By modern gaming standards, the Conquest of Elysium series is obtuse, difficult to learn, terrible to look at, and punishingly difficult. If you aren’t willing to put in the effort to learn while playing and suss out the intricacies and depth on offer, then Conquest of Elysium 4 is definitely not the game for you. For players who are willing, there is a mind boggling amount of depth contained beneath the game’s prickly exterior.
Conquest of Elysium 4 is a turn based strategy game that plays like the love child of a standard fantasy 4X and a roguelike. Chaos reigns supreme in Elysium, randomness is a fact of life, and simply surviving can be as important as executing a cunning plan to defeat your foes. Players familiar with Conquest of Elysium 3 should feel almost immediately at home, although there are some significant additions and changes that have been made.
The most immediately noticeable of these changes is in the combat. No longer standing in static lines, units are free to move around the field of battle. This adds an entirely new tactical element that needs to be considered. Throwing a random mishmash of units together without considering how quickly each moves across the battlefield can spell disaster, as fast units rush in to face the enemy, potentially outpacing their ranged support or leaving themselves open to being flanked or surrounded. The new battle system is especially noticeable during siege warfare. Walls now stand in the way, funneling attacking units down towards the gates of the fortification, allowing a few carefully selected units the ability to repel much larger groups of invaders.
Most of the other changes can be summed up as ‘more stuff’, but even this simple description should be enough to excite players already familiar with the series. Adding more stuff (including new factions, units, planes of existence and more) is simply a formula for increasing the game’s overall depth. Since that incredible depth is the game’s biggest strength, more most definitely equals better here.
Generally, each new game begins with map generation. The map sizes vary from Small, which may take thirty minutes to an hour to conquer, to Enormous which could easily take dozens of hours across many days to complete. The maps generated by the game are in no way balanced and will often times place one or more factions in an advantageous position from the very beginning of the game. It is quite possible that you will create a map that will have you start the game utterly surrounded by powerful neutral units that do not hesitate to wipe you off of the face of Elysium from the get go.
Regardless of map size, the goal of the game remains the same; be the last man/demon/whatever left standing. Merely surviving past the early game will often times be enough to see multiple factions eliminated, and careful planning and risk management are key as there are two ways to lose. If a player loses either all of their commanders or all of their citadels, it’s game over. Failing to anticipate the strength of an early game foe or leaving your citadel undefended can spell disaster. After all, something as innocuous as a small herd of deer can be enough to take a lightly defended citadel and eliminate a player from the game.
Conquest of Elysium 4 doesn’t have a ton of complex controls to learn, there isn’t an incredibly complex economic metagame to manipulate, and combat is played out automatically with no player input. Don’t let that fool you in to thinking the game is simple though. There is an elegance to the gameplay, and the streamlined nature of the game allows the player to focus on the breadth and depth on offer rather than get caught up in minutia that could easily bog the game down.
Conquest of Elysium 4 contains twenty different factions, over a thousand different units, three hundred different rituals split across sixty different magic disciplines, six different planes of existence, and six different time-frames (dubbed societies) that games can be played in. Each faction plays differently, and some factions only have access to their biggest and best effects in games played in certain societies. Some factions excel in the early game and can be absolutely dominant on a small map, while others can take hundreds of turns to fully come in to power. Mastering a single faction is an endeavor, and mastering them all is unfathomable, at least for me.
At the beginning of each game, factions have access to a list of mercenary units that can help bolster their ranks courtesy of a little gold, but the biggest and best units from each faction almost always come from tapping into their inherent power and abilities. Even though battles are played out without any input from the player, the composition of each army can have a huge impact on their outcomes. Figuring out where a faction’s strengths lie and then building armies full of units with complimentary abilities is key to success. Taking fire breathing dragons in to battle can be an awesome prospect until those same dragons burn your front lines to a crisp as they indiscriminately breathe fire on any and all units in their path.
In addition to playing differently, each faction has their own resource needs. These needs can put them directly at odds with some enemy factions while keeping them relatively removed from conflict against other factions that don’t covet the same resource producing locations. Games with factions that aren’t constantly scuffling over resources can lead to epic battles as the various factions are free to gather their desired resources, building massive, powerful armies along the way.
All of these different factors mean that Conquest of Elysium 4 can change significantly game to game, and that there is an absolute plethora of content to explore. Even with a seventy page manual, there are many things that the designers at Illwinter Game Design intentionally left unexplained. They rightly believe that there is joy in discovery and satisfaction to be gained when players are left to figure things out and uncover the hidden depth of the game. This does mean that many games will end in utter failure, especially for players new to the series, but it also proportionally increases the sense of achievement that comes as players learn to effectively reach their goals.
Players seeking out a multiplayer experience are going to have to put even more work into Conquest of Elysium 4. Port forwarding, connecting directly via IP, and the need to communicate using out-of-game methods (especially if playing team games) are the order of the day. Once players are connected, the game experience is relatively smooth, although the game is far more suited to a LAN party than it is to finding random opponents online. The community is small but tight knit, so players who are keen on finding others to play against shouldn’t have too much difficulty. Keep in mind that you will need to connect with other players via forums or the Steam community rather than using in game methods.
Personally, I far prefer playing Conquest of Elysium 4 single player. I love to try new things, I love to tinker with the different factions and, even though I fail far more often than I succeed, I have a ton of fun simply exploring the breadth and depth of what the game has to offer. Conquest of Elysium 4 might not look like much, and it takes time and effort to get in to, but it is a great game, and the payoff is more than worth the investment.
The author reviewed Conquest of Elysium 4 using a PC copy of the game provided by the developer. It is available on PC, Linux and Mac OS X and can be purchased via Steam.
It doesn't look like much and it takes effort to learn, but Conquest of Elysium 4 has a ton to offer. Incredible depth and hours of fun await anyone willing to invest some time into it.