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October 2023

Age Of Darkness: Final Stand

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Team17
Developer: PlaySide Studios
Release Date: 2023


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PC Preview - 'Age of Darkness: Final Stand'

by Cody Medellin on April 19, 2023 @ 6:00 a.m. PDT

Age Of Darkness: Final Stand presents a modern, darker spin on the survival RTS genre that will challenge new players, and strategy experts alike.

The RTS genre has had a few quiet revisions over the years that have spawned whole new genres. The tower defense and MOBAs genres came from mods to big RTS games and have continued to become their own thing. The survival RTS game is starting to emerge now, and there are a few frontrunners, such as They Are Billions and The Riftbreaker. You can add another one to the list with Age of Darkness: Final Stand.

At the moment, Age of Darkness only features two modes. The Campaign mode is new, and we sampled the first few levels of the first act. It mostly serves as a tutorial for the game's basic RTS mechanics, specifically the hero type RTS games like Warcraft III and the like. It ends up solving one of the issues that some people had with the game's early builds, as there was no way to learn what to do beyond trial and error. Your hero has special abilities that run on a cooldown and are powerful enough to turn the tide in a battle, and while they can still die like any other until, they can respawn if you wait out the lengthy time penalty. The usual conventions of the genre are present, such as the need for villagers, resource gathering, and building up defenses for some protection while your attacking parties are away, but there are a few tweaks to the formula that feel a little different. For starters, while you need villagers for every task, you never actually see them do anything. It seems odd, but it mean that you never have to wait for them to reach a building site or other location for the jobs to start. It also means that for specific resources to be gathered, you'll need to construct a building next to the resource site, and a meter tells you how efficient your resource gathering will be based on the given spot. It's a neat twist that changes up things without feeling unnecessary.

What'll stand out is the story, with its grimdark atmosphere and vibe. The story starts off as a typical fantasy tale: A powerful race of elves helps the humans stop the flood of monster hordes coming from the darkness. After receiving help and entering a peaceful period, the human king started a war by trying to take the power of the crystals for himself — crystals that have kept the monsters at bay. In an interesting twist, the narrator sides with the king and makes the near-extinction of the elves a good thing while praising the group of humans that have pledged to keep everyone safe. This group is corrupt and hated by almost everyone, and the initial playable heroes are trying their best to uphold the group's values. That's what we get in the opening missions, and that's all before the big bad appears, so it'll be interesting to see how much darker and morose the tale can get.

The second mode can be considered the main mode that people will pay attention to: Survival. For starters, your chosen difficulty level determines the number of saves you can have for the run. The easiest difficulty provides an infinite number of saves, but the saves are severely limited on higher difficulty levels. The only reason to play these levels is if you have an ample amount of time to dedicate to the run.

Another change is the day-and-night cycle being present and affecting the gameplay. Nothing really happens during the day, and while that means you can take your party to fight low-level enemies, you're better off using the time to gather resources and strengthen or expand your settlement. Nighttime is treacherous, as this is when enemies become more aggressive and go after settlements. Taking a page from The Riftbreaker, there are some nights when you face hundreds of enemies, and the prospect is there to fight thousands at a time — if you live long enough.

The real hook for this mode is in how it implements roguelike elements into the genre. Every run you take comes with a randomly generated map, and like all roguelikes, this can either make things easier or much more difficult, depending on where resources are placed. Seed numbers are generated, but there doesn't seem to be an option (yet) to enter them to dial in on specific scenarios. Some nights come with specific curses that act as modifiers, like having a fog that hurts your troops. Surviving these ordeals grants you buffs to help you make it another few nights. The mode has the end goal of destroying all of the crystals on the map to win, but even at the highest difficulty level, it follows the classic roguelike philosophy of failing multiple times and hopefully learning from that to finally put together that one winning run.

Age of Darkness is still in Steam Early Access, but there are a few issues that players should be aware of. Pathing can be erratic, especially when dealing with large groups. There are moments when some members take a longer route instead of using a much shorter one that's in front of them. AI on both sides can be inattentive to what's going on around them. Hopefully these issues gets fixed before the game leaves Early Access.

While the Steam Deck has constantly surprised people with its performance and ability to handle different games, an RTS doesn't seem like a natural fit for the device. The game already has the Playable tag, so some may be willing to give it a shot. We tried booting the game several times, and despite having a visible mouse cursor with haptics on the touchpad, the game remained on a black screen until you either manually exit the game or hard reset the system. Hopefully that gets fixed in with a future patch.

Age of Darkness: Final Stand has potential. What little we've seen of the campaign makes it a good starting point for newcomers, but the story might not be to everyone's taste. The survival mode is the real hook due to the combination of hero play and roguelike elements, but its difficulty also means that those same newcomers who use the campaign as a training tool have to put up with numerous defeats before they make any substantial progress. Age of Darkness has been in Steam Early Access since late 2021, but now that the campaign is starting to take shape, it'll be interesting to see how the development progresses.

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