Age of Wonders is a series that has always been on an island: one part Civilization, another part fantasy RTS. A 4X game that moved briskly and had a following but didn’t have that extra edge to push it over the top. Age of Wonders: Planetfall successfully brought a unique angle to the experience, but it went in a much different direction than the previous titles. It ditched the high fantasy for sci-fi of the grandest order. Triumph Studios took that experiment, refined some of Planetfall’s innovations, and returned to high fantasy in style. This review of Age of Wonders 4 will explain how they managed to pull it off.
Story: A Fantastical Tale
The jump to sci-fi and return to fantasy presents a tonal whiplash at first glance. Returning to what made the original games a success comes with the expected set of changes inherent to a return to a classic setting. Gone are the lasers, fancy mechs, and science with this iteration.
The story on its own is very thin, which isn’t a bad thing when you’re playing a 4X game. The setting is back in the world of magic, dragons, and elves. Mages are on the rise, and they can lead their factions, but custom and pre-made into battle or diplomacy to achieve victory.
The real story in Age of Wonders 4 is the player story. How each turn unfolds, the drama between empires, losing a valuable unit or turning the tide with an intelligent treaty. These components make Age of Wonders 4 stick in your head long after a session and give it that essential just one more turn mantra.
Gameplay: Might and Magic
Beyond the narrative changes the return to the fantasy setting brings with it, other numerous changes lie in wait under the hood. The biggest difference from Age of Wonders 3 is the combat and hero system. Now heroes can level, learn extensive skills, equip different weapons, or earn various mounts. Units can stack up to six deep, and battles are fought in a quick but tactical turn-based system. Usually, this is where we insert our thoughts about the game pace, the overall balance between factions, and how the tech tree holds up. Rest assured, all of those mechanics are present and work well enough.
We want to discuss something else this game does that many other fantasy 4X games have tried and failed at, and that’s grounding the gameplay in a relatable fashion. Most fantasy 4X games get so bogged down with trying to avoid tropes or overcomplicate their lore, world, and units that knowing what to expect and the rules of engagement can be a game within a game.
In a game such as Civilization, for example. Before we play a single turn, we’re fully aware of all the pieces at play. We know the cultures, places, and the history. Without looking at an FAQ for the tech tree, we can already determine what, how, and why we want to make our choices. We know what the wheel does and can immediately grasp the significance of the bronze age. We know that getting to gunpowder will significantly benefit the military. These examples can go on and on ad nauseam. This is the strength of most 4X games set in a familiar setting. This is, in part, why they are so successful and also why they usually fail when they make jump into a fantasy setting. Age of Wonders does a great job of embracing magic and high fantasy, but it always feels grounded and easy to understand.
Graphics/Audio: Style and Substance
Age of Wonders 4 looks great and ran fantastic during our review period. Outside of slight hitching during late-game turn cycles, it never crashed on us. Each unit is drawn well, character models are prominent on the map, and each hero appears larger than life. Magical transformations will alter your faction’s appearance. The faction creator has limited customization options, but it’s flexible enough to make a hero and army all your own.
On top of all that, the game features mod support on PC, and they have even managed to deliver outstanding console versions. Planetfall had a good controller interface, but Age of Wonders 4 elevates it. It’s clear that Triumph Studios put much thought and care into making those versions as fun to play as their PC counterpart.
Conclusion: There and Back Again
Our Age Wonders 4 review experience was an unexpected pleasure. It’s a brisk, fast-paced, and rewarding 4X with a fantastic feature set. The multiplayer works great, and every aspect of the game, from the online settings, world generation, and rule sets, are at the fingertips to customize your liking. If you’re looking for the next big thing in the genre, or love their relaxing nature, look no further than Age Wonders 4.
Age of Wonders 4 is available now on PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.