Age of Wonders: Planetfall Battles Rough Edges With Endless Variety

The first Planetfall expansion makes smart additions to an already complete strategy game.

Age of Wonders has never been my bag. As a strategy game fan, I’ve been vaguely familiar with the name for years, but I never so much as looked into its elevator pitch. The release of Age of Wonders: Planetfall and its first expansion, Revelations, changed that.  “It’s Civilization meets XCOM,” I discovered on podcasts and Steam reviews. Okay then. That sounds like it’s for me.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a turn-based strategy fan that Planetfall isn’t made for. The game doesn’t just borrow from Civ and XCOM. There’s also a healthy dose of Endless Legend in here — with story-based campaign missions that offer a series of special objectives to complete on any given map. Revelations expands on that further, with two more micro-campaigns. These introduce new mechanics, like choose-your-own-adventure side missions called Anomalous Sites, that work back into the less scripted scenarios. Like Planetfall itself, Revelations blends broad appeal with a concentrated introduction.

At times, though, the game is still a little too broad. Anyone familiar with faction-based strategy games will see the tropes. The Vanguard are square-jawed space marines: G.I. Joes in space. The Dvar are space dwarfs. And the Kir’Ko are your Tyranids/Zerg/Arachnids/Formics/Brood.

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Part of what I like about Age of Wonders: Planetfall is how it both leans into, and then eventually subverts, these expectations. Your Vanguard commander can spout cheesy lines about pleasure bots gone rogue — like a Zapp Brannigan brag played with a straight face — but the plot eventually digs into a more sinister history. The Kir’Ko may be hive-minded bug aliens, but they were slaves instead of conquerors. By the rotating rings of Saturn, does it ever take some time for this pulpy sci-fi tale to carve out its own niche, though… If there’s one audience Planetfall isn’t for, it’s the easily overwhelmed or quickly bored.

That’s because the game is rough around more edges that just its world-building. Planetfall dumps so much text on-screen at any one time that it’s hard to tell what’s just flavor and what might be a game-changing new mechanic. There are commanders, foot soldiers, mods for your units in the field, upgrades for civilian sectors, side quests, main quests, special attacks called Operations, military and colony research, plus a whole lot more I can’t remember. Planetfall isn’t just broad; it’s dense. Revelations adds further fuel to that fire.

Fans of Firaxis and Amplitude games will likely have no problem diving into this deep end. Everyone else will need to work for it. Together with the slowly burning story, it’s hard for newcomers to find a foothold at the outset. Stick with it, though, and there’s a damn fine strategy game in here.

If Planetfall cuts corners in the presentation — with its initially bland factions, weak battle sounds, and walls of plain text — it doesn’t do so in the gameplay. Compared to something like Total War, the colony management and boots-on-the-ground battles feel completely smooth and in sync. That’s probably in part because they’re both turn-based. The visual language of moving an army (comprised of up to six units of your choice) works just the same as conquering new lands. Placing soldiers in cover works just the same as accounting for rough terrain. There’s very little mental adjustment involved.

Planetfall Revelations

Revelations and Baby Steps

In the battles, you have everything you might expect from XCOM or the like: the aforementioned cover system, consumables, special abilities, etc. Yet, even with all that, enemies can chew through you at close-range and long distances with meaty damage numbers. It’s a challenge that forces you to think, which is all I really ask for from turn-based tactics games.

Meanwhile, on the overworld map, Planetfall borrows somewhat from yet another strategy game: Stellaris. You start every Planetfall mission with one full colony and can create more, naturally. However, the majority of each map winds up being comprised of annexed sectors. These contribute to your overall food, income, and production. Yet you don’t need to micromanage them. It’s an advancement in the 4X genre that I’m happy to see hitting more games. And Age of Wonders: Planetfall, with its dedication to putting its obvious inspirations to good use, is a great home for the feature.

Revelations doesn’t overturn this design philosophy. Instead, the expansion builds on it with just a little bit more of everything. There’s a new NPC faction to broker with; some awful robots harangue your forces in the open; Anomalous Sites add small, branching choices to your exploration. All of that is reflected in a pretty reasonable $15 price tag. Age of Wonders: Planetfall – Revelations is as inoffensive as it is relatively inexpensive. Although it’s welcome just the same.

That’s how I feel about Planetfall in general. It’s very a welcome turn-based strategy game that gets nearly everything it tries to do right. And it tries to do a lot. It’s just not always the most welcoming on its own.