Age Of Wonders: Planetfall Review - Creative Space Empire Building Limited Only By Your Imagination

Triumph provides the worldbuilding and the backstories, and you supply the rest.
8.5
  • Playstation 4
  • Windows
  • Xbox One
  • Strategy
2019-08-06
AOW Planetfall
It's everything turn-based fanatics could ever want in a 4X grand strategy title set in space. Paradox Interactive

With the release of developer Triumph’s latest entry into their popular Age of Wonders series, Age of Wonders: Planetfall, I believe we have reached a peak when it comes to accessibility for casual players looking to get into 4X games. I’m not at all what you’d consider a veteran of 4X turn-based grand strategy titles, and for the most part I’d avoid them like the plague, but Age of Wonders: Planetfall has certainly piqued my interest into the – eherm – wonders of the genre, in particular to how incredible the pay-off is after you’ve sunk hours into playing.

There are some caveats to Planetfall, but for players who want to dip their toes into turn-based strategy, this is probably one of the best places to start.

Gameplay

AoWP World
There are only three playable races at the beginning of the campaign mode, with the final three to be unlocked after finishing a set number of campaigns. Photo: Paradox Interactive

Age of Wonders: Planetfall is a 4X turn-based strategy game developed by Triumph Studios and published by the authority on all things strategy, Paradox Interactive. It’s the fourth in their long-running Age of Wonders series, and the first to incorporate a science fiction setting. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of the overarching game design first. 4X is a genre within turn-based strategy, requiring players to explore, expand, exploit and exterminate to victory. A lot of the gameplay is heavily dependent on creative, imaginative, and strategic thinking – think management sim, but with more micromanagement needed. Planetfall is just that, although I’d argue that a lot of effort went into making the game as accommodating to new or inexperienced players as possible.

The game has two main modes: a campaign mode, which sees you play as one of several races in predetermined scenes; and a scenario mode, which has no overarching story and more of a ‘play as you see fit’ kind of deal. Whatever you end up playing, the game always begins on a procedurally generated map with several game worlds, made up of different sectors. Each sector is then broken down into individual hexes, which can fall under two different biomes or have individual structures like existing landmarks, hazards, or neutral cities.

Gameplay is pretty standard for a 4X title, as Planetfall just does what you expect of it. You explore the map to find resources to exploit, which you can then use to expand your influence and ultimately exterminate those that oppose you. There are four kinds of resources: food, production, research, and energy. Food upkeep is needed to maintain your sectors, which you can control with outposts or new colonies. It’s also used to create new colonists, which are used to expand your influence through the allowance of new outposts. Production is your general resource for structures and upgrades, all happening within your colony. Research is self-explanatory, as it’s spent in the tech tree. Energy is also used for colony upkeep, although most of what you’ll use Energy for is the production of units, with which you can build your army to effectively expand your influence throughout the map.

AoWP TB
Movement is facilitated in hexes, with a set number that can be traversed per each turn in accordance to your unit's move points. Photo: Paradox Interactive

Gameplay is handled in turns, which end when you can no longer carry out actions or if you choose to skip acting altogether. Each of your units has its own number of move points that they expend to move across the map hex by hex, and different kinds of terrains have their own number of required move points in order to traverse. Planetfall is expansive, and smart decisions are almost always the guaranteed way of doing things. I say almost because I found that there are still some instances where brute force can triumph. What you do in the map is always taken into account. Planetfall provides some very deep options for actions outside combat like diplomacy or covert operations, and they are very rewarding if you put the time into them. I can’t tell you how many times I avoided war by siding with the alpha faction of the map, then doing some operations to siphon energy off of them to secretly fund my army. It’s this kind of simulating loop that I live for with these games, as the only limit you’ll find is the one you impose on yourself.

Once you’ve gone in-depth with the map, made friends with the locals, and started micromanaging your colonies and outposts, there is still the matter of combat to look forward to. One thing to note here: I am not the biggest fan of turn-based combat. At best you find yourself at the mercy of RNG, with attacks missing despite the 98 percent chance to hit; at worst it’s tedium in the most annoying form possible. Despite this, I actually ended up loving the turn-based combat in Planetfall, owing to a few integral design choices made by Triumph.

AoW Combat
Turn-based combat is a little bit more bearable thanks to a few adjustments made. Photo: Paradox Interactive

Combat in Planetfall is turn-based, and played from a top-down perspective. Each of the units in your stack gets three action points. Almost all actions consume action points, and a unit’s turn ends when it has expended all of these points or skipped using them entirely. Units can take cover, flank and even stagger enemies. The combat is greatly improved, in my opinion, with the introduction of grazing, a mechanic in which missed shots will still deal half damage. This has probably reduced tedium overall, mostly because questionable misses are now just written off as half damage instead.

Does this mean that you’ll end up loving turn-based combat now, if you hated it before? I don’t think so, but I have to give props to Triumph for making combat as accessible to a lot of newer players without killing off the entire point of what makes turn-based combat fun for fans of the genre. 

You can play without turn-based combat entirely, as there is an option for auto-combat, which takes the rating of your army and pits it against the enemy. This has elements of RNG, and you have no direct control over what actions your units take. For me, it also kills the whole point of a huge chunk of the tech tree, which is dedicated to mods you can install in your units to change the way they behave in combat.

AoWP Diplomacy
Diplomacy is incredibly viable in Planetfall, although it involves a lot of brown-nosing early on. Photo: Paradox Interactive

Another grand aspect of the Planetfall experience is how well its diplomacy features are designed. Other Age of Wonders titles handled diplomacy really well, but in Planetfall it becomes an incredibly viable way to finish the game. There are some pretty good nuances to how all of your actions have some sort of consequences with other factions. On lower difficulties, expect some questionably dumb decisions from AI, but on higher levels enemy factions are actually amazing to play against for those in it for the challenge. I’ve tried playing a game using only diplomacy, trying my best to avoid conflict with larger factions, and it ended up being like an actual love triangle due to how two of those factions were vying for my support in their war against each other. There’s something very amusing about seeing the Syndicate offer you extreme knowledge of their workings while the Assembly showers you with energy and other resources that’s very cathartic as well, knowing you hold the power that will ultimately end either of the two empires.

It’s also worth noting that Planetfall has an amazing tech tree that players spend their resource points on. Tech can either be classified as society or military, each coming with their own particular uses. Society upgrades greatly expand on how you can influence the map through non-combative means like diplomacy, covert operations and exploitation of various sectors. There’s also a tab that is specifically for the advancement of your race, which by the end has its own win condition. That said, prepare for a lot of reading and preemptive planning in between turns, as these societal tech upgrades can get pretty in-depth.

AoWP Tech Tree
The tech tree in Planetfall is quite expansive, and should your game ever reach past a few hours you'll suddenly find yourselves armed with Doomsday tech. Photo: Paradox Interactive

Then there’s the military tech tree, which is where you go for the latest in extermination technology. Unlike the society tree, which is basically the same for all races, the military tree lets you choose which units will you be making and what upgrades will you be using to improve them. A big part of combat is reliant on what you get from the tree first; since the game is turn-based, there is a big incentive to always think ahead to what you will need at later stages of the game. The branching paths also offer a wide variety of approaches to combat – will you be a cunning warlord who’s mostly invested in unit upgrades? Or will you be a brute barbarian whose goal is to get better tier units to smite all of your enemies by sheer force alone?

All of these aspects form this core gameplay loop for Planetfall, making it a very cerebral and highly strategic game to play. With a lot of win conditions available, and the fact that you can beat a game with a wide variety of branching paths at your disposal, Planetfall has made it easier than ever before to get into 4X strategy titles. I think that with these smart introductions of new mechanics, Triumph has also ultimately placed Planetfall into this very sweet spot between new players and veterans, adding a lot of improvements that makes playing the game as interesting as possible.

Narrative and world-building

AoWP Commander
Having your commander take on different traits and appearances help keep a deep sense of role-playing within Planetfall. Photo: Paradox Interactive

Planetfall’s campaign mode is where the real fun can be found. The races in Planetfall have to be some of the most interesting I’ve seen in a turn-based video game. It’s commendable that Triumph knew just how to make each race more captivating, despite this being their first foray into space and science fiction. 

The plot of the campaign centers around the Star Union, which was like a unified human galactic conclave. An unknown cataclysm brought about its demise, and centuries in the future new factions rise and do battle to carve a new path for themselves and humanity as a whole. The game is set in this period, where races of different species all struggle to find a place in this universe that no longer has a Star Union behind it.

The base game has six playable races, and each race has an incredibly intriguing backstory to carry their campaigns, along with their surprisingly realistic interactions with other factions. There are three races available at the start, and more are unlocked as you finish each campaign in order to get closer to the truth of what happened to the Star Union.

AoWP Vanguard
There's a lot of variation between factions, although of all of them the Vanguard is the most generic. Photo: Paradox Interactive

What you’ll immediately notice in Planetfall is that despite having four of the races be offshoots of humanity, there is an amazing amount of diversity between them. There’s a great incentive to play all the races to find out all those little differences between them, and how these factions work in the grand scheme of things. What’s more amazing is how their backstories are woven nicely into how they strategically function; for instance, despite looking like your regular, run-of-the-mill space soldier, the Vanguard are quite agreeable when it comes to diplomacy, due in part to the fact that they were in for one rude awakening after two centuries out of the loop. The Kir’Ko at a glance look like mindless beasts, but despite having their unity taken away from them, they still have it in themselves to make peace. It's the little things like these small nuances that really helps me immerse myself into how their overarching narratives grow, as I’d argue that the story behind these races is part of what makes turn-based strategies work amazingly well.

The diversity between races also permeate into how their units work and how they ultimately fund their respective war machines. One of my biggest problems with 4X turn-based grand strategies is how there are certain factions that end up being stronger than the others. Triumph has done really well to ensure that there’s no such balance issues with Planetfall; in my almost 25 hours of playing the game under different factions I have not encountered a single fight where I felt that my enemy was overpowered. Sure, tiers have marginally different power ratings, but you’ll be surprised at what you can do with superior placement, flanking and tile management. Combine that with modding, and you’ll always have a fighting chance, even against higher-tiered enemies.

All of these things amount to an experience with Planetfall that is unforgettable due to how well it presented its factions and races by blending gameplay and story seamlessly. Planetfall reminded me that despite being tedious, being a strategist who makes exemplary decisions is the best kind of enjoyment you can have in a video game.

Presentation

AoWP Art Design
Planetfall boasts quite the charming art design; however, the music and sound design is severely lacking in some parts. Photo: Paradox Interactive

Presentation-wise, Planetfall is also very good. The art design is really striking and unique, and there’s great care taken to make sure that it’s in line with what they’re supposed to be. In particular, I’ve found the D’var’s designs to be exceptional. There’s a very industrial look about them and their robots that I’ve found to be very inspired, befitting their backstories amazingly. The environments are also all pretty well done, with multiple unique biomes and effects that make them stand out from each other. 

Interestingly enough, there’s also a certain RPG mechanic at play with each commander you take control of, as the commanders can be customized extensively. You can also give them traits which will carry on for the playthrough, each coming with their own different attributes, strengths and weaknesses. I’ve always thought that the commander as a stand-in for the player in the game was sometimes forgettable, but injecting some personality into him/her with your choices is a very good game design.

Other aspects like music and sound design are a bit underwhelming. Some of the announcers, like the Russian lady for the D’var, are pretty good, but most of them feel very generic. The music is just kind of there as well to cover the occasional backdrop of building and your army moving about, and the themes are pretty standard. I feel like there could have been more presented here to break the sometimes-monotonous task of going about the map and clicking and reading. It’s a bummer, but for the most part is non-offensive.

Technical

Planetfall runs really well on a PC, although I feel like more could have been added in terms of quality of life improvements. I wasn’t really fond of having to constantly tell unit stacks to skip moving in order to end my turn, and I think that a simpler and separate interface could have been made in order to micromanage them even better. There’s also the issue of needing a Paradox account to access certain features like online multiplayer, which could be a sticking point for some people who do not wish to make one following issues like data collection and the like. I personally don’t play online for these types of games, but I understand that some people only play that way, which could be an issue if they don’t want to create an account.

Overall

AoWP Planetfall
Age of Wonders: Planetfall is an exemplary strategy title, compounded even more by how much freedom it gives its players. Photo: Paradox Interactive

Age of Wonders: Planetfall proves that Triumph has real chops when it comes to a sci-fi 4X turn-based game. There’s a lot of things to love here, and for someone who doesn’t play a lot of titles in the genre I find myself drawn a lot to what Planetfall offered. The mechanics all mesh together incredibly well, with the overarching narrative and backstories deftly and expertly woven into the tight and in-depth gameplay. It’s managed to present a usually tedious and overly complicated genre to non-expert players like me with relative ease, while still pulling out incredible stops in terms of deep, expansive and meaningful strategic encounters for veterans.

There are a few blemishes here and there, and for the most part, despite going to commendable lengths to make it accessible, Planetfall still remains quite a niche game to get into. However, I can honestly recommend it to everyone who loves a good pay-off, because in the end this is the core of what makes Planetfall so good: an expansive universe brought to life by your creative decision-making, carried by superb game mechanics and the ceiling of your imagination.

(Review is based on 25 hours of gameplay, mostly on campaign mode.)

REVIEW SUMMARY
Age of Wonders: Planetfall
8.5
Age Of Wonders: Planetfall Review - Creative Space Empire Building Limited Only By Your Imagination
It might be too expansive for its own good, but for players who can look past that and place themselves in the shoes as a commander leading a space-faring faction to salvation there's no better 4X title out there. Age Of Wonders: Planetfall is a success for Triumph Studios, proving the developer can deliver on proper world-building to take their acclaimed series to the vast reaches of space.
  • Expansive turn-based and 4X elements, with tons of freedom of choice.
  • Diverse races, with lots of distinctions between each one.
  • Strategic gameplay rewarded and limited by your own creativity and imagination.
  • In-depth tech tree with a ton of branching paths to go through.
  • Easy to get into for casual players of the genre.
  • A bit daunting at first, which may put off and overwhelm some players.
  • Lacking in sound design and the music department.
  • Not very intuitive at times, with some tedium setting in once your empire gets bigger.
Loading...
Join the Discussion
Top Stories