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Grimdark RTS Age of Darkness: Final Stand throws thousands against your frail walls

Merciless foes in the dark promise a punishing yet satisfying challenge

Leave the doormat outside long enough in Age Of Darkness: Final Stand and you might not live to see the morning. If the game’s grimdark aesthetic didn’t warn you, here’s another from me directly: this game is brutal. Be mentally prepared to start over, over and over again. The “one more round” syndrome is strong with this mashup of tower defense and strategy.

The game’s premise is simple: survive. While the standard survival mode is challenging enough to warrant hours of gameplay, Age Of Darkness’s modifiers let you amp up the carnage for a nightmarish good time. See those little creatures all over your screen like bees in an unstable hive? Now picture building a settlement over them.

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Known as Nightmares, these monsters come in all shapes and sizes, growing bold and lethal at night. Unlike most strategy titles, these creatures don’t need siege equipment to knock down buildings in seconds, and unfortunately walls and towers don’t fare well in the durability department either. Fortunately, it’s not just Nightmares vs. defenseless buildings. In a callback to Blizzard games of yore, Age Of Darkness gives you a powerful hero with plenty of toys. While a dude with a flaming sword and a woman who can summon guards in an instant aren’t the best fantasy archetypes, Age Of Darkness’s latest expansion promises a hero corrupted by the very essence that hurls Nightmares at your walls. These heroes level up and gain new skills as they clear out waves of grisly Nightmares. Lose them and you’ll have to sit through a timer and stick to mortal fodder to defend your encampment.

Speaking of mortal fodder, villagers are everything in Age Of Darkness — they build, gather resources, and form your troops. You don’t control them directly, but you do control who works in fishing wharves and quarries. But remember — villagers run defensive towers and bear arms as well. Your villager supply (determined by houses and food) is split across defensive and production buildings. Fragile production buildings that need to be optimally placed next to resource spots round off the game’s choices in driving expansion. Build in too many directions and you’ll have a hard time defending your resources come nightfall. Miscalculations and assumptions are deadly in Age Of Darkness: Final Stand.

The game tosses you headfirst into Death Nights, climatic encounters caused by the explosion of eerie dark crystals across the map that also serve as endgame upgrade fuel. While regular nights reward nighttime exploration, Death Nights treat you to random Malice debuffs, and end only after you’ve cleared waves of creatures amidst health-draining fog. Survive enough of them and you’ll finish the game. The final Death Night lobs thousands of Nightmares at your base from all sides, so you have to make every nail-biting second count.

A Death Night is announced a day in advance, but knowing the path its Nightmares will take is crucial to survival. I’ve lost several rounds by assuming the enemies' chokepoint of choice and building defenses on the wrong side of the lawn. But if you live through a Death Night you’ll be rewarded with a Blessing, a boon that lasts for the entire round. Malice and Blessings ensure that no two playthroughs are the same; they’re potent enough to level or raise the battle tempo on demand. Years of Age Of Empires and StarCraft experience meant that I had to unlearn old ideas while learning new ones. While collecting food, wood, stone, and iron aren’t new, Age Of Darkness places important restrictions on them. Time is the game’s most vital resource, with players being able to pause the game and micromanage as needed. And you’ll want to pause this game often. Careless expansion without prior planning will rob you of more than a few limbs at night.

The towers at your disposal in Age Of Darkness: Final Stand are garden variety ones that populate most tower defense games. You’ve got your regular towers to stuff with archers, ballistae towers, and flame belchers that deal area-of-effect damage. While walls last longer than your quarries in an assault, they don’t have the staying power of walls commonly found in strategy games.

Unlike towers, troops in Age Of Darkness can become "emboldened" after battles, raising their stats and protecting them from Horror. In turn, horror inflicted by special Nightmares can be warded away by building fire scones and beacons as you expand across the map. The tools that protect your camp aren’t the most diverse bunch in videogame history, but your troops serve their purpose well, with decent pathfinding and reliable attack animations. You’re given the standard fare of archers and swordsmen at first. A tech tree lets you unlock more powerful arbalests and shield-toting combatants. A siege workshop offers flame-spewing machines and catapults that can switch to a more potent siege mode. Remember that these units cost you resources even when they’re idle. I’m not saying they need to be sent packing after each Death Night but it’s an economic factor worth considering.

While Age Of Darkness: Final Stand gets a lot right, I wish there were more maps and biomes to duel it out with Nightmare variants. Picture beings with icy breath and creatures who can summon sand dunes; potential expansion ideas, certainly, but the vanilla experience could use some more flavor. The devs’ roadmap shows promise, with campaign and multiplayer components on their way. Perhaps they’ll do a better job explaining the lore of Age Of Darkness and the disarray of its inhabitants.

Age Of Darkness: Final Stand doesn’t go toe to toe against mainstay strategy titles, but Publisher Team17 know their fiendish crusade isn’t for the faint of heart. Death comes swiftly and often but it brings lessons as well. With solid replayability thanks to its modifiers and an unrelenting enemy, Age Of Darkness carves a place for itself in a niche long thought to be dead. For those willing to brave its Death Nights, Age of Darkness promises to meet them halfway with a ballista ballet.

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