps you back to the story at certain points, like when a formerly-stalwart ally becomes an enemy (another of Paradox's favorite tricks). But the scale and grandeur was missing. At times, I felt like the leader of a tiny nation chasing economic balance and nothing more.
The trouble with reviewing strategy games is that they're just too big. No one could possibly test every single aspect of a game in a way that reflects all experiences. Additionally, it is now de rigueur for developers to continuously improve and add on to games post-launch; a win for consumers that nevertheless dates reviews within months. I have no doubt that Triumph and Paradox will improve Age of Wonders 4, as they have with so many of their other games. That alone makes this game worth buying.
As it stands right now, however, Age of Wonders 4 is a solid fantasy strategy game with familiar and engaging mechanics that sometimes threaten to overpower the game's compelling story. It's proof that successful strategy games can still be narrative-driven. Let's hope the rest of the gaming industry takes notice.
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