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Age of Wonders 4: Empires & Ashes DLC review – the smell of Frostfire in the morning

Empires & Ashes concludes a strong year for Triumph Studios
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A sickly green fog has covered the plain surrounded by a dense jungle, where some trees have been engulfed by a magical fire that’s both too hot and too cold to endure. Warriors stand trapped between the ill vapors and the flames, feeling the weakening effects of the air they’re breathing.

On the other side of the plain, my army advances: Mercenaries clad in the stylish morions of the conquistadors and wielding pikes with an explosive load below the blade are in the front rank – they are to absorb the charge and then use their abilities to push the foe back into fog and flame. Behind them, soldiers carrying heavy magelocks are coming up – these ranged weapons fire slowly, but their destructive power and range are unmatched. Wielding repeating crossbows armed with poisoned bolts, specialized Afflictors march in support. And in the center of the army rolls its great pride, an Ironclad wrought of steel, fire, and magic, which can pulverize entire formations with its shots. All troops have some sort of antenna coming out from a metal plate inserted in their heads – they advance as one, undeterred by any ambushes that may be on the way, for they all share their senses. Not that the enemy can try anything with artillery pinning them in their precarious position.

Jungle warfare is a piece of cake for my cybernetically enhanced bird conquistadors, who have definitely never heard of the restrictions put on the use of poison gas in warfare.

Age of Wonders 4 Empires & Ashes artwork.

Welcome to the jungle!

Technology has come to the magical sword and sorcery setting of Age of Wonders 4 in its new DLC, Empires & Ashes. Containing four additional Tomes of Magic and a Culture, the expansion pack has a great many new options for players in store, mostly centered around the fusion of tech and magic – and what a great theme that is!

The Reaver Culture has a conquistador aesthetic and fields gun-wielding units like Magelocks and Dragoons. Based around marking their targets and taking them down with concentrated firepower, they play great as a defensively-minded faction that methodically grinds down the enemy. They can also subdue enemy units by capturing them in battle, reinforcing their own ranks with their former foes as they drive deep into enemy territory and explore new regions. They can also bring artillery to bear during battles. Their own cities spew smog into the air as their crucibles produce war machines and equipment. Want to roleplay the Chaos Dwarfs from Warhammer in Age of Wonders 4? That’s what you have to choose, then.

I would, however, not recommend playing as Dwarves, because Empires & Ashes has a much cooler species in tow: Avians. You can customize them with a large variety of different patterns and colors as well as different beaks and mohawks. Their feathery backs tend to clip through capes, but that’s a price worth paying for drip.

Age of Wonders 4 Avian ruler with a bear mount.

Different types of bears may now be used as mounts. Heroes can be equipped with rifles and pistols.

Speaking of faction creation, the free update coming for all players with Empires & Ashes has changed how trait selection works, which is now closer to something like Stellaris – you have a point budget to purchase traits with, allowing you to focus on a few strengths or spread your wings a bit further, depending on what you’re looking for.

Empires & Ashes’ new Tomes of Magic are pretty awesome as well. The Tome of Alchemy, a Tier 1 option, contains the Afflictor unit, which can spread poison and weakening vapor with its repeating crossbows, as well as spells that afflict enemies with negative status effects. It even has a new Siege Project, allowing you to open your assault with a gas attack.

At Tier 2, the new Tome of the Construct comes into play, allowing you to further deepen a style of play centered around units like golems. A new Minor Race Transformation allows you to link up the minds of your people with their Constructs when they’re standing side-by-side, making them immune to flanking attacks – now that is juicy!

Age of Wonders 4 Ironclad attacking a walled settlement.

Say hello to your new favorite unit, the Ironclad.

The Tome of the Dreadnought at Tier 3 brings another fantastic Siege Project with it, namely the ability to construct a giant Siege Bombard that blasts through enemy troops and defenses. You’ll also be able to build the Ironclad, a steamtank that can choose from different ammunition types, and gain access to various spells enhancing the effectiveness of Constructs.

The final fresh book, the Tome of Severing, counters factions that are heavily reliant on magic and summoning – one of its Unit Enchantments, Disrupting Blades, allows all of your troops to cancel magic effects with their attacks. Containing the Severing Golem, a new Tier 5 unit, as well as several anti-magic spells, this book is perfect for dealing with pesky wizards and showing them that technology is the way forward. Plenty of cool gameplay and role-playing options here.

For those wanting more narrative content, Empires & Ashes comes with a new mini-campaign as well as a hefty package of additional narrative events that can pop up in your sandbox games. With a total of 18 additional units, some of which are included in the free update, fresh buildings, spells, and other toys, this is a substantial content expansion for Age of Wonders 4.

Age of Wonders 4 city of the Reaver Culture.

Reavers plant their factory cities into any environment to feed the war machine.

A familiar victory mechanic, the Seals of Power victory, returns with this DLC as well. It requires you to capture and hold certain areas of the map to claim supremacy.

Completing this fantastic package is another feature added for free, the Item Forge. This allows you to fuse equipment for your heroes with a new resource you can acquire. Triumph elegantly weaves the existing magic resources you find on the map into this mechanic, allowing you to add extra effects to your gear depending on which resources you have access to – a great way to make access to as many of these as possible through expansion or trade more important.

I’ve only scratched the surface of new combinations and playthroughs you can do thanks to this fresh content, and I can’t wait to dive into even more – a Reaver culture led by a greedy dragon perhaps? A High culture faction transcending the constraints of the flesh and fully giving itself to divinity by becoming a construct race? The possibilities are endless!

Age of Wonders 4 was already a fantastic base game and the Dragon Dawn DLC added quite a few neat elements. The Empires & Ashes DLC goes further, making substantial additions to gameplay that are themed superbly, greatly enhancing the role-playing aspect as well.

Age of Wonders 4: Empires & Ashes is a fantastic conclusion to an incredible year for Triumph Studios.

Platform tested: PC.

Age of Wonders 4: Dragon Dawn is available on November 7, 2023, on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X|S as a standalone DLC or as part of the Expansion Pass.

*We’ve opted for a recommendation system instead of a scoring system for singular Age of Wonders 4 DLC packs and are aiming to provide a scored review for the entire Expansion Pass once all of its parts are available.