Review: Planar Conquest02 Mar 2016 13
First impressions are important and not just when meeting your partner's parents, your boss or your new parole officer. Games are no different. If you start to play a football sim and the offensive line of the Chicago Bears all look like JRPG characters you may have doubts about the accuracy of the simulation taking place on its pixelated field. I have been thinking about this topic quite a bit in the last few weeks as I have been working my way across the worlds of Planar Conquest by Wastelands Interactive. Planar Conquest is a 4X fantasy game that bears more than a passing resemblance to Master of Magic by Microprose.
My main problem reviewing Planar Conquest is that it is difficult for me to separate the core competencies of the game from the experience of the game. Most often this isn't an issue. An iPad puzzle game doesn't need to immerse you in an experience (although a game like Monument Valley certainly does) in order to play well. I don't need to feel like I am in a dojo to play Yomi. And yet a game with the depth of a standard 4X romp seems to require you to be absorbed into the title in order to get the "proper" experience.
Planar Conquest has been a difficult game to review. Mac and PC versions of games such as Age of Wonders III and the Civilization series have established what a 4X title is meant to look like. Wastelands Interactive is treading new ground by attempting to take the mechanics and gameplay of a 4X title and move it onto a tablet that doesn't have the same ability to do the GPU related heavy-lifting as desktop machines. So the first impression that one gets when playing Planar Conquest is a shiny, low budget version of a 4X title, which it definitely isn't.
Planar Conquest checks off all the Xs in 4X and has everything you could reasonably want in this type of game. The player is one of many Sorcerers attempting to unify the various planes under their control and also attempting to stop the undead forces of the Unhallowed from taking over. Or something like that. I typically want to get to the conquering quickly so I don't pay a lot of attention to the fluff. You start out controlling a single city with the forces of one of four factions (an additional four can be purchased). Your Sorcerer is not influenced by your choice of faction and so my Death and Fire magic specialist Eye Tyrant sorcerer was more than happy to lead a force of Elves into combat.
Each of the races in the game have a wide selection of units giving each faction a unique feel in combat. The player's Sorcerer can be precisely customized to field a very particular type of magic-user. Cities can be expanded and you can build the usual selection of upgrades to unlock new units and facilitate better trade, farming or research. The game doesn't break any new ground in this respect. What is different is how Planar Conquest allows you to journey from your own world to other planes which can have different settings for landmass types, density and other geological particulars. This potentially provides the player a lot of space to explore, expand and fight over. The developers happily allow you to ease yourself into the game's complexities by providing a Quick Start option which configures your Sorcerer and the planes for you. If you want a little more customization, you can test the waters by building the planes but selecting a prebuilt sorcerer or you can go full out and pick the individual types of magic that your sorcerer specializes in as well.
The game has hard limits on the number of AI opponents based on the size of the map so you won't inadvertently build a map too crowded to be interesting. The four races that ship with the game limit the amount of unique games that you can have, and AI opponents aren't prevented from choosing your faction as their own.
The game has been ported from the PC but doesn't appear to have been a rush job like some titles that have been released. There has clearly been work done to fit the UI onto a tablet screen. Long presses in the game world provide more information about items there and the various UI elements can be moved on and off screen as you need them. There are controls to quickly move through your armies and your cities but given the tablet's lack of a keyboard and the ability to 'click off' a unit you sometimes run into problems with giving the wrong army or unit commands. To be fair, this seems more a problem due to years of playing Age of Wonders than a problem with Planar Conquest.
The main world view doesn't provide you with any camera options and only has limited zoom functions. This seems to be a concession to the hardware of the iPad but it does mean that as your empire expands you have a smaller view of the overall structure of it. Once you move to new planes the management of your forces and cities can become a bit complicated. The game's UI is quite helpful in this regard but if you've never used the navigation controls from in-game management screens in a 4X title before then you will in Planar Conquest.
The combat screens do allow you to rotate the camera and zoom to a degree not available in the main world view. The game also customizes the look of the combat screen to match the terrain being fought in and some of them are actually quite attractive. You can deploy unit in your force individually (each army can have up to 16 units) or you can get the game to deploy them for you. Combat is on a square grid and it is very easy to check the status of your units, your opponent's and to see things like ammunition status for ranged units or spell effects. An interesting addition to the game is the Battle Arena mode which allows you to pick spells and armies and just fight it out to test combinations of spells and forces without having to start a full-fledged game.
The game allows you to cast spells in combat either from units that have spell-casting abilities or via your Sorcerer. A portal opens in the combat view and your spells fly out to attack your enemies or buff your own units. The AI opponents can also do this which is quite a shock the first time you fight against the AI and not the neutral forces or units guarding locations on the main world map. A simple fight against two human Spearmen and a Swordsman can turn into a bit of a nightmare after the AI opponent casts Summon Skeleton and then causes your Spider Rider to start bleeding every turn.
There is a significant amount of magic in the game. Your Sorcerer starts out with a set of spells as well as several schools of magic in which to specialize that determine what spells you can research. Combined with the unique elements of the race you choose, this allows you--even with just the four available races--to build a unique set of offensive and defensive skills. Magic isn't limited to combat as you can use spells to change the terrain, add capabilities to units and even summon units to the main world view. The number of spells that you can learn in each school of magic is limited by the number of tiers that you select when building your Sorcerer. There are three levels of spells and you can assign 12 'points' to the various schools of magic. So if you want to cast the most powerful spells you need to focus your points into one or two schools. If you want a more generalist mage then it will restrict the power of the spells available.
I am really only scratching the surface of the detail available in the game. Wastelands recently released a 44 page manual for the game and even that was missing a listing of all the city improvements (those are easily viewed in-game, though). Planar Conquest clearly has the detail and features that a gamer expects from a 4X title. Even after playing the game for two weeks I didn't exhaust the content available to me.
The reality of trying to stuff a full 4X title into the tablet is where the game has issues and this is primarily in the UI and the graphics. Despite doing a very good job of making the UI work for touch devices, there is just too much going on in the game for the UI not to suffer somewhat. This primarily comes when viewing in-game notifications and its too easy to miss events while you play until you train yourself to look for them. I still find that the graphics look too shiny, for lack of a better word, and the SFX in the game are limited and seem rather amateurish. The sound effect used for when a unit dies in the combat screen is particularly bad and will make you want to mute the game when in combat.
Planar Conquest is a very good 4X title for the tablet and Wastelands Interactive have done a great job stuffing all the bells & whistles one wants to find into an engine that runs on a tablet. It is an engrossing title once you adapt to the tablet-influenced UI and game style. The game comes with the price of a desktop 4X title as well (if you add in the cost of all the DLC) but maybe we just need to stop assuming that developers can magically make quality tablet titles for the fraction of the price of a desktop game. Pocket Tactics doesn't use half-star ratings, due to properly notarized pact Owen made with the fire spirits that fuel the engines here at Mt. Hexmap, and despite being better than 3 stars Planar Conquest is not quite up to the quality expected of a four star title. If you are a fan of 4X games though this is an easy purchase.
Planar Conquest was played on an iPad Mini for this review.