4X turn-based strategy games such as Age of Wonders: Planetfall are very much the domain of the PC. So to see one not only come to home consoles but to release on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One at the same as the Windows launch is remarkable in of itself. Age of Wonders: Planetfall is the work of Dutch developer Triumph Studios, with Paradox Interactive taking on publishing duties. It is the fifth installment in the series and the first to feature a sci-fi setting rather than the traditional fantasy one.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall does have something of a story. The game takes place hundreds of years after the collapse of an intergalactic government called the Star Union. After an unknown event causes the different factions to break up, they each struggle to assert dominance. You take on the role of a faction leader, trying to build up your colony on a new planet. The narrative pretty much stops there, although the different campaigns do have a sprinkling of a plot to them. While the lack of a proper story is disappointing it is to be expected in such a huge and sprawling strategy game. It is just difficult to interweave a narrative in with the depth of gameplay in such a game.
There are several maps to unlock as well as new factions. Completing a campaign in different environments with the various groups will then unlock more content. Eventually, you will get access to six factions and a nice collection of maps. The factions are not just re-skins either. They each have unique characteristics and play styles. For instance, there is an all-female Amazon faction that rides around on dinosaurs and an insect force known as the Kir’Ko that want to get up close and personal in combat.
The main problem with Age of Wonders: Planetfall is that it over complicates every aspect of gameplay. Sure there is plenty of depth but it is overwhelming at the very beginning, to an extent that it is sure to put many people off playing it altogether. Even going through the tutorial leaves far too many unanswered questions and you are left to learn many of the mechanics on your own.
This is a major issue considering just how complex Age of Wonders: Planetfall is. The game is a sort of mix of genres so that it plays like a standard 4X game most of the time. However, when it comes to combat the action switches to something resembling XCOM. Considering how Age of Wonders: Planetfall is effectively two completely different games there is a hell of a lot to explain to the player. Especially when the developers have decided to get as deep as possible when it comes to resource management.
Almost every single element within your colony will have to be managed. Of course, those familiar with the likes of Civilization will have a good idea of where to start. You have to expand your settlement, collect resources, and prepare military forces to defend yourself. This all plays out on a fairly big map on hexagonal tiles. Where things get difficult is when you have to start researching and upgrading units or buildings. Resources like food have to be manually put into the correct spaces for what you want to do. Want to build up your population? Then food needs to go to recreation, but this will mean the resource is not going to other places and quickly cause an imbalance.
Combine that with the sheer amount of menus you have to navigate and things can very easily get away from you. There is an upgrade for everything and then those upgrades themselves have entire skill trees to manage. With tooltips that are not useful, you will struggle to get to grips with where you need to invest. The combat suffers from its issues as well as it is just nowhere near as precise as games such as XCOM. Even so, it is still fun to play and provides plenty of opportunities for you to put your tactical brains to the test. Its a surprisingly deep system for a 4X game and does help to give you a break from the main gameplay loop that is managing your colony.
In the end, the only real way to learn in Age of Wonders: Planetfall is to make mistakes and learn from them. While this can be a good technique and has been used to good effect by recent games like They Are Billion, it is incredibly frustrating in a campaign that you might have pumped more than a dozen hours into. Failing and having to restart because of something you don’t understand and was never explained to you is just not fun.
In terms of presentation, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is something of a mixed bag. The colorful visual help it to have a distinctive visual style but the textures and models themselves aren’t particularly detailed. Animations, especially in combat, can also be a bit wobbly. Some decent sound effects during these moments do make up for that somewhat. Although, outside of combat the sound design does suffer. The score is entirely forgettable and repetitive, while the sound effects in the world map are poor. It is impressive how much voice acting there is, yet the dialogue is often as entirely cliché for the sci-fi setting.
There is a lot to like about Age of Wonders: Planetfall even with the problems mentioned above. Some people might well enjoy the level of depth and complexity on offer. It is certainly a different experience to most 4X games. I just feel like it goes too far, seemingly making things difficult for their own sake rather than it simply being a consequence of the gameplay. Perhaps it could have been improved with a little more streamlining, especially for console players who are not used to this kind of detail in their strategy titles. Those who can stick with Age of Wonders: Planetfall long term are those that will get the most out of it will give them the chance to fully understand every aspect and take advantage of the breadth of depth available.