Age of Darkness: Final Stand, the medieval fantasy survival RTS from Australia’s PlaySide Studios, is expanding with a dedicated campaign mode on 19 April 2023. ‘Flames of Retribution‘ is the game’s first story-based chapter, and sends players on a quest through Erodar, a land plagued by Nightmare creatures, and the hidden threat of the spurned, ancient Elosan race.
Ahead of the launch of Flames of Retribution, GamesHub went hands-on with a campaign preview build that illuminated more about how PlaySide has weaved narrative through the threads of Age of Darkness’ primarily survival-focussed gameplay. Through multiple chapters, this integration proves deft, as the game strikes a worthy balance between its new guiding narrative, and each gameplay strand.
Flames of Retribution kicks off with dramatic cinematics, as the conflict at the heart of Erodar is revealed. It was once a land ruled by Nightmares, until the Elosan race formed magic crystals to trap the beasts and bring peace. This kindness was repaid by the human race turning on the Elosans – led by King Ezekiel – and ultimately embarking on a quest of war. After loss and sacrifice on both sides, the Elosans were eliminated, and replaced by a human world order.
As the Age of Darkness campaign opens, it’s revealed that these humans must now deal with the threat of the Nightmares, as well as the advance of enemy factions, as they defend their homelands and attempt to provide safe harbour for a number of villages on the brink.
This lore forms the backbone of Flames of Retribution, and the quest of its main heroes – Aurelia, a sorcerer with healing powers, Edwin, who wields the power of a flaming sword, and eventually, Merek, a rude and demanding hero with a heavy move set and ground pound abilities.
Each has their own specialty, but they operate only as leaders in the field, with much of the grunt work and survival elements of the game requiring soldier hordes to accomplish. As in the main game, you’ll spend the majority of your time in Flames of Retribution bolstering your forces by growing individual townships.
After a brief prologue, which lays much of the ‘Nightmares vs. Humans’ narrative groundwork, you’ll embody Aurelia and Edwin as they set out to protect the villages of Norfolk from bandits and other hulking enemies. As part of The Order, these elite warriors are burdened by the weight of expectation, and by the need to protect their towns even as the Nightmare hordes begin to grow in power once more.
Their task is fairly simple: protect nearby townships as darkness grows on all sides. This involves diving in with the game’s building and defence mechanics, which task you to protect structures by building town gates, blockades, and military towers, while eventually establishing a training ground to recruit your own soldiers for battle.
The loop is surprisingly complex – and even in the opening chapters of Flames of Retribution, it leaves room for plenty of creativity, as well as a hefty dose of failure.
To best protect your villages, which change each chapter and require different tactics for success, you’ll need to master the game’s unique city-building elements. In typical gameplay, each village makes money at timed intervals, and this can be used to establish particular structures – most importantly, lumber yards for collecting wood, and quarries for collecting stone.
Once these are established, you can turn your focus to initiating soldiers, and eventually building up your armies in typical RTS style. Think Age of Empires with more fantasy and tactical flourish, and a cranked-up difficulty, and you’re most of the way to Age of Darkness.
In each chapter-based quest, your path to safety is largely complicated by the unforgiving depth of Flames of Retribution‘s rival armies. While you’re busy placing barricades and training up loyal villagers, you’ll have to contend with constant barrages as your enemies advance on their own development tracks. The longer you spend boosting your numbers, the tougher they’ll be to crack – and the harder your path to victory becomes.
Frequent saves become a boon very quickly, as skirmishes can end in disaster the moment you make a wrong decision. If you think you’ve got enough army members for a stoush, and you head off to accomplish a particular story goal, you’re leaving your village open to immediate attack – even if you’ve adequately prepared with multiple ballista towers and gates.
In one particular instance, I had a bandit army smash through three separate town gates, and make it past four ballista towers, to make a run on my all-important keep while my heroes were off destroying enemy training grounds. Even with a handful of recruits guarding the fort, I wound up eating defeat as both Aurelia and Edwin were gone – and their combined power boost and healing abilities were the only thing protecting the weaker grunts in battle.
The confidence I had in my ballistas and defences was unwarranted, as the game’s enemies were larger in number than I’d anticipated, and came rocking a plethora of deadly weapons. My armies couldn’t make it back in time to save anyone.
In this instance, I had saved before setting out, allowing for a run with new tactics and eventual success by splitting Aurelia and Edwin between a scouting party and a defending party. That said, without a save, the immediate high difficulty of Flames of Retribution may have been overtly frustrating – and potentially trying for patience.
I can see a lot of tears in the future of Age of Darkness, but equally, a pig-headed and stubborn hope dangling beyond the game’s many challenges.
The opening act of Flames of Retribution sports a measured balance between frustrating challenge and rewarding victory, encouraging more creative and tactical approaches with each attempt to survive. Wits and quick thinking are needed to hit every goal post in this more guided narrative, but thankfully, each death feels meaningful – and effectively pushes you onward.
If three gates won’t do it, try five. If your soldiers die in great hordes, try sending Aurelia along for the battle. Try splitting your party. Try recruiting greater hordes. You’ll need patience to contend with the game’s approach to combat, and the way enemies always seem to be several steps ahead of you, but trying something new always yields a breakthrough, and provides some measure of promise as the chapters advance.
By expanding the remit of Age of Darkness: Final Stand, PlaySide Studios has added a new dimension to proceedings. While the conflict within Erodar is your standard fantasy ‘light vs. darkness’ fare, Flames of Retribution provides a reason to enter (or return to) the battlefield, and to keep pushing forward – even as the game’s AI goes mad with power.
Survival isn’t guaranteed at any turn, but the struggle is where the satisfaction lies.
The Flames of Retribution campaign arrives in Age of Darkness: Final Stand at 11:00 pm AEST on 19 April 2023. It will be available for everyone who owns the base game, which is currently in early access.