Age of Wonders 4 review – wizards of mass destruction

We look at the latest in the venerable fantasy strategy series in our Age of Wonders 4 review - new instalments are rare, and this is up there with the best.

Our Verdict

This is undoubtedly the best 4X game I've played in years, delivering top-notch exploration, combat, and diplomacy alongside a rewarding and dynamic customisation system.

Triumph Studios’ latest 4X strategy game is a marvel of customisation, and our Age of Wonders 4 review explains why it’s one of the year’s must-play games.

Cat people: what do we really know about them? What do they want? Will they harm us with their dark and powerful magic? These are the questions this Age of Wonders 4 review seeks to answer as we plunge together into the magical world of Triumph Studios’ latest fantasy 4X strategy game, which introduces what may be the genre’s best faction design system to date. I’ll cut to the chase: I haven’t had this much fun with a 4X game in a very long time.

Age of Wonders games don’t come along very often. Age of Wonders III came out in 2014, which was 11 years after Age of Wonders II. Each entry has taken the basic formula of 4X empire management and bite-sized tactical battles and transformed it, including the sci-fi spinoff Age of Wonders Planetfall in 2019. As the series has aged, it hasn’t simply evolved to keep pace with modern PC technology. Age of Wonders III added a new RPG character development focus in its leader units, and Age of Wonders 4 widens that focus to entire factions.

That’s how I wound up commanding a tribe of evil cat wizards. Each time I start a new campaign in Age of Wonders 4, I have the choice of either picking from a selection of pre-made fantasy races – mystical elves, industrious dwarfs, colonialist humans – or creating my very own. Starting with bodies that range from human to toads and mole people, the physical shape of my citizens is just the starting canvas. Each body type includes a default body trait and mind trait, but I can swap these out if I want. Toad people typically have the body trait ‘resilient’ and the mind trait ‘water adaptation,’ but I can change these to suit an underground environment if I plan on having them live in caves by selecting ‘underground adaptation’ instead. This will allow them to move faster on rocky cave tiles, and they’ll be able to build farms on cavern floors.

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After this, I pick a culture. Each has its own magical affinities, economic structure, combat bonuses, and unique mechanics. Feudal cultures gain a special ‘stand together’ buff for adjacent combat units, while dark cultures have special city structures in which they can imprison enemy heroes to pump them for additional knowledge income.

Culture is further refined by the selection of two society traits, which is where I really got to hone a specific playstyle for each campaign. I can choose to make my people the ‘chosen uniters’ to focus on diplomacy and peace, or I can get extremely nasty by making them ritual cannibals who become more powerful as I gain points in the evil alignment.

Age of Wonders 4 has what I think may be the most powerful magic system I’ve encountered in a strategy game. As part of creating a custom race, I get to pick an initial tome of magic. This is Age of Wonders 4’s answer to the traditional tech tree, and it’s a big shift from the system found in Age of Wonders III. Here, magic is divided into tomes, each with a particular magical affinity. Studying multiple tomes from one type of magic unlocks more advanced tomes, but I always have the option of branching out and studying new kinds of spells.

That’s important, because part of what makes Age of Wonders 4’s magic so powerful is that it unlocks spells that can transform my entire faction. My dark cats began their first campaign with a slight tendency toward evil (cat owners can confirm that this is highly realistic). However, I began studying nature magic tomes, and eventually cast a spell that granted them animal kinship, allowing me to conjure wild animals to recruit into my armies and spells that boosted their stats in battle.

This highlights one of the things that I think makes Age of Wonders 4 a truly special game. All that customisation I’ve described is just the beginning: my people change and grow over the course of each game, sometimes transforming into something altogether different from what I started with by the time I reach the score screen. It feels completely organic: each decision I make is reflected in the new choices I have across my kingdom, from city management to battle tactics. At any point, I could start studying from the tome of necromancy, which opens up an entirely new soul-harvesting mechanic for my people.

Those choices and changes are reflected visually, too. As my evil cats become more attuned to nature, my units start weaving twigs and leaves into their costumes. Their eyes take on a permanent green glow when I grant them animal kinship. And at some point, their warrior king found a unicorn, which he’s riding around a mystical archipelago somewhere in the multiverse.

All of this might sound a bit overwhelming, and it probably would have been in less-practised hands than Triumph Studios’. Actually playing Age of Wonders 4 feels deceptively simple: right-clicking is all I have to do to issue the majority of commands, and an unobtrusive list of alerts on the right side of my screen keep me up to date on all the available decisions I have during a turn.

It helps that the game is utterly gorgeous from top to bottom, as I mentioned in my Age of Wonders 4 preview a couple months ago. The beauty of the fog of war that shrouds the mountains and forests at the edges of my explored territory extends to the menus and UI, which manage to be both thematic and easy to read. And I love the way diplomacy is handled. By giving a Whispering Stone to another civilisation, I can open diplomatic channels with them. The menu for these talks is clean and intuitive: I can issue plain-language pronouncements, like a declaration of friendship, or I can settle grievances by declaring war or demanding payment for territorial incursions, all at the click of a clearly labelled button. It’s a game that feels elegant to the touch.

On top of all this, simply exploring the map and fighting things is just an old-fashioned good time. There are ancient wonders to explore, with powerful monsters to fight and new artifacts and weapons to loot. Bands of renegades guard treasures scattered around the world, like in the glory days of Heroes of Might & Magic. Depending on the map, there can even be an entire underworld to explore beneath the surface, with its own people and cities to discover. World generation is terrific, and showers me with options like giant forests, enchanted island chains, zombie worlds, or dimensional rifts.

My complaints about Age of Wonders 4 amount to nit-picking. I’d like it if it was possible to arrange my troops prior to battle, since these can get complex when I have several full stacks of units besieging an enemy city, for example. And while the options for creating my own faction are impressive enough, it’s the kind of choice that just makes you want more, and more of the truly weird. Mole people are great, but why not penguins? Or ghosts, maybe? Give me merfolk or dragons or a race of gelatinous cubes to command. Deep as it already is, I can see the potential for more.

That will more than likely be resolved by forthcoming DLC, so I’m not too worried. In the meantime, I have a new favourite 4X game to spend my weekends with. If you’re a fan of the genre, new or old, Age of Wonders 4 is a game you owe it to yourself to play.