Well, let’s see. Suppose you take a turn-based strategy game, add in three new races, a handful of new buildings, and a new campaign. What do you call it? I’d call it an expansion pack, but expansion packs don’t seem to be in vogue any more. And so Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is simply called a “new stand-alone game” at the Age of Wonders web site. But don’t be fooled. The new content isn’t overwhelming, and Shadow Magic plays almost identically to Age of Wonders II.
The premise behind the game is this: dimensional portals spring up around the world, and Shadow Demons start coming through and causing havoc. A human emperor named Phobius decides that the demons feed on magic, and so wizards are responsible for their appearance. Thus, Phobius decides to hunt down all the wizards and fairy creatures to stop the shadow demons. (Get it? He’s afraid of magic and his name is Phobius. Ho, ho, ho.) You play several of those wizards in the game, and first you have to rally the fairy creatures to fight back against Phobius, and then you have to track down the Shadow Demons themselves.
The Shadow Demons are responsible for two of the changes in Shadow Magic. They’re one of the three new races (the Syrons and the Nomads are the other two), and they spill into the world from the Shadow Realm, giving maps a new third level. This is actually a step back to the original Age of Wonders game, which also had maps with three levels. I was sort of happy when Age of Wonders II switched to two levels, and so the return of the third level didn’t exactly thrill me. But, luckily, the underground and Shadow Realm levels usually aren’t full levels, and they don’t make the maps as convoluted as some of the ones from Age of Wonders.
Each race also gets a unique building for their towns. The Orcs, for example, get a Blood Totem building that gives units produced in the town the life-stealing ability. Plus, there is another new building for towns that all the races can use. It’s called the Item Forge, and it allows you to craft objects for your heroes to wear. That sounds like a good thing, since it guarantees your heroes can, oh, always hit twice and do fire damage, but it really just exacerbates a problem with the game. In Age of Wonders II (and, really, in all turn-based strategy games of this type), heroes get really powerful by the end, so powerful that eventually you don’t even need to support them with other troops. Now in Shadow Magic you can ensure that they get even more powerful than that. This doesn’t do any favors for the game’s single player campaign, but it probably works fine for scenarios and multiplayer.
Speaking of Shadow Magic’s campaign, it’s a total dog. There are 16 scenarios in the campaign, and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, each scenario (after the first three tutorial scenarios) takes four or more hours to play, and so the campaign provides plenty of playing time. It’s just that the campaign isn’t any fun. For starters, it’s broken up into 3-scenario mini-campaigns with a finale scenario at the end, and so you barely get to know your heroes in one mini-campaign before you have to start over again in another. Worse, the scenarios all play about the same, where you have to defeat all the enemy wizards to move on. The problem with that is you can’t just make a beeline for an enemy wizard to defeat it. If players still have a wizard tower standing after their wizard gets “killed” then the wizard will just appear at the wizard tower. That means you have to grind your way through city after city so you can defeat the wizard, and with large maps with multiple levels, that turns missions into long, grueling, boring affairs.
Of course, if you enjoy long and grueling affairs, then you’ll probably be happy to know that Shadow Magic comes with a random map generator, plus about 20 pre-made scenarios. Coupled with multiplayer (where I suspect Shadow Magic is more fun to play), that should give you all the playing time you want with the game.
Since Shadow Magic came out over a month ago, I took a peek to see what other reviewers have thought of it. And wouldn’t you know, the lowest score it’s gotten is 80%. Ugh. To me, the Age of Wonders games aren’t nearly as entertaining as the Heroes of Might and Magic games, and yet they get universally praised. I don’t understand it, but if you’ve enjoyed Age of Wonders or Age of Wonders II, then you’ll probably like Shadow Magic as well.