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Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic

aka: Age of Wonders: Magia Cienia
Moby ID: 9919

Description official descriptions

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is a stand-alone expansion to Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne. Like its predecessors, is a turn-based strategy in a fantasy world.

In the campaign, a corrupt new empire led by the wizard Phobius, has launched an aggressive assault on the ancient races and all things magic. Meanwhile, an even greater evil in the form of hellish demons, breeds within its shadows. The wizard Merlin has been captured by the demons, but can still communicate with his old wizard friends. The player is cast as these wizards as they fight the human empire and the demons.

The main character is the Wizard, who most of the time stays in his wizard tower casting spells in his domain. He researches new spells and abilities and becomes more and more powerful as the game moves on.

One unique feature is the simultaneous turns mode, where all players move their units at the same time. For those that like it old-school, there's still a classic turns mode.

The changes compared to Age of Wonders II: The Wizard's Throne are:

  • three new races: the Nomads, the Shadow Demons and the Syrons
  • one new unit for each race, with existing units rebalanced
  • a third level on the map - the Shadow world
  • several new structures
  • graphics renderer updated to use DirectX 8.1
  • improved AI
  • random map generator
  • improved map editor with modding tools and campaign editor

Spellings

  • Age of Wonders: Магия Теней - Russian spelling
  • 奇迹时代:暗影魔法 - Simplified Chinese spelling

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Credits (Windows version)

102 People (87 developers, 15 thanks) · View all

Reviews

Critics

Average score: 82% (based on 39 ratings)

Players

Average score: 3.8 out of 5 (based on 22 ratings with 3 reviews)

Some changes and additions, good and bad. Still flawed but enjoyable, and may still stand out.

The Good
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.

The Bad
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.

The Bottom Line
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.

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.

Windows · by Cavalary (11411) · 2018

The sad end of the AOW saga.

The Good
Finally, the AOW developers put in a random map generator: one of the basic elements to call a game replayable. The scenario editor was complete enough to allow interesting work, and more so with the event engine. Also, some tools were provided to easily edit units, mages and magical items. Mods were a breeze to make, and personally I care as much for the modding capabilities as for the game itself.

The best of the game, however, was the tactical part. Not that was a deep and exhaustive model of tactical warfare (in fact, it was simple), but had a good amount of unit characteristics (both positive and negative) that allowed many possibilities and made up for a rich and fun battle environment. Death strike, Cold strike, Fire strike... all were different and had different and unique effects; so their counterparts (immunities), and others like Blurred, Cave Crawling or Path of Decay (that transformed any land you walked into a lifeless desert).

Deities were a nice idea: although not much variety of them (only 4) , the missions requested by your god provided something random, yet adding flavor to the game.

The Bad
Unfortunately, that didn't help AOW:SM become anything more than a flawed end to a saga. It wasn't the deepest of the strategy games; the management part was limited to construct a bunch of buildings and balancing gold income with army support. Neither was the strategic part: no supply lines, no attrition, very little effect of terrain. However, it could be a fun light game nonetheless if the developers didn't abandon it, with bugs unfixed and with none of the things they promised (and even advertised) to implement.

And what suffered the most was the AI. Supposedly, the AI would finally be able to use ships and sea warfare; it didn't. Also, to colonize and create new cities; it could, but only in premade scenarios with starting settler units; it was unable to build them. Also, to build and upgrade wizard towers; it didn't. Warfare AI wasn't very brilliant; on hardest difficulty as stupid as on easiest, only cheating more. When pushed over, left cities undefended and gathered all troops at the capital. Even with cheats, it was only a matter of waiting for its gold and mana to fall, so disbanding enough units and driving the player to an only final assault.

Diplomacy AI was even worse. In fact, the AI knew only about two things: propose a peace treaty and propose an alliance. Oh, and in that precise and exact order. A good diplomatic engine, capable of constructing and reviewing proposals, wasted. But well... since in random maps there was no other way of winning than total conquest, it didn't was something to bother.

Finally, the spell list was rather small; about 100 spells grouped in five schools, making 20 for each, and also a small list of summoned creatures. Seems smaller when remembering the +200 spells of Master of Magic, a game a decade older.

The Bottom Line
And that was the fate of AOW:SM... being a poor man's trying of MOM, despite good ideas. It didn't learn from its illustrious predecessor, but rather fell in many of the same errors, and in some aspects was worse. No fan of the original MOM (a declared source of inspiration from the developers) can feel that this title is going to take the throne of fantasy strategy games.

But the sad thing is that it could be fair only if the developers were actually willing to put a little work. They left the game uncooked, told their customers about many features, and broke their promises; things that were advertised were also promised to be in a patch that never came. Hell, it was made a 1.4 patch by fans (who couldn't touch the exe and thus not fixing the big ones), and Triumph Studios uploaded it into their site, so they were aware of it. But no other official patch has been released, so we have an unfinished an bugged game, killed by untrustworthy developers that add insult to injury. They don't deserve your money.

Windows · by Technocrat (193) · 2007

Best fantasy TBS there is

The Good
I've been a big fan of all AoW games, and personally think they are the best turn based fantasy games ever created. Shadow magic is the best in the series.

The 2D graphics is great. The overland map and the units are all very detailed and beautiful. You really get the feeling you're in a fantasy world.

The Random map generator makes the game very replayable, and is also fun for MP games.

The simultaneous turn option is not new for Shadow magic, but still a great feature that no other TBS has. This option lets all players play their turn at the same time, and the next turn does not start until they all end their turn.

The campaign is fun, cutscenes are good looking and the story is ok. It does get quite hard at the end though...

One thing I've always liked with the AoW games is that they focus on strategy and tactics instead of hero developing. This actually makes the game more of a wargame than others in the genre (HoMM etc). The new tactical combat system (new since AoW2) is also very good. It allows lower level units to swarm good units and drain their movement points, and also allows ranged attack units to fire 3, 2 or 1 shots depending on how much they have moved that turn. During sieges, the defender is now allowed to move unlimited number of hexes within the city walls. The fun thing with tactical combat is that an army with a low number of units actually can defeat an army with better/more units if a good tactic is used. The combats are not predetermined in any way like they are in many other games (HoMM, Disciples etc).

The Shadow magic editor is great. You can import your own pictures for heroes and wizards, you can create all sorts of events and triggers and last but not least, you can create beautiful worlds of your own! The interface is simple and with just a little talent you can make very pretty maps. The events system allows for many different type of maps to be created, they can be focused on battle, quests, role playing etc. Your imagination is the limit really... The editor is a big part of why I like this game so much.

Mod support. You can access tools in the editor that lets you change most aspects of the game (unit stats, spells, city buildings etc.. There's also an ILB-editor included for those who wants to make new unit graphics.

The Bad
The music in AoW2 and Shadow magic is not very good if you ask me. Luckily you can make your own mp3 playlist, and I've converted the excellent AoW1 music into mp3's so that's not a very big problem.... :)

There's a campaign editor included in the normal editor. Unfortunately it has not been tested at all, and bugs are plentiful. It is close to unusable.

The AI has some problems, and the main problem is that he cannot build wizard towers. This can be annoying in some random generated maps where wizards start without towers.

The Bottom Line
If you like fantasy TBS this game will not disappoint you in any way. And once you get into map editing, you'll find there's not enough hours in the day...

Windows · by Grov (657) · 2003

Trivia

References

In the description for the hero Ham Binger you can read the following :

His fame became an unpleasant weight in later years. Whole Halfling villages named their children Binger, or Ham, or some combination of the two. Ham disappeared centuries ago, but now and again, a Halfling named Ham appears, does good deeds, and heals a few wounds; and the legend spins up again. Sometimes there is more than one Ham, which gets terribly confusing, and whole towns have festivals or contests to determine who is the real Ham Binger.

This refers to a bug in AoW2, where you could end up with two Ham Bingers when playing the campaign. The bug was fixed in a patch.

Steven Woltering

Steven Woltering, credited for "Scenarios & Additional Design", was before he was hired by Triumph one of the fans hanging out in the AoW forums at HeavenGames. Among other things, he made the map "Rise of Kings" that came with patch 1.3.

Awards

  • Computer Gaming World
    • March 2004 (Issue #236) – Strategy Game of the Year

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Game added by Grov.

Additional contributors: Unicorn Lynx, JRK, Stratege, Patrick Bregger.

Game added August 5th, 2003. Last modified November 22nd, 2023.