Age of Wonders: Planetfall
Out since August 6, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a 4X turn-based strategy game by Triumph Studios, the original developers of the franchise and a subsidiarity of publisher Paradox Interactive. Unlike previous entries, however, this installment makes the leap from fantasy to science fiction. While also available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, this review is done for the PC version, which can be purchased on Steam and GOG.com (both $49.99 for the Standard Edition).
On the surface, the overall gameplay is a blend of various 4X and turn-based games, with some RPG elements. Be it in gathering resources (e.g. energy, void, influence, etc.), diplomacy options, hexagonal layouts, managing cities or fighting enemy armies in zoomed-in engagements, it would be familiar to anyone who’s played Civilization or XCOM. There’s even a cover mechanic (complete with destructible environments), overwatch function for certain units and online multiplayer. Looks, however, can be deceiving.
From Swords to the Stars
First and foremost are the playable races. Over two centuries after a cataclysm shatters the interstellar Star Union and plunges the galaxy into a dark age, six distinct factions are forging their own paths to the future:
- The Vanguard – Frontier soldiers and colonists from the long-vanished Star Union itself, who awaken from cryostasis only to face an unfamiliar galaxy.
- The Dvar – The dwarf-like descendants of mining consortiums stranded on a hostile planet, which evolved to survive and profit.
- The Amazons – A nature-loving, all-female subspecies descended from a group of bio-engineers, with a knack for genetic engineering.
- The Assembly – Cyborgs that evolved from a secret military experiment gone wrong, which by and large seek to “reassemble” the stars in their image.
- The Syndicate – Ruthless aristocrats and trading houses armed with psionic powers, enhanced technology, and indentured servants.
- The Kir’ko – An insectoid alien race enslaved by the Star Union that, now free of their old masters, seek new destinies in the stars.
Although they all share the same basic mechanics, each one has very different play styles and abilities, with some being able to alter the map itself. The Amazons can create lush forests where none previously existed, while Dvar can terraform the land around them to create mountains or flatten them. In addition, each race is made to be as visually distinct as their play style. Take the Vanguard’s baseline-human shtick, which is reflected in their modern-futuristic architecture, their units’ boxy “conventional” military style and a reliance on ranged combined arms tactics. By contrast, the Kir’ko’s otherworldly nature is evident in their strong preference for melee, psionic upgrades and bio-tech aesthetics.
Then, there are the six “Secret Technologies.” Available to each faction though known only to the player, these provide unique benefits, equipment and units those researching them. The Synthesis route, for example, is cybernetics-focused, thus provides myriad means to hack mechanical enemies and establish networks for friendly troops. While the biological Xenoplague unlocks the ability to infect foes with a mutagenic parasite that spawns viral creatures. As a result, not only is playing as any one side unique, but there’s much room for experimentation, especially with different configuration made possible with those techs.
The maps themselves (which represent various planets) are rather diverse. Whether it’s deep oceans, Star Union ruins, lush forests or blasted volcanic plains, there’s a plethora of terrain types that blend fairly well with each other. Dotted across these, meanwhile, are myriad barbarian “marauder” armies and minor NPC factions (which range from the robotic Autonom to Mad Max-esque Spacers) that could be befriended as allies or killed off. This kind of variety extends to the battlegrounds in the combat sequences. Be it a ruined desert highway filled with rusted cars, a psionic temple in the middle of a snowy forest or an old factory filled with explosives, don’t expect to play the same map over and over again. Combined randomized and procedural generation, it also means that there’s always something to focus on.
Which isn’t to ignore the elements carried over from past games in the series. There’s a strong emphasis on customizing units, with a vast assortment of armor, weaponry and ammo to “mod” them with, whether for individual types or as a template for mass production. “Hero” characters (including faction leaders), can be further enhanced in-game beyond cosmetic changes, with access to vehicles, mounts, specific weapons and skill trees. This factors heavily into gameplay, as there are different kinds of damage and defense variables on hand, such as explosive, biological and psionic to name a few. Thus, even the basic Vanguard infantryman, for instance, can last through an entire round, with the right equipment. There’s also the “Operations” mechanic, a sci-fi spin on the magical spells and abilities in earlier titles. Coming in three forms (tactical, strategic and doctrine), these can range from passive bonuses to deploying reinforcements on the map and blowing up enemies with orbital lasers. Not to mention, the other RPG influences on display, such as dungeon-esque vaults for armies to explore, reputation scales for how trustworthy, noble or sadistic a player can be, and quest missions given by NPC groups. Thus, whether the player is a long-time fan or a relative newcomer, the ensuing experience is at once familiar yet distinct.
To top it all off, Planetfall offers a substantial campaign mode. Comprising 13 levels in the form of planets (14 including the tutorial) and voiced interludes in between, it chronicles the various factions as they make their mark on the altered galaxy and uncover the mystery behind the Star Union’s collapse. These episodes (which can last anywhere from about an hour to several depending on speed) also feature recurring hero characters from each side that carry over into later parts of the story, complete with whatever gear’s used for them. On top of this, there’s a significant degree of flexibility in how the overarching mission objectives are achieved, be it through completing quests, diplomacy or simply blowing up other rivals. As an added touch, there are also RPG-style decision points, such as whether to align with another faction or push forward with potentially dangerous Xenoplague experiments. Beyond fleshing out the lore, these also do a good job in providing a sense of weight and continuity. All while simultaneously allowing players to experience every single side and Secret Technology.
With all that said, does Triumph Studios’ latest work live up to the Age of Wonders name? The short answer is a firm yes.
Brave New Worlds
Coming from someone whose only exposure to the franchise prior to Planetfall was through magazines and wikis, it helps how the game doesn’t require any pre-existing knowledge of prior entries, being set in a wholly separate continuity altogether. It manages to present a rather unique take on fantasy conventions that’s transplanted to a sci-fi universe. While many factions roughly correspond to familiar staples (such as the Dvar being “space dwarfs”) with the exception of the Kir’ko they’re all variants of mankind rather than entirely separate races, the fallen Star Union itself being a human civilization instead of a mystic utopia. Even with the magic-esque nature of things like Voidtech or psionic powers, there’s also a certain, grounded greyness to the setting. With the exception of certain characters, none of the sides are “purely” good or evil, everyone varying considerably between being noble and homicidal; this in turn opens up much room for infighting, as those nominally in the same side don’t always get along. The campaign in particular, more than making each level feel like part of a wider saga, does a good job highlighting these, especially in how the decisions and options presented aren’t too on the nose or always obvious in terms of morality. That it’s all wrapped in solid production values, from crisp audio and voice-acting to vibrant graphics (which perform decently well on a mid-range system) certain help.
This is complemented by the game’s accessibility. While a tutorial level and helpful tools are present to help ease newcomers in, anyone with a basic grasp of strategy games would be right at home. The diplomacy mechanics are simultaneously robust and streamlined, showing not only various possible options (which include casus belli trading and vassalage), but also the odds of success in pulling them off (depending on whether the other party or the player’s side is receptive). Utilizing Operations, whether on the main map or in combat, is very straightforward, with the various effects shown on-screen. The interface is easy and distinct enough to get the hang of, so it never feels overwhelming; it aids players as well in ensuring that anything left idle or unfinished is resolved before clicking the “End Turn” button. Combined with a large tech tree and solid combat (where flanking, cover and finding ways to outwit the enemy dissuade complacency), suffice to say Planetfall is easy to learn, though with much to master over time.
Not everything is perfect. While the game’s performance is solid, there are still the occasional crashes, in one case stemming from using the auto-resolve. Even with the random and procedural generation, certain maps and layout do get a bit repetitive over prolonged play. The AI, meanwhile, isn’t always consistent, which can make for easy matches at points or unpredictable opponents who might declare war for seemingly no reason. The XCOM-esque RNG in combat, where even an 80% hit isn’t always guaranteed to connect, can also make otherwise easy battles into frustrating slogs. Especially should enemies luck out. These, however, don’t distract from the overall package.
Whether it’s good strategy one’s looking for or a bit of fantasy in their sci-fi, then Age of Wonders: Planetfall certainly lives up to its heritage.
Final Verdict: Recommended
*All images are owned by their respective copyright holders and are used under fair use guidelines
*All images are owned by their respective copyright holders and are used under fair use guidelines