‘Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension’ Single-Player Review: Gods At War

The first ever boxed game I remember owning when I was young was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for the Atari ST. It came with an instruction manual and, as a kid, this was a big deal as it somehow made me more relatable to Indy himself. I never really read the instructions at any length, —the game, like almost all games around that time, was far from complex, mainly involving whipping, and, uh, whipping— but I loved the fact that the booklet also provided a backstory and character profiles and diagrams and pictures of levels I hadn’t quite reached yet.


Unfortunately, this particular idiosyncrasy has been one which I’ve carried throughout my gaming career, even up until now as I continue to regularly assume I’m smarter than the books; particularly in an age where all the aforementioned fun stuff appears on a much less frequent basis. Well, the joke’s finally on me, because never has a game punished me more for my ignorance than Illwinter Game Design‘s Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension.


Admittedly, I don’t play all that much turn based strategy, —and this was my first venture in the world of Dominions— but, true to form, I ignored the guidance text and callously jumped the sandbags head first into the trenches. I was very quickly, however, handed my helmet in return.


Because Dominions 4 has one of the steepest, harshest and most complicated learning curves I have ever encountered. In my first act of ‘strategy’, I unwittingly marched my self-styled demigod alone onto the battlefield against an enemy squad of around 50 soldiers. Within seconds I’d lost and it took me an in-game year for one of my priests to summon my messiah back to our ranks. Sun Tzu would have turned in his grave.


Seasoned TBS fans will likely scoff at my blissful nescience, but it was these initial abysmal failures that spurred me on to command armies and conquer worlds in a style akin to the notorious PlayStation advert of the 90s. Before I returned to the war zone though, I brushed myself down, gathered my troops, and humbly downloaded the game’s instruction manual.


Dominions 4 begins with the shock departure of The One – the ever-powerful god who carried the world from the Chaos era into the enlightened Order era – meaning the now vacant Throne of the Heavens is in need of successor. Only a pretender god – of which each nation worships their own – can claim the throne. Thus begins the Ascension Wars and thus enters the player.


Unlike some of the more commercial turn based strategy games over the years, such as the classic Final Fantasy Tactics or the contemporary Fire Emblem: Awakening, Dominions 4 is particularly statistic-laden. Throughout the game there are over 2000 monsters to engage combat, 75 nations to conquer and pillage, and 800 spells to master at your leisure. There are also infinite maps and probably about the same number of demigods.


From the outset, you are almost overburdened with choice: do you begin your conquest in the Early Ages, where iron is yet to be discovered? Perhaps you’d prefer the Middle Ages, where mages rein supreme but magic sources are scarce? Or what about the Late Ages, where steel is readily available?


Then you’ve to choose a nation – of which there are 28 in each era – and a demi god to front the campaign which will, all going well, culminate in world and spiritual domination; winning the War of Ascension. The aesthetic properties of your pretender god can be customized allowing for warlocks, wizards, mermen, dragons, and even static constructs like concrete fountains filled with blood to lead your faction, to name but a few, and of course your god’s stats can be tinkered with to your heart’s content. The trick is to select a god who compliments your nation’s battle parameters, for example Sceleria – a nation well-versed in dark magic – will prosper under the evil and otherwise sacrosanct Prince of Darkness.


Aside from the nation’s god, the player controls two commanders who act as scouts, or who are in charge of the faction’s soldiers. An extensive research option is available wherein seven schools of magic can be explored, each containing scores of spells and incantations identified by skill levels. In order to bolster units, a recruitment option enables commanders and infantry to be purchased providing the player has the means to do so.


Commanders can be nominated as prophets, meaning they inherit the same level of divinity as the pretender god, and meaning they are able to spread the word of their faction’s dominion. The latter act becomes especially important when attempting to conquer enemy land as, aside from brute force, flipping enemy doctrine in your favour can topple enemy provinces from within.


In essence, and in true Pinky and the Brain fashion, the name of the game in Dominions 4 is to take over the world. Whereas in previous series installments this feat would be met by conquering all conflicting troops and nations, Dominions 4 adds the Thrones of Ascension: grand obelisks scattered across the map which, once vanquished, offer special powers to the pretender god – or acting prophet – who claims them.


Like any ambitious turn based strategy game, Dominions 4 lives and dies by how well the player is able to manipulate the menus and the plethora of options each facilitates. Considering the game’s interface is its most integral part, then, it is actually a tad unfriendly. Not in the sense that it is difficult to navigate, but more in the fact that some options are less obvious to discover than others, —to the point wherein I was only discovering certain features existed after hours of play.


That said, the thrill of finally grasping how things work and successfully pulling off timely strategy, particularly after overcoming a string of adverse battle conditions that the game throws up at random, is second to none. As long as your willing to put time in with the manual, you’ll prosper on the battlefield.


It’s difficult to talk about a game like this without getting bogged down with the logistics. But it’s this variety that makes the game so special. And I’ve not even mentioned the multiplayer aspect, where one player takes control of their nation’s dem god and others take control of the commanders.


Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension is thorough, —that’s for sure— but after my initial floundering, I discovered a very fulfilling game. At first glance, it may not look like much, —it’s certainly not a game to be admired for its visuals, more its technical ability— but behind the conventional facade lies a deceptively deep turn based strategy experience. To this end, Sun Tzu rightly said: “All war is based on deception.” But then again, I bet he paid more attention to instruction manuals.


Visit the game’s official website.


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