Reviewed: August 28, 2003
Released: July 29, 2003
I have never been a fan of the Age of Wonders series. Every time that I’ve played an installment of the series, it has looked like a game I would enjoy, controlled like a game I would enjoy, and even the gameplay sounded like it was custom-made for me. Nevertheless, I would tire of it within a few days and quickly move onto something else. This has all changed now that I’ve spent the past few weeks with Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic.
Be it the game’s extraordinary level of polish, charming atmosphere, the sheer scope of gameplay options, or a combination of the three, Triumph Studious has made an addition to AoW the series that has become one of my favorite games of 2003.
A Strategy game with RPG underpinnings, Age of Wonders is one of the series taking a core genre (RTS, FPS, etc.) and infusing it with greater player control and a rich storyline. Essentially, Shadow Magic is all about increasing your magical and militaristic influence over the game world until your enemies have no place left to hide. Building and capturing towns, spreading your wizardly powers across the landscape, and creating a formidable army are all keys to success in Shadow Magic. They also provide enough variety to deliver a compelling and addictive gameplay experience.
Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is set in a time when Wizards are viewed as criminals, responsible for opening gates to a Shadow Realm. It is from this realm that evil and destructive creatures have emerged and are now terrorizing the planet. Naturally, these shadow beasts are enemies to man and magician alike but a shrewd politician, Phobius, has seen his chance to grab power and taken it. Using the Wizards as a scapegoat and exploiting the human’s panic, Phobius quickly rises to power and dedicates his reign to the eradication of all Wizards, which, by his logic, will close the shadow gates.
However, the great sorcerer, Merlin—since trapped in the shadow realm—has called out to the few remaining Wizards in hopes of orchestrating a war against the Shadow Realm. As the player, you take on the roles of these Wizards. Burdened with the task of removing the Shadow Realm’s threat, you must also prove that Wizards are the solution to that threat.
Helping you to get a grasp of its core gameplay, Shadow Magic offers three excellent tutorial missions. Taking an always-welcome approach, the tutorials play out as actual missions complete with a small prologue to Shadow’s story. Although the tutorial is very thorough, I never felt as though my hand was being held. Instead, it felt more as if I were playing the game with someone chiming in every now and again just to keep me on the right track.
Once into the main campaign—split into “episodes”—you select an episode and assume the role of the episode’s wizard. You are able to set the episode’s difficulty and customize the wizard that you’ll be playing as. Since your real power comes from magic, your first order of business is finding a Wizard’s Tower. These towers act as magical broadcast towers—allowing you to cast your spells in areas far beyond your immediate surroundings. The size of these towers dictates how far your magic will reach so in essence, create a sphere of magical influence. Anything inside your sphere is subject to your help or hindrance; beyond the sphere, you are dependent on your Heroes, units, and allies.
Heroes play a large part in Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. Since you (the Wizard) are locked away in your tower, heroes act as your eyes, ears, and magical conduit in areas beyond your magical reach. Although you’ll generally start with one hero, you will oftentimes run into others willing to join you; wizards that are more powerful can even attempt to summon a hero.
Heroes level up in an RPG-like fashion, and with each level they gain, you are able to increase their combat and leadership skills or give them special abilities such as casting magic or scaling walls. Aside from leveling up, Heroes are also able to carry special weapons, armor, and rings. Granting its wearer special abilities and attributes (invisibility, magic resistance, etc), these objects can be found in ancient ruins, created in your more advanced towns, or—and this is the fun way—taken off the corpse of an enemy hero. Additionally, heroes are surrounded by a small sphere where your magic will work. Because of this, a hero can wander well beyond your magical realm and still benefit from your protection.
From a militaristic standpoint, Heroes act as your army’s officers. Capable of providing your units with boosted stats, moral points, and the presence of magic, an army led by one of your heroes is vastly most effective than a standard contingent of units. Of course, they are also quite competent fighters and, should you choose to level them up accordingly, can become “super soldiers,” tearing apart small armies on their own.
As for what your armies are composed of, the available number of units is staggering. Dependent on your race and manufacturing capabilities, you have access to a wide array of melee, magical and ranged units. Fleshing out each category, you have units with varying speeds, strengths, ranges and so on. In addition, many units will have special attributes such as the ability to scale walls, heal their teammates, or even fly. Easily the most impressive in my eyes is the Bone Dragon which flies out of range of melee units, has a vampiric attack that leaches its victim’s hit points, and can unleash a “flame” of a dark matter that sets helpless foot soldiers ablaze.
The combat in Shadow Realms is turn-based and is, for the most part, excellent. Although most of the game is played out on a detailed over-world map, once combat begins, you are swept down onto the combat field. The battlefield correctly reflects the terrain on which the conflict was initiated, be it outside of a rocky Ore Mine, in a forested area, or around some form of structure. It should also be noted that Shadow Realms uses a hexagonal system. Because of this, armies in a hexagon directly adjacent to an attacking/attacked unit will be pulled into the action. This allows for some extremely large battles.
A you’d expect, the smaller skirmishes play out fairly quickly. One side lobs a few missile attacks and starts moving its melee units into position, and then the other side responds in-kind. What keeps things interesting here is the variety of units. You will oftentimes find yourself outnumbered but if you learn your units’ strengths and weaknesses, you can come up with wildly different tactics for different situations. For instance, D’Jinns have spinning attacks that scatter enemy units around the map. Should you lack any melee units, this maneuver can buy your ranged fighters the time they need to wear down the enemies.
Of course, fights for towers and towns are where the real action is. The aggressor must first break down the gates while being pelted by arrows and various form of magic. To make matters worse, highly developed towns will have magical barriers around them that damage enemy units while advanced Wizard Towers will shoot balls of energy at the aggressor. Of course, if the attackers have the support of their Wizard, a quick earthquake spell will create a few impromptu “doors” in the fort’s wall. These battles can rage on for 5-15 minutes depending on the number of units involved. I was always impressed with the amount of give-and-take that occurred and many of the larger battles required genuine strategizing rather than just unit vs. unit matching and made rushes.
A small point perhaps, but I was pleased to see that a walled-in structure gave its defenders a very distinct advantage over the attacker. In many other games, walls seem to be either paper-thin or can be picked away from the distance. In Shadow Magic, working your way past a wall requires a serious mana investment (one that will fully exhaust Wizard’s power through the rest of the battle) or slowly hacking away at its gates while row after of your grunts fall to the defenders barrage of fire.
Of course, there is more to Shadow Magic than just bashing skulls, exoskeletons, and vanquishing spiritual units. Since your magical sphere of influence is so important, establishing extra Wizard Towers is vital. These towers can only be built in towns so some amount of expansion must always be underway. Obviously, you could just attack and capture enemy towns but this can be risky and building an army costs money and time. Thankfully, other methods are available.
For one, the landscape is littered with villages left in ruins from previous conflicts. Using a “Pioneer,” these villages can be rebuilt and will oftentimes retain their old upgrades, giving a full functional city. Another is to send a Pioneer out into a desolate region of the map and build an outpost. Although these weak settlements initially act as little more than makeshift towers, a little loving care can slowly turn them into a full-fledged city.
As your influence grows, so does your ability to act quickly and affect areas where you have no units. Various mines and energy/elemental nodes are scattered about the map and supply their owner with much-needed money and mana. Since tiles are so valuable and sought after, the moment one is left undefended, you’ll want to grab it as quickly as possible. Should it fall under your sphere of influence, simply summoning a magical entity next to it will give you an instant advantage over your enemies. Should you catch an enemy army moving towards one of your strongholds, summon a storm of Enchanted Forrest to help “soften” them up before the reach you. You also have the ability to destroy or re-grow the land around you, summon creatures to come to your aid, and pretty much manipulate the world around you as whole, all from the safety of your tower. This entire system works very well and makes you feel like part of the action rather than some faceless leader barking out orders from who-knows-where.
However, when looking to extend his or her power, a Wizard has two more things to take into consideration: the cavernous world underground and the Shadow Realm. Scattered across the map are caves that lead you into an underground world and teleportation pads that connect the “real world” with the realm of Shadows. Things can get a bit tricky in these new terrains as your units suffer penalties for as long as they remain in them. Furthermore, your magical sphere of influence, no matter how large above ground, has no effect elsewhere. Therefore, unless you want your heroes to lead brief and dangerous excursions into these new terrains, you must quickly establish cities of your own to act as otherworldly bases of operations.
Thankfully, not everyone is out to kill you. Although it is very rudimentary, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic does include a diplomacy system. At times, certain races will naturally be inclined to join forces with you. Others will often be suspicious of your motives and so, must be won over by your deeds or generosity (bribes). Once on your side, Allies will ask for assistance and will fight your enemies. In addition, should an ally be adjacent to you when initiating combat, your forces will fight side-by-side. Again, it is a simple system but one that adds some extra depth to Shadow Magic and the interaction between allies and enemies lends further personality to the game.
Finally, you are able to construct shrines to various gods. Once complete, these gods will ask you to perform tasks and, should you do as they ask, they will reward you with money, rare items for your heroes, new spells, or whatever else the god feels like offering. However, these gods will often demand you take actions that may not coincide with your own goals.
For instance, the God of Nature loathes seeing her Planet being torn apart for resources so will regularly request that you destroy mines. While her rewards may be excellent, the loss of a mine also means the loss of income and that might not be a tradeoff that you’re willing to make. Other gods will order you to hunt down small rouge armies (tying up your military's resources) or insist that you declare war on someone you would rather count as friends. More often than not, I simply didn’t build shrines, but if you are just starting out a little mana from heaven never hurts.
Beyond the campaign mode, there are individual scenarios, randomly generated scenarios, user-made campaigns, and multiplayer modes. All of these modes are highly customizable and allow the user to create matches that suit both their play style and available playtime.
For what it is, Shadow Magic’s graphics are surprisingly good. Since my “Life” characters generally sought to restore nature, I was consistently impressed with how the forests surrounding me glistened with a vibrant, almost florescent aura. For those who prefer the darker side of magic, Shadow performs equally as well, and the ground around you will smolder until it’s nothing but a charcoal grey wasteland. As for terrain untouched by a wizard’s influence, it’s your standard affair with some passable water effects and high-resolution textures.
The Underworld is a land of brown, which, while expected, pales in comparison to the splendor found topside. The Shadow Realm is appropriately sinister territory and shimmers with dark purples against a black backdrop. Gamers who can appreciate fantasy art on any level will find Shadow Magic’s world to be captivating.
As far as graphics go, Shadow Magic’s spells steal the show. Brilliant particles, glowing flames, and enchanted fogs ensure that your conflicts will always be visually appealing.
My only real complaint with the graphics is that the sprites used to represent units—while animated quite well—are positively horrid looking should you ever need to zoom in on the action. That’s it! While Shadow Magic’s graphics may not be a technical marvel, the game is beautiful and has a level of polish found in few titles.
The music in Shadow Magic is first-rate and captures the feel of the game perfectly. Something that I would like to see from more games that Shadow Magic does an excellent job of is ensuring that each song has multiple shifts that keep them from becoming repetitious. Just to praise Shadow Magic’s score a bit more, while there are countless games set in a medieval/fantasy world (each with their own collection of pseudo-period pieces) the score in Shadow Magic still manages to sound fresh and perfectly conveys the game’s supernatural and alluring spirit. Without question, an excellent job all around.
As with the graphics, Shadow Magic’s sound effects are at their best when they are associated with magic. Most of these effects seem to be multi-layered and convey an otherworldly-feel that, again, fits the game’s motif perfectly. Other sound effects (clashing blades, battle cries, etc.) all range from “acceptable” to “above average”. Simply put, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic virtually gleams with the polish its creators have obviously so lovingly applied.
Being the methodical player that I am—a single episode lasted me a week. Throw in a total of seven episodes, player-created campaigns, randomly generated scenarios, and multiplayer modes; Shadow Magic’s becomes well worth the cost of admission. Even further, the levels can be handled in so many different ways that it gives Shadow Magic true replay value. If you are the type of gamer who wants more than a week’s worth of entertainment for your money, Shadow Magic will leave you very contented. This is the type of game that will likely stay on your hard drive long enough to grow old, raise a family and tell your grandkids about the days when it had to run on a lowly 2GHz CPU.
Shadow Magic has made me an AoW convert. With its highly varied gameplay, mesmerizing atmosphere, gorgeous soundtrack and overall polish, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is a hypnotizing game so absorbing that it made the world around me dissolve away. If you are a fan of RPG’s, RTS’s, or simply a sucker for compelling fantasy worlds, I cannot recommend Shadow Magic strongly enough.