Review: Age of Empires: The Age of Kings (Nintendo DS)

Age of Empires: The Age of Kings
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Publisher: Majesco
Genre: Strategy RPG
Release Date: 02/15/2006

It wasn’t until recently I bothered to pick up a DS. I told myself I wouldn’t until they came out with a Pokemon variant of the DS, or whenever Pokemon: Mysterious Dungeon finally hit stateside. Amazingly, the first happened. I almost bought the Pink Mew DS from Japan, but instead managed to get the even rarer Pokemon Theme Park Mew/Jirachi/Celebi/Pikachu version for less then a normal US DS. So I’m happy. I picked up Bust a Move and Animal Crossing, but besides those and my imports of Rainbow Islands and Bubble Bobble, there still is nothing that really has me excited for the system. No sure fire foaming at the mouth must have game. Even Pokemon Trozei leaves me blah.

So that’s partially why I picked up Age of Empires. I needed a RPG for the system (let’s not talk about the disappointment that was Lunar: Dragon Song. Playing that was what made me choose not to buy a DS of my own for quite some time) and Age of Empires was well, the only game that fits the bill on the system. Especially in the SRPG category. Otherwise you have Mario and Luigi, and that my friends, is the third and only RPG for the system.

I’ve never played the AoE series before, but I have played the spinoff “Age of Mythology,” which I greatly enjoyed. Plus as I’m IP’s resident historian, I thought it would be fun to rant about all the stuff the game gets wrong regarding what really happened with Joan of Arc, Richard the Lion-Hearted and the like.

So how good is the only real SRPG out for the DS right now? Does it go the way of Lunar: Dragon Song as a game that really isn’t worth taking a second look at, no matter how much you love the series or genre? Or is AoE the start of Role Playing Goodness on the DS?

Let’s Review

Story

Age of Empires surprised me greatly by offering five different scenarios. I assumed it was going to be just a bunch of tactical missions that made no sense, like having the Mongols fight the Britons in Restoration period England or the like. Instead, you receive storylines that are similar to actual events that took place with each army’s time period. Although they are not what I would call “accurate” they are close enough that it won’t annoy the anal retentive historian, and it won’t feel like interactive homework for the average gamer. You get a little bit of knowledge while you’re mowing down pikemen with your phalanx of crossbowmen.
Each Scenario is distinct from their brethren and allows you different troops, hero powers, and end goals. Within each scenario are half a dozen chapters, each chronicling different aspects of your main character’s life. Each chapter has several goals to accomplish; one main goal, and several optional goals. By completing these goals you earn “Empire Points” which can then be used to unlock bonus maps and types of troops, such as Knights of the Round Table.

In all you get five scenarios that are vastly different from each other in plot, but whose gameplay remains the same. Each Scenario can be beaten in just a few hours, and the plot in each may be sparse, but it’s still an enjoyable way to burn an afternoon. if you’re looking for something more detailed in terms of plot and character development like you would find in most RPG’s, you’re in for a bit of a disappointment here though however.

Story Rating: 6/10

2. Graphics

Age of Empires really isn’t much to look at. The graphics are at best, PSX quality. Of course, in AoE’s defense, most SRPG’s are not know for their amazing graphics. Even Disagea or Ogre Tactics: Knight of Lodis are not games that would win a “best graphics of the year” award.

The graphics of the main map screens are generally blocky and grainy, but the colors and textures on the map make sure you won’t mistake one aspect of topography for another. Some of the troops, especially those in the same category such as scout cavalry, light cavalry and knights all look very similar and when there is a mixture of types of the field, you have to play close attention to make sure what type of troop you are up against. Some troops are very distinct though, such as the rare but very well done Persian War Elephants.

The actual battle graphics, should you choose to turn them on are MUCH better than what you see for 85% of the game, but it’s still hovering at PS2 quality. Actually to be honest, the game reminded me not just of Civilization II in terms of graphics, but also the Sega Genesis game: Master of Monsters. You have some pretty awful map based graphics followed by some decent, but something captivating for when different factions skirmish. When a game in 2k5 is reminded me of a ten year old 16 bit game looks-wise, that’s probably not a good sign for the visuals, eh?

The last bit of visuals to touch on in AoE are the portraits. These come up on the top screen with a description of your troops or of a technology. These are by far the nicest graphics in the game, but they are static and are little more than filler. It’s a bit of shame in the regular game, but in the library (which we will get to in another section), it’s a nice background extra.

All in all, AoE is not a game for the graphics whore or those who put style over substance. If you’re looking something to push the power of the DS, you should strongly consider something else.

Graphics Rating: 5/10

3. Sound

I was very impressed by the audio qualities of AoE. Each country has their distinct voice work, both with the proper (for the most part) accent and verbiage. Although the actual voice acting is only a few sentences per side, it’s still nice to see that they clung to trying to make the game sound authentic, unlike other games where the cast may be British or Turkish or some other nationality, but everyone sounds American.

Al the sound effects of AoE are nicely done. The whinny of the horses, the clash of steel, the whizzing of bolts and arrows through the air. Everything sounds realistic and makes up nicely for the lack of detail in the graphics.

The score of the game fits the theme and mood of classical style warfare as well. Although there’s only a handful of tunes in the game, all are nicely presented and make for excellent background accompaniment. None of the music is going to make someone go “Damn, I wish they released a soundtrack for this game!”, but it’s still nice for what it is. My only complaint I wish they switched around the title screen music and the actual in game map music as they seem like they would be a better fit if they were juxtaposed.

Good overall showing if you’re an audiophile.

Sound Rating: 7/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Like most DS games, you can switch between using the stylus and touch screen or using the D pad and buttons to control the in-game action. Due to the nature of the AoE, and the fact you’ll have a LOT of troops on the screen at some points, I’d suggest going the old fashioned route, if only to ensure accuracy and precision on your part.

AoE is a turn based strategy RPG. What this means is that each side has their corresponding turn. During one’s turn you can move troops, hire/create new troops or villagers (depending on what is available to you), build new buildings in order to allow you to hire more troops or increase your variety of troops available to you, and research some new technology that will enhance your legion in some way. Once each of your troops has gone, and you’ve decided if you’re going to invest in some new technology or not, it’s your opponent’s turn. Repeat until one side is vanquished or a set number of turns (decided before you start play) are up.

When it comes to battles, the game appears to be a simple rock/paper/scissors style game. Pikemen hurt cavalry, who in turn are strong against infantry who are able to take down Pikemen with ease. However, three additional layers to this equation make things a lot more complex.

The first is the concept of “Ages,” which the game takes its name from. After you have so many aspects of tech researched and enough money and food saved up, you can buy a new age, which opens up better troops and technology to your group. Knights of the Round Table or Persian War Elephants may be cavalry, but they’re “evolved” enough that they can take out a lower level of the type of troop they are weak too with little casualty.

The second aspect is skills. There are 2 dozen skills available. Some are pretty worthless, while some are incredible. Although monks can neither fight nor take a hit, their abilities to heal your troops and/or convert enemy troops to your cause are vital in the late stages of the game.

The final thing that makes the game deeper than Battle Beasts: Your army leader. Each Army has a classical heroic character leading their troops. These heroes have special powers that can greatly influence the game. Each has their specialty, although from a lot of playing, I find the French and their two styles of healing powers to be the best overall in terms of leadership options, with the Saracens coming in second thanks to their dominance in ranged combat, which is a huge advantage in the game.

The game is quite easy to understand and control and like all SRPG’s (except say…Phantom Brave) there is a grid based system for movement that allows you a lot of control for the tactical obsessed gamer.

Great controls, if not generic and unoriginal for this genre of gaming.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 8/10

5. Replayability

Not only do you have five short scenarios to play through, you also have the option of designing your own one shot battles through a variety of maps and mixing and matching the armies within the game. Up to four human or computer controlled armies can be on a map at the same time, so a game can be a straight forward siege or a 4 way dance that lasts several days. Literally.

You can also unlock new maps and characters as mentioned earlier. As these characters are pretty unbalanced and overly powerful compared to the normal troops one can access in the game, it’s worth unlocking if you’re a power gamer. More important are the maps as they breathe new life into the game by forcing you to come up with new strategies and tactics due to the varying land conditions.

The only real problem is that there’s no point in replaying the scenario battles. If you’ve played them once, you’re not going to get anything new out of them due to the pretty poor and repetitive computer AI. However, you’re going to have to replay several of them if you want to unlock everything, so expect a good case of deja vu hitting you people who need 100% unlocked on every game you own or play.

You have a lot of options within AoE, But often they are only surface deep. The more you plunge into the game, the more you’ll see certain troops (militia) are all but worthless the further you get into the game. Some troops, like level 3 or 4 Cavalry are dominant, even against equal level troops they are supposed to be weak against, and once you have ranged attackers, you’ll find they dominate the game. So after half a dozen non scenario battles or even after finishing 1-2 campaigns, you’ll find the same tactics and troops dominate. Thus cutting down the Replayability of the game greatly.

There’s a lot of options within AoE. But the more you play, the more things blur together. The fact that so many games will feel the same regardless of what army you play as or what map your own, balances out the sheer number of troops and maps in the game.

Replayability Rating: 6/10

6. Balance

As impressed as I was with AoE throughout my first two full scenarios, there was never a hint of challenge in the game. Although the game offers you a lot of control over the AI by giving you several “personality” types for the AI to take on in addition to the standard difficulty levels, the computer will continually use the same tactics battle after battle per the setting you gave it. I don’t care if you choose “Atilla” on the highest setting, you’re going to figure out how to dominate that personality after only 2-3 battles against him. And then he’ll never be a challenge again. And the same goes for the other settings. The computer is just too predictable for any real sense of accomplishment, no matter what you choose to go up against.

Playing against other people is a LOT more fun and challenging. I still find the French and the Saracens to be the two most dominant armies thanks to their heroes, but you can turn off the heroes and the specials of each country making things a level playing field. That’s an excellent touch. You can do this against the AI as well, but it’s still going to play EXACTLY THE SAME.

Of course, you also have the fact some troops are just dominant over others as an issue as well. But we’ve already covered that aspect.

In all, AoE does try to do a lot to make the game be as tough or as easy as you want it to be. But thanks to repetitive AI patterns, a sharp gamer will find the Computer a lackluster opponent within the same weekend they buy it. The game is at its best when used in a multiplayer situation. There it really shines.

Balance Rating: 4/10

7. Originality

I have to admit, the entire time I was playing this game, I was thinking “Why does this feel so much like a ripoff of Civilization?” Well, we all know the answer to that, don’t we? ;-)

There’s nothing AoE offers that hasn’t been done in other SRPG’s. In fact there’s nothing in AoE that hasn’t been done better in a lot of other SRPG’s. The game felt like a constant redexu of so many tactical RPG’s I’ve played in the past that it was really hard for me to not give this game the tagline “Age of Rehash.”

Just because the game is not original doesn’t mean it’s not fun or a nice diversion as a rental. It just means it’s lacking either a heart or soul. Maybe both. Maybe neither. But it’s certainly lacking its own character. The game feels just to much like a generic attempt to cash in on the fact the DS has no SRPG’s up until now. It’s a game appealing to the lowest common denominators without any real innovation or personality to let it stand out. If there were other RPG’s, especially SRPG’s for the system, AoE would be lost in the shuffle. Right now though, it’s merely a winner by default.

Originality Rating: 3/10

8. Addictiveness Rating

Although the game is pretty easy and unoriginal, AoE does have the “Just one more click” phenomenon that follows many games made in the same style. What I mean by this is that you’ll know you should put the game down, but you tell yourself “Oh, just one more turn. I’ll save after that turn.” And that one turn becomes five or ten. It’s pretty easy to lose yourself in the game as it feels like it’s moving a lot faster than it really is. Even when you’ve stupidly chosen a four army game with a 60 turn limit, and you’ve gotten amazingly bored and tired with the game, you will STILL be saying “Just one more turn.” You know a game has you hooked when you are no longer having fun and you find yourself still taking turn after turn instead of working out or reading or doing something productive.

This game can be a nice way to wean heroin addicts off their substance of choice instead of methadone.

Addictiveness Rating: 10/10

9. Appeal Factor

Truthfully, this is the hardest I’ve had in this subsection of a review in a long time. On one hand, it’s the only game of its genre out there right now for the DS. On the other hand, the are far superior games out for the GBA out like Shining Force that you could play and have more fun with on your DS. The there is the fact the short campaigns and lack of AI will be a turn off to the usual fan of SRPG’s who are used top having 40+ battles in a game (not including random ones) and a lot of plot. Age of Empires is an odd fit for the DS, as it’s a Computer game being put out for a console audience.

I can’t see Age of Empires being a system seller or even a must own except for the die hard RPG gamer who needs a two screen portable fix. Even then, I’d recommend Mario & Luigi over this if you’re looking for a long term appeal.

AoE seems destined to be a rental first and foremost, or a game you’ll use for trade in value eventually. Sure there will be an audience for it, but it’s going to be a very niche once.

Appeal Factor Rating: 4/10

10. Miscellaneous

There is one thing about AoE I utterly adored and wished more games would do. That’s the library. I think I spent more time reading the library than actually playing the game the first day I turned on AoE.

The Library contains a plethora of information about the time periods, historical characters, countries, innovations, and everything else that comes up in the game. A lot of the library is highly detailed and quite long. Considering my being a history buff this was an unexpected treat for me and I thoroughly enjoyed reading every article Ensemble put into the game. This is one of the few games where you can walk away and actually claim you’ve learned something. I love that and wish more companies would try and go this route instead of “Badly Drawn Boobies & Guns XXII”

Truly, the library made up for the repetition, the poor AI, and the lack of any originality in the game for me. It was my favorite part of my experience with AoE. Take that for what you will.

Miscellaneous Rating: 8/10

The Scores
Story: 6
Graphics: 5
Sound: 7
Control/Gameplay: 8
Replayability: 6
Balance: 4
Originality: 3
Addictiveness: 10
Appeal Factor: 4
Miscellaneous: 8
Total Score: 61
Overall Score: 6.0 (Above Average!)

Short Attention Span Summary
Age of Empires: The Age of Kings isn’t a bad game. It’s just not a particularly good one. It’s a run of the mill generic RPG offering nothing new to the gaming public. It can be fun and addictive, but in the end, it’s only worth a rental or a weekend of playing through. After that you’ll know the game pretty much by heart. I’d say pick it up for the Library, but you can go to a real one and read actual books for free there.