I’ll admit it right now: I’m a newcomer to this series. Conquest of Elysium 4, created by Illwinter Game Design, follows in the footsteps of Dominions. Like Illwinter’s previous title, Dominions 4, CoE4 boasts more than 1500 units, 600 spells, and 300 magic items. The studio, a two-man team, has been hard at work on the series since the 1990s. Even though I just came across this title, I love it to bits, despite the fact that it makes me want to tear my hair out in frustration at times.
CoE4 is a fantasy-themed, turn-based strategy game focused on army management and resource acquisition. There are twenty different factions to choose from, each with its own leader and unique units. Players move armies across the map to capture resource nodes and defeat rivals. The main objective of the game is to overcome all of the rival factions in – you guessed it – a conquest of Elysium. On the surface, eXtermination in CoE4 is similar to that of Age of Wonders III and Civilization V. So, what makes it special?
Setting up your game
The preliminary setup allows you to not only pick your faction, but to select the era in which the game takes place. Much like in Dominions, you can choose whether the map is filled with hostile dragons and cockatrices or sprawling cities. The decisions you make here will have a huge impact on gameplay. Each faction has particularly powerful resources that could be sparse or plentiful depending on your choice of setting. The tooltips on this screen, however, are a bit vague: how does having a “Monarchy” society affect mushroom growth? The answer is unclear, but it could spell doom for a hopeful witch.
If you love faction differentiation, CoE4 is meant for you. Each faction plays drastically differently. As a Dwarven Queen (yeah, there are female dwarves in this game), your single queen will generate a single worker (read: drone) dwarf each round. For a large amount of iron, these workers can be upgraded into more sophisticated units, such as the Dwarven Guard or Arbalest. Using a Councillor, yet another dwarf ascended into sentience by the Queen, you can establish new mines across the map, hatching a new Queen to further your influence and power.
Now, contrast this to the High Priestess, the handmaiden of Ba’al, the Dark God. This faction’s main resource, beyond gold and iron, is “blood sacrifice,” which is collected per turn from any settlements and cities owned by the player. The High Priestess “spends” these blood sacrifices in a ritual that beckons the demonic servants to rise from the depths. With every ritual there is some small chance that Ba’al’s newly summoned servant will take issue with being awoken and turn on the player’s party.
Individual units in the game can be further customized with unique armor, weapons and trinkets found amongst the corpses of the slain or in goodie huts scattered throughout the map. Some structures even offer the chance for commanders to learn new spells outside of their current level of expertise, supplementing their repertoire and increasing their chances of success in battle. For example, after looting a wealthy merchant, my Dwarven commander obtained a unique magic lamp that summoned a massive Wind Elemental at the start of each battle.
The difficulty with the… umm… difficulty
CoE4 is bitterly hard, even on the easiest setting. For newcomers to the series, the variety of different creatures is startling. It isn’t always easy to determine whether you can tackle a particular stack of enemies. With a left-click of the mouse, you can learn more about what type of creature you’re up against, but it’s hardly enough when you’re just starting out. An inexperienced player should be prepared to die within the first ten turns many times before figuring out what they can fight. As you play, you’ll begin to learn the quirks and strengths of each faction, but the learning curve feels steep. Similar to a game like League of Legends, the best strategy is to know your opponents’ factions as well as you know your own.
Additionally, the procedural generation of the world means there’s no guarantee that the game will provide you with enough resources to measure up against your opponents. Since launch, Illwinter Game Design has stated that they’ve tweaked the random generation so that maps are more logically drawn. For instance, deserts are more likely to be grouped together and mountains spawn in chains, so you can more reliably predict where mines might be hiding. Despite this, the world generation can be unforgiving.
One of the most interesting quirks of CoE4 is that the player has very little input on the battles themselves. You can make decisions beforehand that affect the flow of battle, such as which spells to use against the enemy, or what combination of units to field. Once the fighting starts, however, the player can only watch and, perhaps, cringe as their army falls to a ghastly Sphinx.
At least the game has a great personality
Let’s address the elephant in the room: CoE4 is by no means a looker. Some may be surprised to know that this game was released just last month. The artwork, or lack thereof, will leave some players cold. Illwinter Game Design has made the choice of gameplay over graphics. As a diehard roguelike player, I’m all for that decision, especially since it allows the small team to focus on strategic variety and depth. Graphics have never been a necessity for me to enjoy the content of a game. Like the villainous Cypher said when viewing the code of the Matrix, “You get used to it… All I see is blonde, brunette, redhead.”
The tiles for each creature and character do “animate.” The icons also provide limited information about what weapons they wield and their status afflictions, but they’re low-resolution and sometimes hard to distinguish from one another. While it hasn’t bothered me, I have to acknowledge that the artwork may be a high hurdle for some to overcome.
The music is superb and fits the fantasy theme well. The sound effects, on the other hand, take a bit of getting used to. There were more than a few times when I laughed or cringed at the odd choice of sound bite during battle. The spell “Agony,” for example, sounds like a tiny, wailing pig. The sound effect for summoning a demon resembles a cat landing feet-first on a synthesizer. Worst of all, once you have multiple units that summon or cast these spells, those sound effects will play over and over again with no variance or change in volume.
The UI of CoE4 is minimalistic, to the point of frustration. The entire game can be played using the mouse. As a first-time player, I was stumped by how to transfer units between commanders. I had to search on the Internet how to select a single commander who I’d accidently put in sentry mode. Army management is a nightmare. When transferring units, there are purple and green Xs and Os to describe whether a unit is included in the currently selected commander’s army, or if it is being left behind. It was unclear to me whether these labels signified that I’d selected a unit or if they were part of a different army. Maybe it’s just me, but I found this system to be unintuitive and tedious.
Depth, literal and otherwise
The variety and depth of the game is astonishing and more than makes up for the utilitarian nature of the UI. As an example, I played ten hours before coming across an ability I’d never seen before: “Tunnel Downwards.” I discovered that, beyond the overworld map, there’s another map running parallel underground, filled with demonic hordes and tempting resources. According to CoE4’s website, there’s a total of six planes to discover, which adds to the replayability. Only some of the factions start out with access to the different planes, which could swing the tide of the struggle in their favor.
Typical CoE4 games last 1-3 hours, depending on the settings and your skills. Contrast this to your average Dominions game, which can last much longer – CoE4 is tantalizingly bite-sized by comparison. Not only that, but CoE4 contains all the lore and creatures from the Dominions series without the more complicated empire management that makes that title overwhelming to new players. CoE4 is much more streamlined and simplified. It makes for a great introduction to Illwinter’s fabulous and creative world without the complexity of Dominions.
The first time I saw the victory screen I crowed with delight! I had triumphed against hordes of monsters, demons and squat halflings. My conquest, however, was short-lived. I realized I had set the game to the second easiest difficulty on the smallest map size. With all the different factions and the random map generation, this is a title that can be played again and again. Add to that the prospect of playing against friends in multiplayer, and you’ve got a lovely game to lose friends over. At a price of $24.99 on Steam, I would recommend Conquest of Elysium 4 for any die-hard strategy fan.
TL;DR: Conquest of Elysium 4 offers players a diverse, replayable and strategically deep gameplay experience at the cost of unpolished graphical and sound assets. Brimming with charm, CoE4 will be savagely addictive for those that can see past its shortcomings.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You enjoy mixed-genre games
- You’re charmed by old-school graphics and gameplay
- You desire depth of strategy and replayability
- You’ve been longing to get into Dominions, but don’t have the time to dedicate to lengthy game sessions
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You need graphics to immerse yourself in a game
- Steep learning curves give you a nosebleed
- Turn-based strategy vexes you
Brittany has played a total of 26+ hours of Conquest of Elysium 4 on her primitive Windows 8.1 home-built system with Intel® Core 2 Duo CPU @ 3.00 GHz, 8 GB Ram, 64 bit Operating system, and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260 graphics card.