Conquest of Elysium is the kind of series that appeals to a very specific demographic of turn-based strategy game players, best represented in a simple dichotomy. This is a series whose latest iteration includes twenty races to play, each with a fleshed-out, individual style of play, 6 ages to choose from, with game-redefining characteristics in every one, and 5 planes of existence (in addition to elemental planes), each acting as what is essentially another map altogether. It is also a game that requires a manual to enjoy to its fullest extent – or even stumble through for the less well-versed among us – and doesn’t even include a “main menu” button. “Crude” is an understatement, but so is “intricate” (at least in certain places).
As someone who is coming to the series for the first time, I can safely say that Conquest of Elysium 4 has defied my expectations more than any game in recent memory, for both better and worse. COE4 is undeniably engrossing, taking an old-school fantasy 4X approach and making some brilliant and baffling changes that, at the very least, render it a unique experience. COE4 eschews the focuses of the staples of its genre, in many cases stripping it down to something bare-bones, but almost always to focus on something else entirely.
Take trade, for example; trade is conducted entirely within each society – foregoing the diplomatic complexities and economic instability often found in trade systems – for a style simple at face but surprisingly in-depth. One can only buy or sell one commodity at a time, and each commodity has a trade value. Trade value dictates how much gold something costs, but also how difficult something is to trade. Commodities with higher trade values require more conquered settlements with “trade points,” a lack of trade points meaning an increasingly higher chance of failure to trade. Since settlements are “captured” simply by moving over the tile after having defeated all units, and the number of tiles necessitating intense unit management, a seemingly straightforward system of trade can suddenly become a very relevant factor to micro-manage. It also means you’ll probably have deer overrunning your settlements.
While most of the intricacies of COE4 are more in line with the little quirks of trade, one thing does stand out for being pretty eccentric: combat. For a game that so strongly encourages the player to take an aggressive approach to exploration and conquest, even giving numbers nerds a plethora of stats to consider for each individual unit, terrains, and armies alike, it’s pretty shocking to see that there is no player involvement once battle is engaged; and make no mistake, you will be battling. A lot.
Unfortunately, this is also an area where the quirks of the game can’t simply be considered a neutral idiosyncrasy. To put it bluntly, the AI is all over the place. Even on lower difficulties, the AI will often amass an army much larger than your own in a relatively short period of time. However, when confronted with actual tactical decisions, the spottiness is really apparent. It’s not uncommon to see much larger armies passively amble by clear victories with units only a few tiles away, and in at least one instance a fairly large army moved back and forth between two tiles for a dozen turns when blocked by my equally matched force at a choke-point. While I might otherwise chalk this up to occasional AI stupidity, it’s not inspiring to see that the many variances in difficulty are simple upgrades and downgrades in resource and unit allotment. Difficulty shouldn’t mean handicap, and it really shouldn’t be apparent without even consulting the manual.
It’s little considerations like this that seem forgotten for the sake of other elements of the game. All entertainment is subject to time and resource management, and this is of course especially true for indie devs, but the blatant and at times simple omissions and blunders really do appear less as the cost of game-making and more like corner-cutting. That’s pretty terrible, too, considering that the game’s main appeal, the rich and vibrant lore that is expertly tied into the experience rather than simply being window dressing, is so clearly well-crafted. That said, for the completely new player, the positives by far outweigh the negatives; Conquest of Elysium 4 should be played for its unique spin on fantasy strategy alone.
Let’s not forget though that this is the fourth addition to the series. This is perhaps where I draw the biggest point of contention, as from what I can see this would be better titled as Conquest of Elysium 3.5. Many of the art assets appear ripped straight from COE3 or there’s so little difference that it’s negligible, even for unique characters (I’m looking at you, Goat Sun). The designs themselves are fairly creative, if dated, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell that this was an entirely different game looking just at its assets. The changes that I would call “big” are to the UI and music, and to give credit where it is due they are both substantial and significant. Compound this with the addition of new planes, some battle improvements, a couple new races, and additional monsters and options, and I have to admit that it’s a mostly positive improvement. Still, I don’t think that justifies the jump from $10 to $25.
While $25 is pretty steep for a game like this, I’d still give it a cautious recommendation. If you’re into selective micro-management and aren’t bothered by the quirks mentioned – and, full disclosure, I’m not – then it’s definitely worth checking out; you’re guaranteed a few dozen hours of fun at least. For fans of the series, though, I’m not sure if I could see justifying the price jump. There are a lot of small changes that could have made this a much more solid effort and a deserving successor, possibly even the definitive edition, but for whatever reason there wasn’t enough time, money, or effort put in to piece it all together. I’ll offer a good place to start: the main menu button.