Worlds of Magic: Planar Conquest Review

By Kevin Tavore,
Human history is truly a marvelous thing. Scattered villages became small towns, then cities and ultimately empires. The stories of the rise and fall of these empires have inspired countless young historians, authors, producers, and developers to create works showcasing just how we’ve risen. Some of these stories are based entirely on reality. Others take that inspiration and create something new altogether. However you cut it, the rise of an empire feels great and it’s a prime candidate for a great scenario in a game. The genre that caters to the imperial desire is called 4X and it's where Worlds of Magic: Planar Conquest firmly resides. 4X stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate and the goal is to explore the world, expand your empire, exploit the resources available to you and ultimately exterminate all the other leaders of the world.


A 4X game is necessarily complex — even experienced players often learn something new every time they play. The high complexity ensures that your empires can be built the way you want them to be and that you have the tools you’ll need to react to the world and the other factions within it on your way to victory. It’s a strategy game and it’s simply not fun if the strategy aspect is muted thanks to shallow mechanics that don’t offer any variety or change. The result is an innately and expectedly high learning curve and a 4X game’s success or failure is often predicated on whether the developers equipped you with the knowledge you need to get a foundation.

With that in mind, Planar Conquest’s tutorial is a catastrophic failure. It exists but it only walks you through the most basic aspects of the game in a completely mechanical way. You’re taught how to research, how to build, and how to fight, but you’re never taught even briefly why you’d want to do this. A good tutorial would show you the basics on how to play, but Planar Conquest opts instead to only literally tell you what buttons to press in what menu. When the short tutorial is over, you’re left with a mountain of basic knowledge but no real context for how to use it. Why would you grow your city? Why would you take over another town? How do you make money? The game doesn’t answer any of these questions in the tutorial. In fact, most egregious of all, it absurdly doesn’t even tell you how to win the game.

Title

Even as an experienced player, jumping into the game is incredibly difficult. My first game ended abruptly when I ran out of funds in the first few turns and found my armies deserting quickly thereafter. The tutorial simply did not prepare me to deal with any of the important basic necessities of gameplay. To play the game properly, you’re forced to look to outside sources. I was able to find one YouTube Let’s Play and the game’s official manual for the PC version and together they taught me a bit more about how the systems worked. Still, it’s simply not fun at all to wander around in a complicated game with no idea what to do. I imagine any console player getting this as a first or second experience is likely going to find nothing but misery and boredom as a result of the lack of directions. Planar Conquest is a complex game that critically fails to give the player even a fraction of the competence necessary to succeed.

Once you do learn how to play the game, it doesn’t get much better. You can win the game in two ways — conquering every enemy AI sorcerer’s cities, or researching and then casting a spell of domination. Modern 4X games often offer four or more significantly different ways to win. In Planar Conquest, both win conditions mostly play the same. Researching spells increases your strength in battle and fighting enemies is required to actually cast the spell of domination since every AI will attack you as soon as you start casting it. The result is a game that feels more like a vertical slice of gameplay — a proof of concept — than a full game.

1Choosing a hero unlocks different spells that do the same thing!

In a 4X game, time is a significant factor that should change how you play. Commanding your single starting city should feel much different than guiding a giant empire, but in Planar Conquest, the amount of buildings you can create is simply too low. You’ll build them all within a city all too quickly and then have nothing to do except build armies. These armies are likewise few in number and it means the game’s combat is going to feel the same on turn 50 or turn 300. You’ll have more spells and a few more units, but ultimately it doesn’t change much — it’s just more of the same with bigger numbers of troops.

The game’s combat is standard turn-based strategy. You can cast spells to aid your troops using your own mana if you have enough, but most of the grunt work will be done through your units. The balance here is questionable since there’s very little penalty to using ranged attacks and units spawn far apart. Every tough fight can be won by sitting back and peppering the enemy with arrows. By the time they get to you, they’re half dead and easy pickings for your army.

1A fierce horde walked all the way across the map under a constant hail of arrows.

Aside from ranged and melee units, the only distinction that seems to matter is whether a unit is flying or not. Flying units cannot be hit by normal melee units except when counter attacking (if you are attacked, you always counter attack). Since there’s no way to tell if a unit is flying, you just have to look at the tiny model and guess. If it has wings, it usually flies but other fliers are not so obvious. The game does also have hero units for whom you can craft armor, but the armor wasn’t interesting and the heroes are entirely RNG. The ones I had seemed fairly worthless and barely stronger than regular units, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them, especially the ranged ones, were completely broken. Spellcasters also make an appearance but they’re weaker and your spells are better, so there didn’t seem much point in using them.

It should come as no surprise to discover the game is full of significant quality of life issues. There are far too many to list and they include corruption of saves, but the most egregious are certainly the lack of tooltips and moving around the menus. Together, these two will cause endless frustration. Moving around the menus feels awful. Many games copy each other’s menu system, which means you’ll intuitively expect to be able to do something, but in Planar Conquest you can’t. Do you want to go down to the bottom left side of the screen? Normally you’d just press down and the cursor would automatically get there. But here you have to make this giant circle around. This is primarily an issue when you want to cancel building something. Two building projects are infinite and constantly provide bonuses. If you want to build something, you’d expect it would just cancel the infinite one and queue up the new project but it doesn’t. Instead you have to manually make a dozen button presses to cancel it. You’ll do this constantly.

1What stat does a human head represent?

The lack of tooltips compounds this issue. Even at first glance, almost nothing is labeled so you need to highlight an icon to see what it is. A greater issue arises when you realize that many of these icons cannot be selected. Want to know how to build a specific unit? You look and get a picture of the building that’s required to build it but not the name. So how do you build that? You go to the building tab and find the picture. Then you find the picture of the building that’s required to build it. There’s no justifiable explanation to not have a tooltip explaining what a building is. It gets worse. Each unit has around 10 different stats and not a single one of them is explained beyond the obvious sword for melee damage and bow for ranged. Elsewhere, if you win a battle you’ll get rewards but you can’t select them to see what they are, so you simply need to check your inventory later. It shows a lack of polish that is unacceptable.

The achievement list will not be your favorite. You’ll need to win with every race and many of the selectable sorcerers, as well as your own custom sorcerer. Once you learn how, winning games is easy and quick so this isn’t much of an issue. The real issue comes from the luck-based achievements, of which there are quite a few. While I didn’t actually meet the requirements so I cannot confirm here, it is important to note that the PS4 version of the game has three unobtainable trophies (Death from above, Sorcerer Gadget, and Manamillionaire). As of the time of this writing, none of these have been earned on Xbox One either.

Summary

The 4X genre is fresh on Xbox One, but Worlds of Magic: Planar Conquest offers a stale experience that can't be recommended to anyone. The game's tutorial is abysmal, leaving new players wandering helplessly until they consult third party resources from outside the game. The core gameplay loop is simple and devolves into the same strategy in every game, severely inhibiting the replay value and even the first play value. Combat is dull and very poorly balanced thanks to blatantly overpowered ranged units. Quality of life issues are abundant, highlighted by horrendous menu design and a lack of context in menus thanks to countless missing tooltips. I thought any 4X game on Xbox should be better than nothing but I was wrong — this is not better than nothing.
2 / 10
Worlds of Magic: Planar Conquest
Positives
  • It's a 4X game
Negatives
  • It's a bad 4X game
  • Atrocious tutorial requires reliance on outside third party sources for basic gameplay information
  • Only two ways to win ensures you're repeating the same strategy over and over and over
  • Combat is dull, simple, and unbalanced
  • Significant quality of life issues such as missing tooltips and overly complicated menus
Ethics
The reviewer spent 8 hours playing through five games and part of a sixth until all saves became corrupted. He collected 30 of 65 achievements for 435 Gamerscore. An Xbox One download code was provided through the ID@Xbox program for the purposes of this review.
Kevin Tavore
Written by Kevin Tavore
Kevin is a lover of all types of media, especially any type of long form story. The American equivalent of Aristotle, he'll write about anything and everything and you'll usually see him as the purveyor of news, reviews and the occasional op-ed. He's happy with any game that's not point and click or puzzling, but would always rather be outdoors in nature.
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