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Bite Sized Reviews: Age of Darkness Final Stand
They Are Billions was one game I never got good at. It did not matter what settings I played it in, or how I played, but every time I got overwhelmed by massive zombie hordes. It’s a solid game, but I suck at playing it!
Almost as if Playside Studios heard my cry, they worked on their title. That is Age of Darkness: Final Stand. I originally thought that the They Are Billions developers made this game, but a quick search on Steam proved me wrong. Thank god for the internet, or I would feel a little silly.
While this game takes many inspirations from They Are Billions, there are a couple of key differences. Set in a gritty, dark fantasy world, the undead are replaced by demonic creatures and similar heathens. With a fully voiced campaign mode as well as survival mode, it does not lack for content. I’ve spent my time digesting the early campaign missions as well as with survival.
Age of Darkness launched in Early Access in late 2021 and has received frequent updates ever since. The most recent update completed the campaign as well as adding many fixes and improvements, so I would say Final Stand is content complete. While it’s still in Early Access, I think it will fully launch later this year.
What drew me to Age of Darkness was the rare blend of RTS/RPG mechanics. This is pretty uncommon in the gaming scene. From personal experience working as a narrative designer at Grimlore Games (Spellforce 3 and its two standalone expansions), it’s an ambitious mix of genres. This takes its greatest roots in the Age of Darkness campaign — managing heroes and levelling up units during its expansive story missions as well as game design. In survival mode, while it is more focused on the RTS mechanics, it still involves decisions like picking up artefacts and upgrading units over time, all the while expanding on the map and holding off the ongoing horde. Age of Darkness warns from the beginning about its difficulty, and it does not mess around. The first time I dealt with a horde event attacking my poorly designed-encampment, I nearly shit myself. Fortunately, my ragtag militia was up to the job, but it was a cruel lesson to be better prepared.
The gameplay loop is solid. Keep pushing out with heroes and soldiers to explore the map, while building up infrastructure and defenses back home. Enemies are more dangerous and aggressive at night, but you’ll always be vastly outnumbered. It’s a constant balance between expansion and survival, and for the most part, Age of Darkness manages this well. The economy is with buildings rather than with micromanaging villagers like in other RTS games such as Age of Empires. Automated resource gathering makes combat and exploration easier to manage, but I wish we had villagers in-game to look after. Everything requires population such as making new units and populating buildings for infrastructure.
Overall, there is a solid foundation to work on. While I’m enjoying the gameplay and environmental design, some things need drastic improvement. The greatest problem for me is unit pathfinding. Unit movement is buggy at best, and downright frustrating at worst. I often had my soldiers running on the spot Loony Tunes style, caught up on a bit of impassable terrain while enemy ghouls ripped them apart. Conversely, I survived many fights because my enemies got stuck.
This ties into exploration. Early in the campaign, I had an optional mission to rescue some soldiers in a bandit camp. In similar games, I can click on the area (even in the fog of war) and my troops will approach the target naturally. In Age of Darkness, units have to see where they are going. While this is immersive, it runs into problems when my heroes trip up on terrain on their journey, forcing more micromanagement. It took several attempts to find the right path because it can be hard working out what on the map is traversable, and what is just eye candy.
On the campaign, while there’s great voice acting and some meaningful story, I wasn’t enthralled with the characters. They all felt a bit cookie-cutter to me. It’s not a bland story by any means, but I wish the characters felt less cardboard cliche. I am early in the campaign, however, so that might change.
Criticisms aside, this is a decent survival RTS. It’s got me invested more than They Are Billions, although I might have given up on the latter too soon. Playside Studios has done great work supporting the game and improving things through its development cycle. Hopefully, they can go further in preparation for Age of Darkness: Final Stand’s full launch. If they can fix the pathfinding bugs, that will go a long way for me.
A meaty, ambitious survival RTS with some pretty RPG mechanics on top
The campaign’s cast is relatively cookie cutter and predictable
Plenty of content with a fully voiced campaign and the survival mode
Unit pathfinding needs some serious improvements
Gameplay loop is solid overall
Environments can be a bit unclear on what is passable