Overall Score 88%
Age of Fear: The Undead King
Turn based strategy releases are indeed few and far between these days. It's good to see games like Age of Fear flying the flag for the genre. Often these games are developed as labours of love, since the careful balancing of unit strengths and weaknesses, and the development of an interesting campaign is far more time consuming than making another simple match-3 puzzle game or another abstract shoot 'em up. Age of Fear feels like a retro gaming experience, but certainly not in a bad way. It's everything that was good about strategy gaming in the 90's - before real-time games that masqueraded as strategy games but really just required twitchy reflexes, memorisation of build orders and absurdly complicated macros instead of a good plan and solid execution of tactics.
The setting is classic fantasy, and the game ships with 2 campaigns available to play. One tells the story of a poor but noble Knight of a human kingdom and his rise to fame, but I deliberately chose the one that stars an evil necromancer for my play through. The story of Krill and his insatiable lust for power and control immediately put me out of my comfort zone (I nearly always choose lawful human heroes in games like this). The plot comes in bite sized chunks in a storyboard style between missions. The campaign that I played lasted a good few hours on the medium difficulty setting and consisted of about 15 missions. During the campaign, the player is introduced to more powerful units slowly and the most powerful only make an appearance in the last few levels. Also, the first missions serve as a tutorial for those that might not have played this style of game before, but if you have, then rest assured that the control scheme is immediately familiar and intuitive to use.
Strikingly, the game features no hexes or squares. Most turn based strategy games that I've played recently do rely on these (I'm thinking of some of my favourites like Sid Meier's Civilization series and XCOM). The freedom of movement gives the game a great RTS feeling but still allows all the time in the world to plan and perfect tactics on the battlefield thanks to the turn based mechanic. The action is presented in a 2-D top down format, but it doesn't feel like a giant game of battle chess because of the hex-less maps. Nice. One other by-product of the free movement is that it introduces a bit of uncertainty into the combat. For instance, with squares or hexes, you know exactly when a unit is within counter attack range of an enemy, but in Age of Fear there is only an inexact indication of attack and movement range available to the player, and this encourages a slightly hesitant and conservative playstyle.
The AI seems to be competent most of the time and will generally keep frail magic users and ranged units away from the front lines of battle. Still, it doesn't really tend to favour concentration of overwhelming force, and this is where the human player really has an advantage. By pulling back the entire force and requiring the AI armies to come to me, it was fairly easy in most situations to pick off enemies one by one. In most scenarios the AI will start the level with superior forces (both in number and quality) and often have the player flanked. There will still be some tense moments, and with die rolls also affecting the hit/miss mechanics, it's common to see some unexpected combat results. There's some networked multiplayer and single player skirmish modes as well, but I think that the campaign mode is really where the game shines. There are even some puzzle elements in some of the scenarios, and learning which units are useful against which (and even which skills to use in certain situations) is all part of the fun.
The range and types of available units is fairly expansive, and individual units can not only level up with experience, but can also have special promotions attached to them. For example, a skeleton warrior might kill a Knight and receive the Knight Slayer promotion. From that time on the skeleton will be more proficient at killing Knights, and will retain that ability even when it's upgraded into a Skeleton Rider for higher defence and movement allowance. Recruiting units and upgrading them costs money, and limited amounts are earned through battle, but knowing when to pull a wounded unit off the front line and save an experienced troop adds an interesting dimension to the combat as well. Therefore, the player needs to be concerned not only with winning each individual battle, but also with training and retaining a good mixed force of roundly promoted units. It's really good strategy gaming that will keep you coming back battle after battle.
The presentation is a bit of a mixed bag. It looks a bit amateurish in parts, but nothing that really detracts from the excellent gameplay. In particular the maps are very bland and similar. This is not helped by a strange art style that makes it look like the detail has been airbrushed from space. I don't like it at all, and really wish there were some more realistic looking backdrops for the battles. But the artwork in the storyboard scenes, and the character portraits are great and very atmospheric. As you click on a unit to issue its orders, it will acknowledge with a suitable sound clip, reminiscent of the old Warcraft releases. The units themselves are quite distinguishable in the top down view, but I had an awful time when my undead army were fighting the final battles of my campaign against hordes of other undead. It was just too difficult to know who was fighting for who, especially with the Lich ability to turn control of undead units from one team to the other! Music is suitable and relaxing, in fact, I'm listening to it right now in the background as I type up this review, so no complaints there. Options to control the volume or disable it completely are included for those who might disagree with my opinion.
I have to say that it's been a refreshing change to have had the pleasure to review a game that doesn't involve matching-3 of anything for a change. Age of Fear is a game that has been conceptualised and developed with a great attention to detail by a team that obviously enjoy the style of game that they have created. Perhaps English is not their native language, and there are a number of typographical errors, and strangely worded sentences in the texts. It's nothing that can't be overlooked and as is the case with some of those old JRPG's which featured some horridly convoluted English, it might actually add to the attraction of the game for some. Not only have I polished off Krill's undead campaign, I'm now a good way into the story of Edward, who has just been knighted for his service to the King, and can't wait to get back to it! Age of Fear is addictive, enjoyable and challenging. The demo is available to try and features the first few levels of the necromancer's campaign. I'd definitely recommend giving it a try.
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