Shadow Magic is the last game in the “classic” part of the Age of Wonders series and intended as a direct sequel to The Wizard’s Throne. For the most part, anyone who played the previous game will immediately find it familiar, in both good and bad ways. However, there have been changes and additions, some of them important, and while the additions generally seem positive, even if in some cases only in the sense of offering a few more “toys” to play with for those who care to do so, most of the changes bothered me, very much so in some cases.
Of course, the most important aspect for a turn-based game is to create that “one more turn” feeling, which it does quite well. Same as for The Wizard’s Throne, only played the campaign, without trying any of the included single scenarios, playing around in the editor or having anything to do with multiplayer, at least this last part having always been the rule, but the 16 scenarios, 13 if you skip the tutorial ones, do take quite a while to complete and they kept me interested the large majority of the time. Sticking to classic turn mode, after I finished my turn I waited for the AI and checked what movements I could see, maybe fought a battle or two if attacked, then at the start of the new turn it was all too easy to go through build orders, possibly select the next thing to research if one completed and there were more items left, maybe capture a structure or grab a resource that was in easy reach, then I ended up thinking of the next troop movements, then since I did so I was tempted to carry them out as well, possibly also fight some battles that seemed easy… Unless major battles or particularly tricky situations gave me pause, before I knew it that “one more turn” was over and I was looking at the next.
There are no different paths to take or optional scenarios within the different sections of the campaign, but the campaign is nevertheless interesting, also keeping things fresh by switching wizards and races every three scenarios, and the different paths to victory and optional parts are in the scenarios themselves, more attention seeming to have been paid to this. In fact, victory conditions often do not involve defeating the enemies. The option is available and rewarding, even more so in terms of improving heroes and finding good items, but tends to be the hard way to win, enemy forces typically being overwhelming and scenarios often being designed to be won by using certain routes and completing other specific goals. Also, if in my review for The Wizard’s Throne I was complaining of scenarios hardly having any story of their own, now there are quite a number of scripted events and bits of text to read, often in the form of a short speech when units join, cities switch to your side or certain locations are reached. Still nothing to write home about and plagued by an issue I’ll mention under complaints, but it’s an improvement, as is the fact that units do have descriptions this time around… Though they seem to have forgotten to add one for one Syron hero.
The final scenario does require defeating the enemy, but that scenario is quite something, offering plenty of options and emphasizing just about every feature of the game, be it good or bad. And there are quite a number of features and strategic options to choose from, the different races and magic spheres tending to favor somewhat different strategies. The Nomads in particular bring some interesting mechanics, but other new races and units, and even some of the familiar ones, can be notable from this point of view as well, and the Shadow World only adds to this, though whether what is added by it appeals to you or not depends on how you like to play. Overall, I do think that the races are better balanced, the differences making it so it’s not a matter of the better race or unit of a certain tier, but the better one for a particular situation. The new item forges also add to the number of options for those who care to use them, though the created items are limited to three attributes and reasonably good items are expensive and take a long time to create, so I for one did without them after the novelty wore off.
Still on the topic of positive changes, while not massive, there seem to have been some improvements to the AI, and the odds remain stacked so much against the player that a truly good AI would make the game impossible, so the fact that it’s not exactly smart can often be forgiven. But I’d say even more notable improvements were made to the information offered to the player. Problems remain, but those largely have to do with information that you’ll probably figure out after a while, and even that was improved, for example the effects of skills now being listed when you customize a wizard. However, the most important change when it comes to the information provided is the fact that what you really do need to know very often, the base values that apply for a combat skill, are now listed when you hover the mouse over it, with the effective ones listed after selecting it, when hovering the mouse over the target.
Otherwise, the positive aspects I pointed out in my review of the previous game remain true. The difficulty can be quite high, even early on, but if it seems impossible you probably missed something, as once you understand what’s going on it doesn’t seem unfair and it is rewarding when you make it, one way or the other. The massive battles that can take place due to the fact that all units in adjacent hexes enter combat continue to set the series apart, teleportation gates provide additional tactical options once you manage to build them, and the fact that city defenders can now freely position themselves within the city at the start of the battle is an improvement. And, while potentially powerful, heroes are still units like any others, not requiring armies to hide behind nor being necessary for other units to be able to go anywhere, which concepts constantly frustrated and, quite frankly, baffled me in other TBS series. Other units are more important now, but it remains possible to play most of the game as an RPG with an added strategy element if you truly wish to do so, without this hindering those who have other preferences.
Since I mentioned heroes, I’ll start my complaints with the fact that, due to how you can now choose attribute increases when gaining a level, they’re significantly weaker than in the previous game. Others may prefer them this way, but since I do like to play this sort of games as RPGs with an added tactical element, with heroes typically handling the offense and particularly tricky situations and other units the defense, it’s an unpleasant change from where I’m standing. And this reduced power isn’t compensated by more control in their development, since gaining a level still offers three random options to select from, not a free choice, and at times you’re not even offered three valid choices, since it’s possible to have one option show up twice or existing or even weaker abilities, such as protection from something that the hero is already immune to, to be among the choices.
Still on the matter of weaker units, breath and some other special attacks are now limited. This does tend to only apply to those abilities that broke the balance and some of the new ones that could do so, the Human Air Galley for example remaining the only unit capable of defeating any number of melee ground units without any risk of retaliation and in fact even gaining the ability to ram and bring down enemy air units, but when you’re used to certain strategies and just want to play the campaign, not go against other players, it’s rather unpleasant… As is the fact that you can’t make use of a unit’s healing ability outside combat anymore. There is some automated use of it at the end of the turn, but I was never certain if it worked the same as in The Wizard’s Throne and, either way, that can’t make up for no longer being able to manually select which other unit to use it on. And while I’m here, I’ll also mention the fact that units in transports now also use movement points, at a fixed rate of two per move. It does make sense, since if a turn covers a certain amount of time then that time passes for all units, not only for one, but in that case shouldn’t the transported units use a set percentage of their movement points instead of a fixed number? And this is just a thought, but if the idea was to make some changes that make sense, in a realistic way, shouldn’t flying units be penalized underground, and be unable to fly over stalactites? Also, as more than just a thought, it would definitely help to be able to arrange units in the field as well, not only city defenders, even in the sense of selecting their positions in a stable formation, not before each battle.
However, the change that caused me the most trouble is not among those mentioned above, but the automatic surrender. In Shadow Magic, units that face overwhelming enemies tend to surrender automatically, which causes all sorts of problems. This can happen even to attacking units, or to units defending cities, or to units that couldn’t normally be struck by their enemies. It doesn’t matter that you can use spells and tactics to win, or at least to force a draw; it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to wear down the enemy, sacrificing some units to weaken the enemy force and possibly buy some time; it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to gain a bit more experience in some easy battles; units that wouldn’t normally stand a chance in a straight battle are likely to just surrender automatically. This completely ruined the strategy of defending cities I used in The Wizard’s Throne, that of finishing up on gaining experience late during a scenario, after getting the enemy under control, or that of harassing a more powerful enemy earlier during a scenario, and it caused me a few massive losses, including cities and access to entire areas of the map, despite the fact that tactics and magic would have made the battles in question not only possible, but in fact basically certain to be won.
When it comes to the story, this time around the problem is that much of it tries hard, way too hard, desperately so, to be funny, which definitely doesn’t fit the grim setting and events. What comes before and after each scenario is all right, but most of what you get to read during the scenarios themselves is a joke, literally, and that also goes for most unit descriptions, which just doesn’t seem right at all. Some occasional comic relief works, making a game where the whole point is to be humorous also works, but when you have a story about terrible wars, desperate refugees, the threat of complete enslavement and basically the possible end of the world and yet almost everyone either keeps making jokes or, well, is a joke, often as a way to point out stupidity or insanity or both, it really doesn’t fit and may even leave a rather bitter taste.
Otherwise, there are some technical problems to be aware of as well. What I played was the GOG.com version and I’m not sure if they’re specific to it or not, but one thing I wondered about was why does such an old game need to constantly use all of one CPU core while it’s running. The big technical problem, however, is the fact that the game will become increasingly choppy, then start simply exiting, with no crash message, apparently when switching between the turns of AI opponents, and eventually no longer start at all the more time passes since the last reboot. For those who turn their computers off daily, or at least reboot regularly, this wouldn’t even be noticed, but since mine is usually only off if the power fails or I need to change some component or move the desk and only rebooted to install Windows updates or in case of a serious problem, it meant that even if I got used to it being choppy, which can start to happen within days, I was forced to take a break every month, the point at which it no longer started tending to come after about three weeks or so. This was one important, and perhaps the most important, reason why it took me close to two years to finish the campaign, since sometimes I didn’t feel like getting back to it after the next reboot, or perhaps started or got back to some other game and didn’t bother with this one again until I either finished or took a long time off that one.
Other than that, the bug that makes you sometimes need to do something else, such as capture a structure, in order for the game to realize that you completed a quest from one of the Spirits remains, as does the one causing negotiations to be ignored if the AI partner would have accepted but doesn’t have the mana required for the transfer. And the fact that when an ally joins you in battle they control their units, but when you join an ally you don’t control yours and in fact don’t see the battle at all, only being presented with the outcome, also remains unchanged and just as unpleasant. In addition, while the issues are minor, often just a matter of some text that seems out of place, a few of those scripted events that make scenarios nicer may not quite work as intended, and pushing past the intended path to victory and striving to defeat the enemy instead may cause even more little oddities.
And to finish with the complaints, despite the improvements I mentioned, the AI definitely won’t win any prizes, and there are still some problems with the information received, albeit much fewer and less important than in the previous game. When it comes to this information, for example I finished the game without really knowing what each level of a magic sphere did and, more specifically, what being a specialist actually implied, only thinking to do a quick search and get the exact information while thinking of writing this review, because the game itself didn’t provide it. And then there was the final Syron scenario, which on top of being listed as “very hard” but in fact being very easy, possibly even the easiest if you quickly understand how it works and play it right, has a victory condition that isn’t as clear as it should be. It’s explained at the beginning, and there is another way to win it if you “cheat” a bit, but after again taking a break and then just reading again what showed up when I checked the objective, I wasn’t quite sure I correctly remembered what I had to do and had to check a guide to confirm it.
Overall, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic definitely has problems, solving a few of those which had plagued The Wizard’s Throne but doing nothing about others and adding some notable ones on its own, but it even now remains a pretty good fantasy TBS, having positive elements that other games in this genre continue to lack or even specifically reject, lacking some negative ones that are otherwise unfortunately all too common, and definitely creating that “one more turn” feeling that is mandatory for the genre. As such, despite the changes I was bothered by, the completely out of place determination to constantly insert humor in such a grim setting, and even the technical problems that I had to put up with and which kept forcing me to take breaks, I did finish it and can say that for the most part I enjoyed it.