An unfinished kingdom-in-process

The sequel to the hit real-time strategy game Autumn Dynasty, Autumn Dynasty Warlords carries some great expectations on its shoulders. And it seems to meet them quite handily at first – but the deeper you dig into it, the more it becomes apparent that this game isn’t quite ready for prime-time.

Autumn Dynasty Warlords is set in a fictionalized ancient China, in which you play as one of several regional warlords vying for control of the country. Each has his or her own particular strengths and weaknesses, plus a unique military unit and an officer who can be sent on special military or diplomatic missions. Beginning with a single province, you must build your armies, conquer neutral provinces, engage or defeat your fellow rulers, and ultimately declare yourself Grand Poobah of the Middle Kingdom.

Autumn Dynasty Warlords

Provincial management is very simple, as each province has just one city and their boundaries are preset. You can build various structures and upgrade them through five levels, but each city holds only a small number of buildings – sometimes as few as two or three – so you’ll need to be careful about what you build. Military units can only be raised in provinces in which the city has an appropriate training facility, but population growth and tax income are best supported with “civilian” buildings. You’ll also want to maintain high levels of order and alertness to keep your kingdom happy and prosperous by keeping a lid on bandits, placing sentries, and if you can afford the space, building constabularies and palaces.

Once created, armies can be moved in whole or in part from province to province and require no special facilities to maintain. You don’t need to worry about feeding your people, either; farms encourage growth but your population is quite capable of taking care of itself, leaving you to handle the big decisions. The only resource you’ll need to worry about is gold, required in abundant quantities to raise armies and upgrades your cities.

It’s a very simple, bare-bones empire management simulator, spiced up by the occasional executive decision that must be made about matters like relations with various non-aligned factions, dealing with bandits, or what to do with a captured spy. Diplomatic options are sometimes also available, allowing you to establish friendly relations, trade, or even military alliances with other warlords – or to engage in skulduggery, if that’s your thing. New officers will show up now and then and offer to join your ranks, allowing you to exert more behind-the-scenes muscle, as will bands of mercenaries, who can provide specialized unit types you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

Autumn Dynasty Warlords

The focus of the game, however, is clearly on the battlefield. Unfortunately, this is also where things get problematic. The Autumn Dynasty Warlords tactical interface is simple and intuitive, allowing you to tap and drag to draw paths for individual units, or circle and then move them as a group. There are relatively few unit types and battles are typically limited to just six or eight of them per side, and while there is often a time limit of only a few minutes, it’s usually more than enough to get the job done, a testament to its relative lack of sophistication.

But that simplicity comes at a cost, because aside from a small number of unit-specific special abilities that are acquired as they gain experience, there’s no way to issue orders more complex than “March toward the enemy.” Units have rock/paper/scissors-style strengths and weaknesses, but ordering even slightly complicated maneuvers is an experience in frustration. You can’t send horsemen out on a sweeping arc and have them strike an enemy formation from behind, for instance, because as soon as you’ve lifted your finger from the screen, the arc snaps into a straight, shortest-route-possible line from your unit to the enemy’s. The only option is to issue multiple separate, non-stackable commands, which completely negates the intended simplicity of the controls.

Autumn Dynasty Warlords

Worse are the bugs. Enemy ranged units often seem perfectly happy to sit and watch battles unfold without firing a shot, while the prompt to let you decide what to do with captured spies never actually appears, presumably meaning that they’ll spend the rest of their days sitting in awkward silence in your throne room, waiting for something to happen. One mission type requires you to move your forces from the bottom of the screen to the top without being destroyed by the enemy, yet while I was able to do so successfully five separate times, in four of those instances the game counted it as a defeat and I lost the unit, despite it being untouched. In another instance, my troops chased the last surviving enemy to the upper-right corner of the screen; but then, having reached it, it carried on into the great black void beyond. My forces couldn’t pursue beyond the borders of the map, and so while there was nothing left on the field but my army, I was stuck until I surrendered, losing the battle and all the units that took part in it.

It was at this time that my interest started to wane, not just because of the bugs but because there just wasn’t enough to it to hold my attention. The multiple mission types during an invasion are a good example of the reality not living up to the billing: Whether you choose to recon an area or launch a frontal assault, the objective is always the same – wipe out all enemy forces. You’ll sometimes have to defend against attacking enemies but the tactical limitations of the game make those battles dull affairs (put everyone in a block at the center of the screen and make sure nobody wanders off), and sneaking past enemy lines is a matter of simply using your fastest unit and hoping it registers properly when you cross the finish.

Autumn Dynasty Warlords

Unlike its predecessor, there’s no plot to the game to speak of, and the multiplayer component is gone too – it’s strictly a solo affair. Rather amazingly, there’s also no tutorial or help function; a tutorial option can be toggled at the start of the game but all it does is pop up a very basic description of each control or feature the first time you access it, with no way to bring it back if you happen to forget something.

I didn’t play Autumn Dynasty but our review was positively effusive, which leads me to the obvious question: What went wrong here? It’s clearly not a rushed sequel, since the original came out almost two full years ago; yet Warlords feels so much smaller than its forebear, and the bugs and glitches can’t be overlooked. With work, Autumn Dynasty Warlords could be a really good game – the watercolor-style graphics are fantastic and the control scheme would be very impressive with a few tweaks – but as it stands, it comes off as more like a beta release: Full of potential but still in need of work.