A Return to Adventure: Thoughts on Conquest of Elysium 4

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Conquest of Elysium

When the giant demon attacked my fortress, I cursed.

The fort was my newest and proudest conquest, wrested from a nearby computer player. I left a small garrison, stiffened by two ballistae, to hold the walls while my main army subdued the nearby hinterlands. Now that demon, with its vast pool of health and huge spell list, was going to snatch away my prize.

The battle began. Because it was a siege, my ballistae were allowed a number of free shots. A bolt slammed into the demon. A big chunk of its health disappeared. And that was just the start.

CoE4 Ballista vs HeliophagusBy the time the perforated demon limped up to the castle gates, a humble bowman was able to administer the coup de grace. Ballistae (and Human Ingenuity) 1, Demon 0.

A few turns later, the computer retook its fort. Its vast army was spearheaded by a pair of ents, each with five times the demon’s health. This time, my two ballistae weren’t enough. The computer left a modest garrison and marched away.

A few turns after that, my main army returned and re-retook the fort. As the computer had already lost its other forts – marauding demon armies had overrun much of the map, and destroyed most of the other AI players – it was game over. I won.

That episode highlights several things about Conquest of Elysium 4. Like its stablemate Dominions 4, CoE4 offers spectacular battles of mortals against magic; the demon’s demise was the moment the game won me over. Much of the challenge comes from wandering and independent monsters. And the computer opponents can be an anticlimax.

In this regard, CoE4 is very much a bigger and better version of its predecessor, Conquest of Elysium 3, and much of my CoE3 review still applies1. This is a quick-playing “3X” game (no “exploit”) with an emphasis on the first “X”, exploration2. It is unapologetically niche – the interface has retained its quirks from CoE3, and the CoE4 Steam page isn’t joking when it describes it as a “strategy game with a touch of roguelike”. Downright unfairness is rare, but it does happen: one of my games ended in the first few turns, when my mighty Troll King ventured into a seemingly unoccupied ziggurat, only to be ambushed by an eldritch horror.

At the same time, CoE4 brilliantly evokes a dangerous fantasy world filled with diverse factions, cool special abilities, and plenty to discover. Playing a warlock, I mined magic gems, used them to summon giant thunderbirds, and unleashed lightning:

CoE4 Lightning SpamAs a druid, I took over ancient groves, drove giant moose through enemy lines, and poured wolves into the breach. This is a screenshot of my druid game: by this stage, my magic was spawning animals and miniature ent-like “shepherds” across half the forests on the map. For most classes, forests are a pain; a source of wandering monsters. As a druid, they were where I summoned my most potent allies.

CoE4 DruidEven “human” classes play very differently. As a baron, I received an annual levy of knights and spearmen, and unleashed “swift justice” on a bandit lair (converting it to a gallows!). As an archbishop, I collected tithes, converted enemy soldiers, and unleashed an AI-controlled holy army3 As a senator, my legionaries and ballistae saw off a demon. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: there are 20 classes in the game.

As with its predecessor, I feel that CoE4 is weakest in the late game, when most of Elysium has been uncovered. Some of my endgames culminated in satisfying showdowns; others developed into stalemates; and on lower difficulty levels, it’s not uncommon to win by default when wandering monsters wipe out the AI. The sole victory condition – defeating all opponents – is nowhere near as interesting as the earlier sense of discovery. Here, I think CoE4 could fruitfully borrow some ideas from Dominions 4 and especially Warlock 2, another fantasy strategy game with multiple worlds and tough independent monsters. The default game mode in Warlock 2 is explicitly PvE; the player battles across the multiverse to reach, and ultimately defeat, the final bosses. Similarly, Dominions 4 changed the default win condition from “defeat everyone else” to “claim the Thrones of Ascension”, unique locations with their own guardians and bonuses. CoE4’s focus on exploration, I would argue, would benefit from special, PvE-focused victory conditions, such as storming other planes or crowning an aspiring god-emperor. For now, I’ve taken to giving myself a computer-controlled teammate, which handles the dirty work while I putter around with my army.

To use the “toy versus game” analogy (a good toy is fun to play with, while a game is a problem-solving activity approached in a playful way), I would call CoE4 a very good toy, a good game early on, and an inconsistent game in its later stages. It has its fair share of rough edges, and yet, it is filled with interesting things to see and do. Overall, I’ve enjoyed myself and would like to play more; other developers could learn from CoE4‘s striking faction design.

The above comments are based on a press copy of CoE4 supplied by the developer, Illwinter.

  1. The most notable change is an overhauled and improved combat system. CoE4 also added multiple planes, which are more accessible to some classes than to others – I haven’t been able to reach the other planes yet. The official website has a more detailed list of features.
  2. As such, I don’t think it’s accurate to call this “Dominions Lite”; Dominions is very much a 4X game, complete with research, item crafting, and detailed army management. The tone of their writing is also very different. Dominions is mythic, epic fantasy, while CoE4 aims for a tongue-in-cheek tone that falls flat.
  3. Thanks to a bug, that army won the game for me. It laid siege to the AI’s last stronghold; most of the army was wiped out, but a single trebuchet remained. The enemy never sallied to attack the trebuchet, the battle timed out, and the enemy automatically lost.
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