Video games allow us to step into worlds other than our own. Sometimes you want to escape from your normal life, because no matter what your job is, being a master of arcane talents or a pilot of enormous robots packing enough firepower to level a city is infinitely cooler. Autumn Dynasty offers a portal to a semi-fictional reality where men still live by the sword and a timely cavalry charge can mean the difference between glorious victory and the ignobility of pushing the “restart mission” button.
The plot is boilerplate; a rebellion is brewing in a feudal Asian-inspired kingdom. The story is a thin justification for different scenarios for each battle.
The battles take place from a traditional eagle eye view of the terrain which is rendered in an elegantly simple style, though simplicity does not mean inattention to detail. I was particularly impressed by the different types of trees on different maps. Managing a battle is simple to execute; troops can be directed by laying out the route you wish for them to follow with a few quick swipes of a finger. The game is helpful in correcting the path if you try to send them through impassable terrain. Selecting multiple units at a time proved difficult. The input is simple; you draw/paint a circle around the units you wish to command simultaneously. More often than not I found myself instead issuing one unit orders to march in a circle. I quickly leaned to settle for issuing orders to individual groups, but on several occasions the resulting momentary delay in moving my army meant a punishing disadvantage.
Resource management is as essential as ever. Different buildings provide various resources, but the balancing act comes from a scarcity of options; each map has a set number of spots where a player can erect a building.
There are only five unit types, but each boasts special abilities and has its own strengths and weaknesses. Cavalry moves quickly but is all too easily overwhelmed by groups of pikemen backed by archers. Archers can rain down mayhem but are quickly dispatched in melee combat. The key to each battle comes of course from effectively gauging the terrain, your enemy and the needs of the mission. All fairly standard for an FPS. Where the game truly comes alive is in the first few times you put every strategy together to crush the enemy. This isn’t a game like Starcraft where one has a plethora of units with various upgrade paths and research trees to delve into. There are five units total, with two being entirely devoted to ranged attacks. While it may sound like it would make for an extremely limited, boring game, the campaign does a marvelous job through level design and objectives of making you work to bring strategies together. Switching gears from an impenetrable defense to all-out offense is not uncommon. The first time you blunt an enemy’s advance by a coordination of ambushes, withering arrow fire and carefully timed calvalry charges will make you want to cackle in fiendish glee. Just don’t do it on the subway, like I did.
The real kicker is that there aren’t any useless units or abilities and all the special abilities are realistic tactics. Cavalry can set fire to wooded areas, devastating any enemy units hiding there. Pikemen can raise shields in the classic turtle formation, prioritizing defense from archers over attacking power. If you’ve ever read anything that addressed military strategies of the days before firearms, it will be surprisingly useful. The only real complaint I had in my experience was the inability to dictate any sort of formation. If you do manage to group a unit together, the cavalry will outpace the others which isn’t ideal.
To be fair to the developers, part of the reason the campaign feels short is that the game does a fantastic job of drawing you in. It moves at a fast enough pace that restarting a mission due to a major blunder never seems like a waste of time. I often found myself relaunching a level immediately after I’d just completed it in the hopes of an even more decisive victory. The Battle Mode extends the life of the game significantly. Autumn Dynasty has its flaws, but very few of them show up in gameplay. It’s definitely a title for hardcore gamers.