Age of Empires: Mythologies DS Review
With my thumbs and senses still numb from the recent onslaught of hyped holiday releases, I recently found myself happily engaged in an unexpected, more subdued interactive experience. Released way under the radar last month, you wouldn’t know Age of Empires: Mythologies for the Nintendo DS even existed unless you went looking for it. Understandably, it’s difficult for a tiny title to compete for the spotlight when Marcus Fenix and his grunts are soaking up all the attention. Yet, these last couple of weeks—following long days of work and longer nights of holiday preparations—I’ve been trading in my gamepads and comfy chair for a stylus and comfier bed, but still being equally entertained by this little portable gem.
Based on its PC predecessors, Mythologies forgoes much of its real-time strategy roots for a more streamlined, turn-based affair that works near perfectly on the portable. Not unlike the Advance Wars titles, its gameplay is actually steeped more in tactics than strategy, but its one-more-turn addictiveness will be appreciated by anyone who’s played either genre. The lengthy single player mode—expect to put in 15-20 hours—covers Egyptian, Greek, and Norse campaigns, in that order. The first eight Egyptian conflicts do a fantastic job of introducing unseasoned strategists to the basics of the genre, so by the time the Greek campaign is reached they’ll be building armies, managing resources, and unleashing the wrath of mythological gods with the best of them. The great thing, though, is that these early battles are not simply watered down tutorials; those familiar with the genre will still find meaty encounters to sink their teeth into, they’ll just fare much better than those fresh to this sort of cerebral gaming.
Regardless of whether you’ve been positioning units with the savvy of a chess player for years, or you’re the type who cringes at the phrase “resource management”, you’ll find Mythologies’ controls intuitive and gameplay endlessly addictive. The entire experience can be navigated via the stylus, and while it does a damn good job most of the time, there’s some occasional imprecision that’ll have PC players balking and probably sticking to the more reliable face button and d-pad mechanics. I found a combination—moving the map around with the stylus, but making selections with the buttons—to be the best fit. Either way, though, the bottom screen is where the battles unfold, while the top screen hosts all your data, stats, and, when a move has been set, cool action animations of the melee you've just instigated.
The experience is much as you might expect from a tactical title; you’ll build barracks where troops can be trained, harvest food and mine gold, research new technologies—in this case better units or more powerful attacks—and move your tiny titans around a grid-like board attempting to wipe out the opposing army before they crush you. It’s simple on the surface, but the deeper you get the more you’ll count on brains over brawn. Do you use all your food and gold to build a few powerful units, or an entire army of weaker ones? Do you go with badass, battlefield clearing, but expensive god powers, or cheap archers and spearmen that’ll quickly become beast bait? These decisions, and the challenges that hinge on them, ramp up nicely and will bite you in the butt just when you think you’ve got the enemy's forces licked. One late game scenario, where I’d accrued more riches than I knew what to do with, saw me arrogantly building a massive army of unbeatable units. The problem, however, was that I underestimated the opposing army’s speed and determination, so, while my “unbeatables” were still training in the barracks, the bad guys were burning down my city. By the time I was ready to fight, I had nothing left to defend. The thing is, you won’t mind re-experiencing these more brain-taxing moments because coming up with an entirely new, and hopefully successful, strategy is where the real fun is derived.
The actual gameplay’s very similar to 2006’s Age of Empires: The Age of Kings, also for the DS. However, Mythologies far outshines that entry in terms of visual presentation and detailed animations. Seeing that it rolls out some slick battle scenes on the top screen, it could've easily gotten away with keeping things static on the lower display. But instead, it adds tons of tiny details and eye-catching touches to the mini battlefield, that will often steer your attention away from the action unfolding up top; the stinging tails of scorpion men, buzzing swarms of locusts, swishing sphinx tails, and charging minotaurs are just a few of the nicely implemented touches that come alive on the touch screen. Even simpler things, though, like clear differentiation between the tiny units and their positions on the map add so much to a genre that’s often criticized for offering more substance than style.
Of course, the whole “mythologies” thing is also largely responsible for the game’s appeal; controlling god powers, monsters, and beasts right out of Clash of the Titans certainly ups the coolness quotient. In fact, while the gameplay alone would’ve kept me glued until the final arrow was slung, waiting to see what type of fanged, winged, or fire-spitting baddie I’d unlock next also kept me taking another turn when I really should have been going to sleep. Witness your god-powered floods swallow up the land and the enemies who inhabit it, and believe me, you’ll want to keep playing until you unlock the “earthquake” ability to see what kind of devastation it’s capable of. Additionally, the option to research and obtain these different units and powers will ensure you play through the campaign at least one more time, as you can’t possess all the cool toys in a single playthrough. And you can always count on this series tempting you to “age up”, entering a new era of advanced units and abilities (i.e. gaining cooler items to clear the battlefields with).
What struck me most about Mythologies refined mechanics and excellent presentation was that it was all happening on the DS. Sure, longtime fans of this genre will no doubt find faults when comparing the experience to its PC counterparts, but they’ll soon realize these flaws are a small price to pay when you consider this genre can be enjoyed, to this quality-pushing extent, in the palm of their hand. And those new to Age of Empires brand of play should find it the perfect way to introduce them to a genre they may have previously been reluctant to try. At $30 I found the solo campaign worth every gold piece, but those looking to extend the tactical fun can play with up to four fellow strategists online, or enjoy single and multiple cartridge play locally. When you’ve gotten your fill of saving our world and all those fictional ones in this season’s blockbusters, find some time to wield the powers of ancient gods in this tiny title that packs big, addictive fun.