REVIEW: Age of Wonders: Planetfall – Star Kings

Nov
27

REVIEW: Age of Wonders: Planetfall – Star Kings

Attack of the precognicient mech suit wearing lawful good space paladins

Released: Steam,GOG
Type: Singleplayer, Multiplayer
Genre: Strategy, 4X
Developer: Triumph Studios
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release date: 10 Nov, 2020

Age of Wonders: Planetfall has been out for a little bit over a year and has now received its third, and possibly final (at least if the season pass is anything to go by) DLC, and with it comes a brand new faction, the Oathbound, a faction that leans heavily towards being the insufferable good guy Paladins that every D&D group loves/hates.

Long time fans of the Age of Wonders series might be reminded of the Highmen or Archon when they see the new faction that comes with this DLC, and while the Oathbound are superficially similar to those, they don’t function the same way, instead they are unlike anything the series has had before.

Huge mech suits supported by normal humans make up the armies of the Oathbound

Story and Presentation

The Oathbound are a group who view themselves as the good guys, the protectors of the galaxy and the innocent people living in it. They view themselves as the people who should rule the galaxy in order to create a new era of order and prosperity. But in order to create their galactic empire they need something known as the Grail Configuration, which is found deep within Star Union space.

Disorder and chaos is something antithetical to the Oathbound. For them entropy itself is something that needs to be fought or at the very least controlled. And to do this they’ve developed ways of predicting and shaping the future. The Oathbound don’t go into battle blind, their seers have already foreseen some of what’s to come.

In terms of looks, the new faction is one of the most consistent in the game yet. Their units fall into two categories, fighting and support units, and both look distinct from each other. The fighting units are increasingly massive mech suits that primarily use a white and bright gold colour scheme, while their support units remain roughly human sized, and use a lot of black/grey, dark blue and dull gold in their colour scheme. This create a rather striking look for the army on the battlefield.

The campaign has a good amount of story segments, and even seemingly trivial choices, like this one, can have a noticeable impact

Gameplay

Triumph Studios did not exactly give themselves an easy task when they designed the Oathbound. How do you create a faction that can literally see into the future? The answer they came up with was to give them a lot of buffs and debuffs that made sure that the next action ends up being favourable to the Oathbound. The Oathbound can effectively remove the games random elements, at last temporarily, through their support units. For an example, their tier 1 support unit, the Scryer, can apply a buff called “precognition” which makes it so that the next attack that targets a unit misses automatically. Other support units have similar buffs and debuffs that has an effect on the next action, like an enemy unit can’t avoid your next attack, or your next attack will be a critical hit. This is powerful, but not as overpowered as it might look at first glance. A crafty opponent can make the Oathbound player waste their abilities by using weaker units first, or using weak area of effect attacks to remove any defensive buffs, and the support unit is using up its turn to help another unit.

Where the support units are weird and unlike anything else in the game, the fighting units of the Oathbound are surprisingly conventional. Most of their units are somewhat bulky and defensive-minded melee units, and they don’t have access to any form of artillery or snipers. Instead, the Oathbound is a faction that wants to get up close and persona, with even their ranged units have somewhat limited range. To help them get close to the enemy, their combat units tend to have some form of bonus when they enter defensive mode that also buffs nearby friendly units. Their tier 2 melee unit for an example has an ability called “protector shields” which protects all nearby friendly units from ranged attacks and makes them unflankable. These defensive abilities might at first glance look a bit like “Swarm shield” that all Kir’Ko units have, but swarm shield is a passive buff that strengthens all Kir’Ko units that stay close to other Kir’Ko units, where as the defensive abilities of the Oathbound needs to be actively used, and when an Oathbound unit uses its defensive ability it prevents it from taking an offensive action that turn.

The character customization is, as usual, quite robust

Because the Oathbound think of themselves as the good guys reputation is very important to them, and playing in a way that increases your reputation is encouraged by some of the factions doctrines and abilities that heroes can get. These effects scale with how high your reputation is, so at a low but positive reputation you’ll get a small bonus to certain stats, or a production bonuses, and the higher your reputation gets, the higher these bonuses will be. You’re not forced to play as the good guys though, and you can chose not to get those hero skills and doctrines and play in an aggressive an evil way if you really want to, but the bonuses for staying on the good side are significant enough that you’ll not be playing to your factions strengths if you ignore these reputation-dependent bonuses.

Heroes that an Oathbound player controls (they don’t need to be Oathbound heroes) have the ability to become lords of your cities, playing into this feudal lord/knight motif that runs through the faction. These are hero skills, and you can chose one out of several types when a hero levels up, which will give a city a bonus in one area, like production of science output. This effect can then be further improved as the hero levels up. If the hero is also within the territory of the city that it is lording over it will give a further bonus to it, which is nice if you ever need to leave a hero behind in order to protect your territory, but the added bonus is not so large that it encourages you to turtle with most of your heroes.

There are a few new additions to the game outside of the Oathbound faction and its new campaign, the most significant of which is probably the new wildlife that you’ll run into. The Mycelians are fungi (as their name would imply) that has become sentient and merged with farming equipment, effectively making them agricultural cyborg mushrooms. These are bad news for the Oathbound, who like to clump up, as they deal a lot of area damage. Then there’s the Apostates who are Oathbound who have embraced chaos, which makes them your typical fallen paladins. And finally there’s the Psionica, vampirical insectoid rock monster who suck the life force out of anything they run into, and who deal psionic damage (bypasses all armour) and when they attack they heal themselves.

Don’t underestimate the bonuses you get for being good

Closing Thoughts

Star Kings is a very solid expansion to Age of Wonders: Planetfall. The new faction does not play like anything in the base game, and is even quite different from its closest counterparts in the older Age of Wonders games. What really impressed me about the new faction is how well it manages to make the mechanics reflect the lore. Here you have a group who have the ability to see into the future, and this is represented by their ability to ensure that their next action has a positive outcome, even if the odds for that happening are supposed to be very low. And this is without making the faction feel overpowered, which is no small feat. The new campaign is also decent, with some fun writing, but the highlight of this DLC is clearly the new faction itself.

A new major patch was released alongside this DLC, and while it’s not what I’m reviewing here, it’s worth mentioning. It adds a new mode called “Galactic empire”, which gives you some persistency between your battles, allowing you to build up your galactic empire and start future maps with some bonuses. That’s the most major thing that the new patch adds, but there are a few more minor, like a new type of sector for your colonies, new tech and new neutral unit. Just the patch alone might be reason enough to return to Planetfall, even if the Oathbound don’t interest you much.

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