Nine years have passed since the release of Age of Wonders III, and in the meantime, a lot has happened. Developer Triumph Studios has been acquired by the strategy giants at Paradox Interactive and temporarily moved to sci-fi with planetfallso I wouldn’t blame anyone for wondering whether Age of Wonders 4 can live up to the franchise’s storied legacy.
By now, I’ve spent weeks with the game, playing as a band of just unifiers defending once-proud realms against terrifying demon princes, wise elves harnessing the power of nature, and savage conquerors taking advantage of devilish powers to crush all opposition under spikey heels (or hoofs). One thing is for sure: this game has made me miss a lot of sleep. The “one more turn” issue is real, and I am a victim.
Of course, anyone who is familiar with strategy games like Civilization knows that this is far from a bad thing, at least in terms of the game’s quality. As for the effect on your health, that’s an entirely different conversation.
Age of Wonders 4 customization heaven
Age of Wonders 4 comes with quite a few pre-made scenarios, which are great, especially for beginners (but some of the higher-tier ones are fun even for experienced players). That being said, you probably know that the real meat of a game like this is located deep within the menus in which you create your own playing field.
The good news is that, if you decide to create your own scenarios, there are a batch of options you can explore. The not-so-good news is that they’re partially hidden under multiple layers of menus that you need to operate in order to find exactly the options you want. I understand the UI philosophy here, likely aiming to offer an increasing level of complexity to the user as they delve deeper, while letting less customization-oriented players pick a few options without needing any deeper exploration. Personally, I’d have preferred these options to be offered in a more streamlined way. This doesn’t mean having less options, but simply not having to look through nested menus would go a long way in encouraging players to let their imaginations fly. I’m fairly confident those who want to customize their game are interested in the “advanced setup” 99% of the time.
That fairly minor complaint aside, if you look beyond the classic Civilization-like options like the number of enemies, map size (strangely hidden behind the “player distance” option), and difficulty, you get tons of additional traits to pick that derive directly from Age of Wonders 4‘s nature as a fantasy game.
If you want a ruthless dead world with massive underground caves, no light, and a massive undead problem, you can do that. An ancient and once-glorious realm governed by dragons? Safe. What about a scorched world under the heel of a demon prince you have to defeat? No problem. These are just a few examples, as the possibilities are nearly endless. This is great because the developers worked hard to encourage replayability.
In most strategy games, you play your campaign, achieve your victory conditions, and then you’re done. You start over with a completely new ruler with no ties to the past. In Age of Wonders 4Triumph Studios implemented a feature called the Pantheon.
Once you win a game, your ruler is added to the Pantheon and you can then opt to have them appear in following games as AI-controlled rulers or heroes you can recruit. As your pantheon grows, you can have your armies bolstered by all the rulers you’ve played in the past in the form of playable heroes. On top of that, as you play you also receive Pantheon Points that can be spent in a dedicated menu, unlocking cosmetic options, further customization features, and world types.
Starting again in Age of Wonders 4
Customizing your map isn’t the only step in starting a new game, race customization is also important. You can pick a variety of species from classic humans, elves, or dwarfs to various kinds of beastmen (further customization such as wings, demonic or angelic traits, and more, can be achieved during the game with transformation spells), a couple of relevant functional traits, the type of culture, and societal traits.
Lastly, you get to choose your first tome of magic, which determines the initial path of your research, and whether you want to play as a Champion or a Wizard King. Basically, this determines whether you’re native to the world or an invader from another plane, influencing your abilities and relationship with your neighbors.
Did I say “lastly?” Well, I lied. After that, you can still dabble with your ruler and your race’s looks in an extensive visual customization suite. Of course, if you just want to play a quick game and don’t care to delve too deep into personalization, you can pick one of the many pre-defined factions, but where’s the fun in that?
The only minor complaint I have about the extensive customization options available in the game is that the very stylized look doesn’t lend itself very well to creating handsome or beautiful characters. I understand that having a strong visual style is important for any game, but this is a fantasy game. If the player’s fantasy involves playing as a handsome young knight, a beautiful princess, or a devilishly attractive androgynous conqueror, I think it should be better supported. If you want to play beastly or rugged characters, you have plenty of options, so it’d be nice if there were extensive options on the other end of the spectrum as well.
Once you finally get into the game, you’ll notice that the visuals of Age of Wonders 4 are quite fetching. The map is colorful and beautifully designed, the units are detailed and diverse, and everything lends itself to the idea of a fantasy world, whether it’s lush and beautiful or grim and terrifying.
Build and grow your army in Age of Wonders 4
The gameplay loop isn’t unfamiliar for those who enjoy this kind of strategy title. You’ll produce new units and structures in cities, and those structures in turn, create resources and a variety of effects. Everything is well-balanced and intuitive. This game certainly benefits from Paradox’s semi-recent drive to make the mechanics of their games less obscure. The tooltips that appear on every option are particularly helpful, featuring hyperlinks to explain concepts and related topics. It works extremely well, letting players understand what they need to do pretty literally at a glance.
Since magic is a very important element in Age of Wonders 4 that’s where your technological research is focused. You’re going to research new spells starting with the tome you select at the beginning, and then gradually unlocking new tomes. This means that you can either specialize in a few elements or aim for flexibility by casting your net wide.
Some spells will also unlock new units that can be produced in cities or summoned directly. Interestingly, the progression path isn’t completely linear and predictable. Every time you complete research, you’ll be given three random options among the books you have picked. This adds some elements of randomness, but won’t completely upend your plan. While luck plays a role in how you can tech up, I’d say it’s pretty small and well-balanced.
The enormous variety of magic spells available is certainly one of the game’s strongest points. Not only there are hundreds of spells to research and cast, but they also feel well diversified depending on their element and on the variation between specific tomes within each element.
I found that Diplomacy plays a very important role in Triumph’s new game. This isn’t just directed to other rulers, but also to free city-states. If you treat them right, they will gladly become your vassals and even let you integrate them directly into your empire. Of course, you can always opt to conquer them outright. They have their own governors and personality, which makes the mechanic more interesting than in other strategy games in which independent entities are pretty much just there as map filler. The fact that their rulers can be recruited as playable heroes if you absorb them also adds to the value of the feature.
Speaking of heroes, they’re an important feature in Age of Wonders 4. Your ruler, as well as other heroes, can take to the battlefield directly with tons of traits and a full-fledged progression system. Cultivating them is a big part of the game, and gives your armies a more personal feel.
The one complaint I have is that the magical items you can retrieve and equip your ruler and heroes with are a bit limited. From a game so strongly based on magic and wonders, I would have expected a much larger variety of magical loot, while you’ll often find yourself with several copies of the same sword, armor, or magical orb. I definitely hope to see further diversity in this field added down the line.
Another aspect that I personally love in the series and included in its fourth mainline chapter is tactical battles. Your armies won’t just clash on the strategic field, but once they meet an enemy, the battle can be fought on tactical maps, adding a further level of granularity to the gameplay. These battles can actually be rather challenging if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’re not well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of both your troops and the enemies, which is always nice to see.
That being said, if you don’t enjoy tactical encounters, you can skip them. As a matter of fact, skipping tactical battles seems to be a bit too beneficial at least at normal difficulty. Perhaps skewing the auto-resolution a bit more in favor of the enemy would have been more effective in encouraging players to engage.
One very important resource you’ll have to contend with all the time is “Imperium,” which is basically an indication of your sovereignty. It can be used to create new cities, absorb free or conquered ones, influence events to go your way, and acquire all sorts of bonuses on an element-specific skill tree. Not only it involves an additional level of personalization to how your faction functions, but it’s also a balancing factor, preventing players from expanding too quickly and too recklessly.
The overall difficulty is highly customizable, not just by the classic options (of which there are 5, starting with “relaxed” and ending with “brutal”) but also via the traits you choose for the world and yourself at the beginning of the game . You have tons of ways to skew the challenge in your favor or against you if you so wish.
Victory conditions include the usual military, expansion, magic, and score victories, but some are also specific to scenarios. For instance, if you pick the “pretender kings” scenario, you’ll be able to win by defeating specific factions.
Age of Wonder 4 | Final Verdict
Ultimately, Age of Wonders 4 is a very solid and positively addictive entry in the genre strategy. Not only it lives up well to the legacy of the franchise, but I’d say that the influence of Paradox’s own design philosophy and resources has contributed to making Triumph’s offering stronger. Fetching visuals, well-explained concepts, deep strategic gameplay, tons of room for personalization, and great replayability make this a game that is easy to recommend to those who love building their own magical empire. Just, please be sure to eat, properly hydrate, and sleep.
Age of Wonders 4 was reviewed on PC with a copy provided by the developer over the course of 68 hours of gameplay – all screenshots were taken during the process of review.