The Age of Wonders series is a great example of how a gaming franchise should evolve. The original Age of Wonders was a solid entry into the turn-based strategy genre, but it had a few problems that kept it from being great. Along came Age of Wonders 2, making the changes necessary to turn a good series into an excellent one. Not perfect yet, but a great deal closer. Age of Wonders Shadow Magic continues this trend, tweaking the Age of Wonders series just a bit more, continuing to refine the series into what is becoming the best turn-based strategy available.
Shadow Magic introduces several new aspects to the Age of Wonders world: three new races, several new units for the established races, and a handful of new buildings. All of the 15 races are quite well balanced, which is quite an achievement. In addition, Shadow Magic introduces a third terrain to the Age of Wonders overland map—the Shadow Realm. The Shadow Realm can be entered from the Surface or Underground terrains via special teleporters or spells. Things work a bit differently in the Shadow Realm…units have a much greater movement rate while venturing through this land, but many are susceptible to Shadow Sickness, leaving them significantly weakened. Steps can be taken to temporarily stave off the effects of Shadow Sickness, but these don’t last all that long.
Two of the new races, the Syrons and the Shadow Demons, are native to this Shadow Realm, and so are immune to the debilitating effects. The Syrons are a race enslaved by the Shadow Demons, powerful in magic, but unable to throw off the yoke of their captors. The Shadow Demons are a hive-like hoard of evil, working to engulf multiple worlds using an arsenal of some fairly nasty abilities. The third new race, the Nomads, are a very mobile people, with strong and fast units. Unlike the other races, Nomad cities don’t gain bonuses to production or research. Instead, for a small price, the cities can be packed up and moved, allowing for some very interesting tactical options.
Shadow Magic’s single player campaign continues the story from the previous AoW titles. Merlin has gotten himself trapped in the Shadow Realm, while an over-zealous Emperor Phobius is working to wipe the Wizards from the face of the world. And the hideously evil Shadow Demons seem to be quite happy with the way the seemingly righteous Phobius is handling things. Merlin is able to contact a few Wizards from his prison in the Shadow Realm, and he recruits these Wizards to battle the new threat from the Shadows.
Game play is similar to previous Age of Wonders titles, and veterans of the series will find it easy to jump right in. Cities are the main production facilities of the game, producing units and some amount of gold and mana. Various structures on the overland map, such as mines and windmills, can be claimed by a player to increase income. Armies of units move about the map, clashing with other players, conquering opposing towns, and claiming various structures. In addition to the race-specific units, hero units can be hired to help in conquering and looting. Heroes are special units that have the ability to carry magical items, and are generally a bit sturdier than non-heroes. In addition, heroes have the ability to gain far more experience levels than their non-hero counterparts, and can gain special abilities at each of these level increases. In this way, heroes are customizable by the player, giving a bit of a RPG feel to the turn-based strategy.
The most important unit is the Wizard, a special hero unit vital to the player. The Wizard doesn’t gain experience, rather, the Wizard busies him- or herself with learning powerful and world-altering spells. The Wizard can certainly adventure right along with the rest of the armies, but that puts these somewhat fragile heroes in quite a bit of danger. Wizards do much better to find themselves a Wizard’s Tower, a city structure that projects a “domain”, an area of the map over which spells can be cast. In this way, Wizards can sit back in the relative safety of these towers and still throw spells anywhere in their domain. Non-Wizard Hero units also project a small area of domain, allowing the Wizard to cast spells around their Heroes on both the overland and tactical combat maps.
Combat is handled much like in previous AoW games. Whenever two or more armies clash, fighting is initiated. A “quick battle” option is available when the odds are overwhelmingly in the favor of once side or another (or if the player is feeling particularly lazy). If the quick method isn’t appropriate, the tactical map pops up, and the individual units begin hacking/clawing/shooting/casting their way to victory or defeat. Units that land a killing blow are awarded experience, and at certain amounts of experience they level up. Non-hero units can level up twice (becoming veteran and elite units), gaining additional bonuses and sometimes abilities with each leveling. Hero units, with the exception of the Wizard, can continue to level for quite a long time.
Shadow Magic looks and sounds great. The graphics are clean and colorful, and each of the units is quite well animated. Even with high resolutions and lots of units on the field, it is never difficult to tell the various units apart. Sound effects are good, and the music is wonderful. The voice acting, heard only during the cut scenes, is solid, although not outstanding. The interface is also quite good, making for an easy time of questing and conquering.
Overall, Age of Wonders Shadow Magic is a great addition to the turn-based strategy world. There are enough new goodies for veterans of the series to justify grabbing this title, while newcomers to the series will also be able to jump right in and have quite an enjoyable time. Well-balanced races, gorgeous graphics and music, intuitive interface and addictive game play make this a title all fans of turn-based strategy should pick up.
The latest title in one of the best turn-based strategy series. Excellent game play, well balanced races, and highly addictive play make for a wonderful game. Great for Age of Wonders fans and newbies alike.