After years of constant warfare, my orcish hordes were on the precipice of victory. Countless nations fell beneath the tread of their boots as they subjugated all manner of fantastical races. In their quest to conquer the unhallowed–an evil empire of the dead–the orcs had brought every mountain and every shore under their control. They had harvested every crop, mined every ore, and collected every artifact they found on their campaign. Yet, something was missing: despite being at the height of their power, these orcs had become wracked with boredom
Despite the fantastical premise, Worlds of Magic commits too many cardinal sins to count. As a game of fanciful wizards and creatures, you’d expect it to be vibrant and alluring. Instead, its landscapes wholly lack imagination. The excitement of battle is ground to excruciating tedium, buried under mindless tasks and micromanagement. Worlds of Magic can’t even claim a decent feeling of progression or power escalation–a key piece of any proper 4X strategy game–to drive engagement. The result is a tepid mélange of half-baked ideas and pointless hindrances.
These soldiers are literally fighting on tar.
Worlds of Magic begins, as these affairs so often do, with you selecting a civilization to lead to victory. The choices seem diverse enough. Standard humans, elves, orcs, and dwarves are there, as well as dragon people, insects, and the undead legions. The potential breadth of play styles should be a great platform upon which to build a game, but here it just isn’t. Except for the unhallowed, none of these races has anything unique about how it plays. No matter whom you pick, the similarities are too obvious, slashing potential replayability and depth.
After picking your race, you select a sorcerer lord to lead your armies. You may choose a pre-built one with specialized traits, or you can create your own and customize him a bit, though either way, your choices lack impact or import. I, for example, chose as my first leader R’jak, a powerful lich. By his description, he should be a powerful undead monstrosity with an abject hatred for everything living. In play, he’s like any other leader, custom or not: He has a few spells that do a little damage, and a few more with minor utility. The problem here is twofold. Firstly, leader choice is disconnected from race selection, so it’s weird but possible to have an army of normal humans led by an undead warlock. Secondly, many of the sorcerer lords have plenty of overlapping spells, again diminishing the effect of picking any one for his specific powers or abilities and robbing him of any uniqueness. Instead of playing the strengths of the undead against R’jak, they each need to be able to function independently for the sake of balance. That leaves either choice without any personality of its own.
Most of your time with Worlds of Magic is spent managing resources, building up your armies, and conquering. In an ideal world, these separate systems would work together to create new opportunities for players to flex their tactical muscles. At every conceivable turn, however, Worlds of Magic finds a way to strip every intricate layer strategy game designers have implemented over decades’ worth of genre evolution.
Because even on a world of sand, we need oceans… made out of sand.
Cities are at the heart of Worlds of Magic. They are your only means of border expansion, production, and resource generation. Cities are also the source of most of the problems. In a normal 4X game, cities are somewhat malleable. You found them, build a few structures or improvements nearby, and tailor them to what you need at any given point. Worlds of Magic doesn’t permit such flexibility, however. You still found cities wherever you please, but their borders never expand, you can’t construct any tile improvements, and you can’t micromanage any piece of them beyond how many citizens are dedicated to food, production, or research. City buildings also follow a complex unlock tree that require you to build too many structures that don’t relate to your chosen focus. It is feasible, for example, to build a city near a rare resource and then push a city towards economic output. Doing so, however, requires that you build structures that offer no benefit beyond unlocking buildings that you need, making them effective dead weight.
This also only serves to highlight another of the game’s fundamental flaws: There’s no associated cost with having dozens or even hundreds of settlements. Your citizens build up a degree of unhappiness, but it’s a local issue and not tied into a single global resource, like happiness, that you need to manage. Moreover, if you don’t maintain positive food and gold income at all times, your units begin to disband and your buildings are decommissioned. Since cities usually generate positive income, and since the number of municipalities you control is your sole production cap, the whole system forms a disastrous feedback loop. You build more cities so you can build more settlers so you can build more cities. In each of those new towns, you erect the same buildings and manage them in the same way. This is one of the only consistently viable ways to win, but it also means burdening yourself with tons of repetitive work wholly devoid of actual strategizing.
I found myself wanting to quit games not because I didn’t have the ability to win, but because it had become a chore to manage it all. What’s worse is that tedious management is so critical in the early game, it was common for me to skip 50 turns or more just waiting for my population to build up. That’s not OK: It’s grinding without any tangible reward. Most turns should somehow require your attention so that you are engaged and invested. Tellingly, I made a macro to auto-skip turns while I walked off to go make myself dinner. And again, I stress this is the most successful strategy in Worlds of Magic, by far. The other main option is to build units and construct buildings early on, but the upkeep cripples your resource production, making you decommission units you just ordered. The whole thing is an absolute mess.
After a while, the game just starts naming cities “ORCS1,” “ORCS2,” etc.
In what must have been an attempt to make these worlds seem denser and more interesting, the land is dotted with swarms of high-level monsters. They don’t spew forth and attack you, but they’re intended to be among the first things you find on any given map. They often have valuable treasure or can net you a powerful monster of your own. Because they are so well-guarded, you can’t do anything with them until the mid-to-late game, so they sit there, taking up space. Your only other opponents are AI-controlled races and countries. Given that there are at most seven of them scattered across several planes which, in turn, can only be accessed via special portals containing the same high-level monsters, there’s nothing to do in the early game. Over time, your units get stronger and you get better, but for that to be satisfying, you need an idea of your early limitations. Worlds of Magic trades that for a mad rush to the late game so you can do anything of note, and problematically, those late-game units need more gold and food for upkeep, reinforcing the city grind.
An alleged selling point of Worlds of Magic is its tactical battle system. Should two opposing units meet, you jump into a turn-based tactical mode to maneuver your troops around. Battles are functional, but together, the tactical system and strategic one kill Worlds of Magic’s pace. It’s nice to defend a city against an attack with only a handful of troops and some clever positioning, but tactical battles require you to take five or ten minutes away from a game already bogged down by the worst kind of micromanagement. There is an auto-resolve feature that helps with the monotony, but it does a poor job of actually mimicking the results you would expect to see should you manage these battles on your own. In my testing, I found that even when I had many more units of ranks far higher than my enemy’s, I would often inexplicably lose fights. Granted, choosing auto-resolve means playing the percentages, but when two basic enemy soldiers defeat five or ten veterans, there’s a problem.
Worlds of Magic doesn’t just have issues with its strategy mechanics, either. It suffers from an array of bugs, glitches, and crashes, and its frequent texture pop-in makes it an absolute eyesore. During some of the tactical sections, maps fail to load entirely. On at least four occasions, my computer locked up and I had to restart the machine. Countless tiny bugs can also cause certain attacks to miss, actions to not work, and the user interface to become completely unresponsive.
Sometimes, the map won’t even load in.
I could forgive some, though not all, of these issues if Worlds of Magic had something intriguing to show. Part of the appeal of fantasy worlds and settings is that they show you the special, the unreal. Worlds of Magic only ever offers the mundane. In Worlds of Magic, there are several magical races strewn across disparate worlds, each with its own governing element. The leaders of these races are powerful wizards that bring world-buckling sorts of magic to bear on their foes. These sorcerers are a force unto themselves, and they dominate everything. The premise plants the proper seeds for an enchanting adventure, but Worlds of Magic doesn’t cultivate them. As one of these grand wizards, your spells are feeble at best, and every plane–no matter the element–features similar mountains, oceans, and other topological features. Yes, the shadow plane uses tar pits instead of water, but that’s nothing more than a palette swap. In contrast, Warlock and Warlock 2 have the same structure and purpose as Worlds of Magic, but they are executed with far more skill. Warlock’s plane of life has tiles that heal you and weaken the undead. The plane of fire has dozens of volcanoes and lava that have real effects on how you play. Your spells, too, can reshape vast swaths of land, raising valleys or wiping away mountains. In that series, there exists a sense of agency that unfolds as you explore the bizarre settings.
Worlds of Magic has none of that mystery. Its fantasy world is undercut by bland artistic direction and a lack of conviction. Choices about your leader and civilization that should matter lack weight in favor of same-ish armies and leaders that blend together. Grand-scale strategy that should make any player feel powerful, or at the least clever, gives way to the dullest slog. Worlds of Magic tries to mimic the cleverness of its superiors, but reaches far beyond its ability to perform.