Empires & Ashes grants you the right to bear arms. Be it the actual sharp claws of a dire bear mount or the smoking barrel of a high-powered magelock rifle.
With the new avian body type and Reaver Culture that focuses on war spoils. You can even use the highly customizable faction creator to imbue the very spirit of a certain freedom-loving country into the game. Complete with a symbolic eagle avatar, a bloated military budget, and a passion for bringing liberty to the other factions. Assuming said factions have resources and land that you want, of course.
You can find a video version of this review on YouTube!
Jokes aside. The Reaver culture really showcases the customizable strength of Age of Wonders 4. The faction itself looks inflexible but can be made to bend into a variety of playstyle ideas through the creative tools that the game presents.
Empires & Ashes is a meaty expansion. It adds four new tomes, a brand new culture, story missions, a new optional victory condition, and plenty of other smaller additions that further expand the game.
|Gideon’s Bias||Ashes & Empires Information|
|Review Copy Used: No||Publisher: Paradox Interactive|
|Hours Played: 30+||Type: Expansion DLC|
|Reviewed On: Xbox Series X||Platforms: PC, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5|
|Fan of Genre: Yes||Genre: 4X, Turn-Based Strategy|
|Mode Played: Variety||Price: $19.99|
To Pillage & Plunder
The face of the expansion is undoubtedly the Reaver culture. Reavers combine the chaos and materium aspects to form a society that combines magic and technology into devastating firearms. The Reavers are exceptionally warlike and never suffer penalties for unjust wars. They also don’t start with any whispering stones but can use war spoils to essentially bully free cities and other empires into obeying them.
War spoils are gained by fighting free cities and other empires. That means Reavers usually hit the ground hotter and faster than most cultures. A particularly interesting aspect of the Reavers is that they can force enemy units subdued by their Overseers to join them by spending war spoils.
Overseer units can subdue enemies that are stunned, frozen, or immobilized. And it just so happens that an early Reaver unit, known as the Harrier has a net.
I find the Reavers fascinating because they appear to be entirely one-dimensional. They obviously have a leaning towards evil and they pair well with faction traits such as Ruthless Raiders, or Chosen Destroyers. However, there are a bunch of concepts you come up with outside of evil warmongers.
You could make a good-aligned faction of Reavers dedicated to wiping out evil wherever they find it. Alternatively, you could play as a seafaring pirate faction. It’s still on the evil side but has a different feel compared to an overlord of annihilation.
My personal favorite was to make them a faction of Beastmasters. They focused on using the Reaver’s ability to subdue and convert in order to capture wild animals. It’s a strategy that’s even more effective if you are playing a realm where the wild animals have the empowered beasts modification.
Reavers may not start with a whispering stone, but they can obtain them while you play. With some effort, they can still be played diplomatically. So while The Reaver’s playstyle may look limited at first, that limitation can breed innovation into all kinds of fun ideas
The Reavers’ units also stand out compared to the other cultures. Even their spearmen feel kind of special, with the ability to push back units and step into their space. That can be helpful because the Magelock units deal a ton of damage with their rifles, but require all three action points to use it. If they need to step away from an enemy, they can’t shoot. The Reaver’s spear unit can keep them safe.
Finally, we have Magelock Cannons that have the same limitations as Magelocks but can blast apart enemies in a line. They are super satisfying to use. I also like that you can outfit your Ruler and heroes with Magelock Rifles, or a Sword and Pistol combo.
The new culture is a great addition to Age of Wonders 4. The only bad thing I can say about them is how they make other cultures look less unique by comparison. The Reavers get guns, cannons, no penalties for war, and war spoils, while the Mystics get…mana pickups. The existing cultures could do with some touch-ups to make them more unique. However, that’s a fault with the base game, not the expansion.
Empires & Ashes adds four new tomes of magic at various tiers. Like the tomes added in Dragon Dawn, they have dual aspects. Each tome presented in Ashes & Empires is Materium and one other aspect. This does tilt the aspect balance in Materium’s favor, at least until more expansions are released. However, each of the four tomes fosters separate ideas and playstyles.
The Tome of Alchemy mixes materium and nature to focus on alchemical cures to status ailments, weakening miasma clouds, and fumigating enemy cities.
Tome of the Construct unsurprisingly empowers constructs by linking their minds together with your race and providing buffs for units with linked minds. They also feature an upgrade to the Copper Golem, with Bronze Golems. Copper Golems actually evolve into bronze ones if they level high enough.
Tome of the Dreadnaught feels like a literal extension of the Reaver’s culture, with bombard cannons and the Ironclad unit, a literal magic-powered tank with a variety of ammunition types.
Finally, the Tome of Severing is an anti-magic tome designed to sever an enemy’s links to the arcane, allowing you to effectively suppress summoned creatures.
Each of the tomes goes a long way toward making the already expansive list of strategies available in Age of Wonders 4 even larger. They all manage to fill new niches and roles that weren’t completely covered by existing tomes. Although, there are still some noticeable gaps that will hopefully be filled in later expansions. Most notably, the absence of a water-focused tome.
Birds, Bears and Crabs, Oh My!
Empires & Ashes brings a new form, the avians, which gives you a nice feathered flavor for your various faction ideas. Forms are, of course purely cosmetic, but new additions are always welcome. Bears are included as a wildlife unit and basic mount, but a trait can grant your faction powerful dire bears to ride around on.
Other new units can be found within the world such as Scrap Hermit Crabs, and the larger Living Furnaces, as well as the terrifying new Progenitor Golem. A new optional victory condition can also be activated when making a realm.
This new seal’s victory condition places capture points around the map that add a point control mechanic to the game. These seals are guarded by the aforementioned Progenitor Golems and will come under siege by increasingly stronger armies the longer you hold them. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a victory condition that the AI is pretty good at going for. The AI has been improved a ton since the game was released, but games are usually lost by you, the player getting wiped out. As opposed to the AI fulfilling a victory condition, it’s nice that they now have one they can use to keep the pressure on.
The expansion also adds a new ancient wonder. It’s nice, but I’ve always felt, that the game needs a larger variety of ancient wonders, and one is simply not enough.
Beyond that, there are two new story realms to play that directly follow the storyline from the base game, as well as some really great-sounding music tracks. Age of Wonders 4 directly benefits from pretty much any new addition that increases variety. Each new goodie introduced in Empires & Ashes is a welcome one, even if I would liked to have seen more specific additions, such as more Ancient Wonders
The Golem Update
The Golem Update dropped for free alongside the new expansion. For informative purposes, these changes still bear mentioning because they are substantial, even though the update isn’t technically part of the expansion.
The body and mind traits have been overhauled. Instead of selecting a body and mind trait, you now have five points to spend on your choice of traits altogether. Additionally, new traits have been added, such as Hideous Stench, and Athletics.
The Pantheon has new cosmetics, as well as unlockable society traits and ruler weapons. Including the ability for rulers to start with spears, which was definitely on my wishlist.
You can now disenchant items and use that essence to forge new ones. Magic Materials that you control grant you new effects that you can forge onto your items, so this change has a twofold effect. You can now outfit your heroes with highly customized magic items, and magic materials are even more valuable because of what they contribute to the system.
Vassals now actively help you in war, and you can choose what they target or defend. This makes Vassals far more useful than they were before.
A sore spot I had in my original Age of Wonders 4 review was how weird and clunky the sea combat was. It’s still not perfect by any means, but water gameplay, in general, has been improved. There’s a variety of improvements you can make on water provinces, and the visuals have been overhauled for embarked units.
The different unit categories have their own ships now. Archers, for example, have ballistas mounted on the front of the ship, while Mages have arcane crystals. It’s a small thing but does actually improve the visual enjoyment of the water battles a great deal, although some of it is still pretty awkward.
Regardless, the changes and additions made in the Golem Update feel as impactful as the expansion itself, and it’s nice to watch Age of Wonders 4 continue to improve.
Empires & Ashes is a great expansion that leaves me with little to directly criticize. The new Reaver culture of arcane-infused guns is a great addition that opens up even more playstyle opportunities when crafting your faction ideas. All four of the new tomes spice things up, and even the smaller additions, such as dire bear mounts feel impactful.
While there are other additions I’d like to see, those desires don’t take away any of the fun that the new tomes, and culture provide.
Ultimately, Age of Wonders 4 thrives on the options it presents the player, and Empires & Ashes, just like Dragon Dawn before it, maintains a laser focus on that core strength by amplifying and expanding those options. Thus making the game an even more wonderous strategy experience.
More reviews you might enjoy
- Four new tomes add plenty of strategic variety
- The arcane-infused guns of the Reaver culture are a great fit
- The warlike Reavers are interesting to play and offer plenty of new faction playstyle ideas
- Avians look nice and fit in great with the other body shapes
- A new optional victory condition adds a point control element to the game
- New story realms are fun
- The aspect balance is tilted toward materium until more Tomes are released
- Only one new ancient wonder was added when the game felt like it needed far more
- Existing cultures feel less unique when compared to the Reavers.