Age of Wonders 4 Review: Fantastic Fantasy

Age of Wonders 4 makes a triumphant return, but is there enough to keep you occupied for hours on end?

Age of Wonders 4 makes a triumphant return, but is there enough to keep you occupied for hours on end?

Age of Wonders 4 is the latest iteration of the long-running 4X strategy franchise. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a while now, not just because of my love of strategy games, but also because of my eagerness to see how this offering stands out from the pack.

My previous experience with the series comes from the sci-fi spinoff, Age of Wonders: Planetfall, which I covered for PC Invasion, our sister site. Now, the series returns to its fantasy roots.

To say that Age of Wonders 4 is choc-full of customization options would be an understatement. Right from the get-go, you’re bombarded with a plethora of selections.

You can choose from preset “realms,” which are essentially maps, or create your own based on tweaked selections. From there, you can pick from any of the default factions, most of which rely on fantasy tropes. These range from expansionist humans and doughy dwarves to fey-touched elves and berserking orcs. Alternatively, you could just come up with your own, too, as it’s possible to create factions and ruler, akin to Planetfall.

For instance, in my first game, I picked the feline race — because cats are awesome — before choosing various passive traits and their affinities and magic tomes. There are countless combinations you can tinker with that add some additional flavor and fluff, be it evil halflings, nature-loving toadkin, or magic-starved ratmen (for the Skaven fans out there).

Screenshot by GameSkinny

Starting each game, you’ll have a pre-built city, and it’s up to you to follow the 4X commandments: explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. Age of Wonders 4 lets you do all of those and then some.

As cities grow, or once you turn an outpost into one, they’ll start gobbling up adjacent territories. You can pick the type of resource that will be added to your coffers, usually dependent on terrain features or points of interest. Likewise, cities have separate queues for buildings and units, so you won’t need to worry about just producing one thing or another forever.

From there, you clear out infestations and delve deeper into Ancient Wonders. You might meet free cities (city states or AI minors), which you can gradually assimilate or conquer outright. And, of course, there are rival empires (AI majors/main opponents in each match). You can befriend and ally with them or plan for the wars ahead.

Complimenting your expansion is the Imperium system. It’s akin to a skill tree of sorts, where you unlock passive boons and functions based on your affinity and culture. For instance, the Chaos affinity leans heavily on all-out warfare and razing, giving you gold and even free units at times. This is useful for Barbarian cultures due to their pure offensive capabilities.

The Dark affinity, meanwhile, relies on knowledge and research, while Mystic focuses on mana income, Industrious types look at production, and so on. As such, prioritizing certain passives based on your affinity will lead you toward a precise path that synergizes with your initial picks.

Image via Paradox Interactive

Age of Wonders 4 relies on a turn-based tactical system. Once you clash with another opposing army on the world map, you’ll switch to a smaller tactical map where units move onto hexes, cast spells, deal melee damage, or proc certain passive traits.

Each army can be comprised of up to six units, though multiple adjacent armies can provide assistance up to a maximum of three armies or 18 units per side. Likewise, you’ll also have your ruler and recruitable heroes. These special characters can equip items, gain unique skills, and be assigned as city governors.

While the AI itself is somewhat competent — at least on normal difficulty, in my experience — you’ll still be able to clear challenges with little to no issues. Moreover, if you don’t want to fight each battle manually, you could always bring a doomstack of multiple adjacent armies and auto-resolve a bout to speed things up.

Image via Paradox Interactive

Of course, magic is also present. Rather than rely on a traditional tech tree, Age of Wonders 4 uses Tomes, sets of spells pertaining to a particular affinity or school of magic. These include the usual examples, such as fire, ice, lightning, and nature-based abilities, which let you call wild animals or demonic rituals that let you summon or turn into denizens of the dark.

You can mix and match to come up with a decent combination or focus primarily on the affinity type. Either way, you’ll slowly reach higher tiers of Tomes, unlocking even more powerful abilities. It’s really just another layer of customization and replayability that’s welcome, and a way for min-maxers to experiment on ideal setups.

Games can be won through:

  • Domination (defeating all rival rulers).
  • Magic (researching a high-tier tome).
  • Expansion (controling a huge chunk of the map).
  • Score (whoever has the highest score upon reaching the maximum number of turns).

At the end of each match, you’ll earn Pantheon XP based on your actions, which then adds to your Pantheon level. This allows you to acquire cosmetics, realm types, and origin traits when you create a custom game or faction/ruler. As such, every match you complete always leads to something via this meta-progression system.

Screenshot by GameSkinny

Regrettably, I do have a few qualms about Age of Wonders 4. The first is the story campaign. While you can just play skirmish until your heart’s content, the story campaign looks at the rise of wizard kings and queens and your attempt to wrest control of the land. It all sounds good on paper, but with too many mechanics and systems, the key objectives and missions just clash with the sandbox.

Another hiccup comes in the form of Ancient Wonders, which are tougher encounters and limit you to just a hero’s army. I understand the mode exists mostly to present a challenge you can’t easily steamroll, but it does lead to situations when you’re wasting turns trying to reorganize units, even though you have a large force just waiting in the background.

I’m still torn when it comes to Age of Wonders 4‘s Pantheon system, given that you only earn XP after completing matches. Some campaign missions are fairly short, and you quickly see the fruits of your labor with the awarded XP. Sadly, other missions with larger maps or multiple objectives, and bigger skirmish setups, will take a lot longer, making things a slog in comparison.

Age of Wonders 4 Review — The Bottom Line

Image via Paradox Interactive

Pros

  • Options to create a faction/empire and ruler.
  • A Ridiculous number of customization options that lead to near-limitless replayability.
  • Nestled tooltips, similar to Crusader Kings 3 and recent Paradox Interactive games, provide helpful info.
  • A Refreshing magic system combined with research, eschewing a traditional tech tree.
  • Bright and eye-catching visuals that reinforce the fantasy feel.

Cons

  • The Objectives-based campaign gets messy with so many mechanics and functions to consider.
  • The Pantheon meta-progression system will probably cause you to play quicker matches instead of longer ones that last hours.
  • A few freezes/crashes and UI bugs.

Age of Wonders 4 brings the franchise back to its fantasy roots, offering a robust system that lets you go all-out with customization. Whether you’re out to role-play based on your selections or min-max to come up with game-breaking setups, you’re bound to spend numerous hours just trying out new strategies.

[Note: Paradox Interactive provided the copy of Age of Wonders 4 used for this review. Featured image by GameSkinny.]

Age of Wonders 4 makes a triumphant return, but is there enough to keep you occupied for hours on end?
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Age of Wonders 4 Review: Fantastic Fantasy

Age of Wonders 4 makes a triumphant return, but is there enough to keep you occupied for hours on end?

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About the author

Jason Rodriguez

Jason Rodriguez is a game review and guide writer from the Philippines. He's basically a rare Pokémon.