The turn-based strategy genre is rooted in classics like Warlords, Master of Magic, and King's Bounty, and it remains alive today thanks to the efforts of developers like Triumph Studios. The company's previous game, Age of Wonders II, featured a huge amount of new content and improved graphics when compared with its predecessor, as well as a sizable single-player campaign and loads of single scenario maps. However, rank beginners found the game to be too difficult in parts, while veterans complained about the game's lack of a random mission generator. Triumph Studios has attempted to address both of these concerns with Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. Though this stand-alone game reuses graphics and sound from Age of Wonders II, it has a far better tutorial, a random map generator, and plenty of other great additions to keep turn-based strategy fans playing till the break of dawn.
Triumph Studios' considerable experience in crafting turn-based strategy games is evident in Shadow Magic, since the game offers polished, well-balanced gameplay and an interesting story. The saga of the wizards Merlin, Julia, and Meandor continues in the new game, and it helps introduce the three new playable factions and the new playable units in the original 12 races. Apparently, a dimensional rift has opened into a mysterious new plane of existence known as the Shadow Realm, which bears a distinct resemblance to the plane of Myrror from the classic strategy game Master of Magic.
And as you play through the many scenarios of the game's single-player campaign, you'll see that Triumph Studios paid a great deal of attention to its fans. Like in other, similar games, in Shadow Magic, you'll begin the game aligned with a single fantasy race (though you may eventually recruit followers from other races, depending on the situation), start from a home base of operations, and explore colorful overland and underground areas with assorted armies of monsters led by powerful hero characters, until you conquer the entire map, either by wiping out your enemies in their castles single-handedly or winning an allied victory.
Yet the series' fans have demanded more balance among the armies and abilities of Age of Wonders II's fantasy races, so many units in the new game have had their individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as their production costs, tweaked so they stack up better against rival races and remain more useful over the course of the game. In addition, the game's new races represent interesting and distinctive new playing styles--especially since two of the three can travel quickly through the Shadow Realm (in which several campaign and scenario maps take place), and the third, the nomads, are an exceptionally mobile race with the ability to pick up entire fortresses and move them to new locations.
Likewise, the developer has also sped up the game's lengthy castle sieges, which could often be tedious, especially since smaller, inferior armies could stall their attackers by hiding within heavily fortified castles that took forever to breach. The new game has an all-new set of magic spells and units that help expedite the business of siege combat, including new siege weapons and new spells that can help attacking armies close the distance with their enemies--though just like the previous games in the series, Shadow Magic also gives you the handy option of choosing to automatically resolve any battle. You can also expect to see plenty of other new spells over the course of the game, especially since Shadow Magic revives the concept of studying multiple schools of magic from the original Age of Wonders (and Master of Magic). Choosing to study varying schools of sorcery adds even more variety to your custom wizard, who can, as usual, also choose to begin the game with advanced skills and ally with a specific race.
In fact, with all these new additions and enhancements, it's a shame that Shadow Magic looks and sounds practically identical to Age of Wonders II. That's not to say that Age of Wonders II's 2D art has aged poorly, because despite the fact that its military units are still extremely small onscreen, they're still highly detailed, well animated, and good looking, as are the game's colorful special effects. Similarly, the game's audio has largely been carried over from Age of Wonders II. Most of the new game's music and unit sounds are the same as before, and the military units sound just as silly as they did in the previous game. The game's interface has also been improved slightly, though it still has a few issues, such as its hard-to-read text messages, which appear in a cramped window at the bottom of the screen.
However, Shadow Magic features an enhanced version of Age of Wonders II's map and campaign editor, including a random map generator that lets you quickly and easily specify concentrations of monsters, resources, and treasures on the map. It's clear that between the enhanced editor, the random map generator, and the game's own dedicated fan community of mapmakers, Shadow Magic offers plenty of replay value right out of the box and will continue to offer even more in the future. You can even find competition online from the game's most dedicated players, and while the multiplayer can be remarkably time-consuming, it works well for what it is, especially with the rebalanced races.
Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic does a great job of improving on its predecessor's shortcomings and offering deeper, more-balanced gameplay. Despite its great complexity, its tutorials should help most new players figure out how to play the game, and its considerable depth should be more than enough of an incentive for experienced strategy fans.