Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin demo review | Fancy sword and magical board

I was there when Kirby slew Warhammer Fantasy. I may not have been in the room when it was all decided, but I was mad when Brettonia died off screen and I was online when points were eliminated. It was heartbreaking to see an old and flavorful setting be replaced with Sigmarines fighting Khorne Blood-blooders forever. Age of Sigmar (the game) and Mortal Realms (the setting) have changed much since then – and my opinion hasn’t remained inflexible. With that said, what did I take away from playing Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin demo? 

I’m going to assume that anyone reading this already knows what Mortal Realms are in general terms, so I’ll skip swiftly to the plot of the game. Igrun is the leader of the Hammers of Sigmar detachment sent to secure Harkanibus, a Dawnbringer settlement that is tragically slowly dying (aren’t they all). She leads her shiny boys into the surrounding Ghurish swamps to search for a magical artifact. But danger lurks ahead in the form swamp orcs, ghosts and magical cults (not appearing in the demo). 

Trippin’ the realms

Recently, I have stabilized my position on Age of Sigmar to be “I’d play games in the setting, but I won’t play the game itself.” I really tried getting into it. I was dutifully assembling and painting Stormcast way back, tried a few demo games, even played the AoS kill-team thing. All my experience showed me that as far as fantasy mass battle rulesets go, it does absolutely nothing I want from the genre. Too simple in some places, complicated in others for no benefit – just not what I want.

In the end, I’m less mad about that than about 40K since the ruleset isn’t holding hostage the setting I’m passionate.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar Realms of Ruin demo - Igrun summons some lightning with his banner while the Stormcast look on
Iden here acts like an orbital deep strike beacon.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin demo solidified my opinion – or port it to video games. If the game’s good, I’ll play it in Mortal Realms. I’ll happily command any Stormhost you want, just make it good and make it fun. I’ll play a CRPG if someone adapts Soulbound just like Rogue Trader is getting adapted. I’ll play your not-God-of-War with a Seraphon main character and I’ll play your not-Space-Marine with a Stormcast. Just make it good. 

And when it comes to that, Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin demo shows a decent attempt to follow the best ideas out there. I’d trace its lineage back to Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, though Dawn of War 2 is probably the more apt comparison. It is an RTS with the absolute minimum of base-building. You don’t mine resources but fight over map areas/nodes granting you income. The nodes themselves allow you to construct specialized outposts: some improve your resource generation, others act as forward reinforcement points and so on.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar Realms of Ruin - Drakonith guard engages some orcish pseudodogs next to ruined circle
All look like fairly non-descript circular ruins!

And though it all, you’re training squads of troops as well as individual heroes. They will march onto the battlefield from your base – and if ordered to retreat, will run back there for free healing and reinforcement. You can also research upgrades for your units – sometimes picking between two mutually-exclusive ones.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin demo 1E Errata and FAQ and Designer Commentary

The battles themselves are fairly simple. Units fall largely into a rock-paper-scissors class ranking, so try to match them to your tactical benefit: aggressors beat defenders, defenders beat ranged, and ranged beats aggressors.. Flanking, outnumbering, presenting an orderly line – none of that matters. In fact, it matters even less than in the physical game: in AoS, players have to worry about weapon ranges as well as all sorts of auras. 

In the grand GW tradition, morale isn’t a thing in Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin, so units get stuck in and fight to the death. You can make them retreat – this isn’t free and fleeing units aren’t invulnerable, but they leg it back to the base fast and are immune to knockdown. 

Warhammer Age of Sigmar Realms of Ruin demo - two Stormcast Pathfinders fight some sort of ugly lizard-dog
That Wild Gnashtooth is ready to give its life for Gork and Mork. Investigators would later uncover that it often pawed at far-Morkish realmstone tables.

With morale not a consideration and any sort of tactical nuance not appearing in this movie, what you’re left to worry with are unit abilities. Probably the most interesting thing about it is that while units all come with at least a single toggleable ability each, their use isn’t free. 

Just like in Dawn of War, you have two global resources to manage. Here, both of them play into unit abilities. Anything straight-forward as retreating costs command points. Fancier stuff like the Pathfinders’ Hidden Paths (read: stealth movement) to draconic breath requires Realmstone – a resource that’s harder to collect. So your economy not only determines your ability to put bodies on the field, but also keeping them there (as well as removing opposing bodies). 

Warhammer Age of Sigmar Realms of Ruin demo - Iden and a wizard in the foreground, Retributor with his wings lit up in the bamcground
Luckily for us, flying units take off and land via Command Point expenditure. If we could brook grenades costing ammo in Company of Heroes, we can probably allow this as well.

Not very (Idoneth) deep(kin) of you, gameplay

Unfortunately, at least the Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin demo seemed reliant on microing those abilities to have any sort of depth in combat. When the best you can do outside of engaged melee is to send sword guy to beat up the shield guy, you need all the help you can get. 

But it’s not an interesting sort of depth! Liberators, for example, always want to have their shield ability up to increase their survivability. You always want your Lady-Celestant to have her aggression boost on since it makes killing the enemy faster. There’s no reason not to have the Heraldor guy be waving his flag around since it brings healing and reinforcement right into the fight. Not the most riveting sort of stuff.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar Realms of Ruin - Sigrun in her golden Sigmarine plate on the left, Iden with his super large banner to the right, here they are, Liberators between the two
One of the most important of Dawn of War/Company of Heroes influences is the amazing detail level on zoom-in

Thus I am almost immediately reminded of the previous best try to make adapt the Dawn of War/Company of Heroes model to sword-and-board: Ancestors Legacy. It also had rock-paper-scissors, but a deeper system of six or so classes, with only some being a hard counter to others. It also had flanking, outnumbering and planting guys on the likely path of enemy retreat to cut them down as they run. Units could also level-up, which increased your incentive to keep them from getting wiped out.

It also featured livelier maps. The resource nodes were actual villages, with peasants who would go about their work gathering resources or run around and get slaughtered if invaded. Now, these kinds of pastoral scenes would be out of place in Mortal Realms, where anything not claimed by Cities of Sigmar is ether a patch of malicious shrubs or a degenerate Chaos worshipper tribe. But Ghur is supposed to be a realm so bestial that mountains try to eat each other. The maps, however, don’t show any of that dynamism. At best, you see some toothy plants, scattered bones of giant creatures and a few fleshy growths here and there. 

Each pixel bears the rune of Grugni!

I guess that is kind of a shame because Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin demo is otherwise visually great. For one, the developers understood the first commandment of Dawn of War/Company of Heroes: in-engine cutscenes. None of that pre-rendered drivel, no slightly-moving-2D-image garbage. Just Stormcast stomping around in their bulky armor, looking cool as shit. The helmetless heroes look great and even the faceless dudes have their moments, like when a Retributor engages his wings to give a mage a lift down a steep hill. Neuron activation achieved – I want to play as these plate armored dudes.  

Warhammer Age of Sigmar Realms of Ruin demo - wizard on the left, glowing inverted pyramid-like artifact in the middle, our stormcast heroes in the back.
If a foe that attacked without provocation – or explanation – uses their last breath to cryptically hint that they were trying to prevent you from reaching a cursed item, roll up a newspaper and hit the writer on the head.

Plus, while it’s not seen in the demo, one of the release promises is that you’ll be able to switch whether your Liberators appear in the classic lumpy potatomen plate or the slimmer Thunderstrike armor. Glad to see that the devs (and maybe even GW itself) understand that the old Liberators never looked that graceful and a digital resculpt will do them good. Who knows, it may even be a stealth marketing trick for a re-release of the physicial models.

Demo good

All in all, Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin demo left a good enough impression. It’s not exactly what I want from a fantasy RTS, but I’ve certainly seen worse examples. I bet it’s going to be a whole lot of fun when it comes out, especially with access to the army painter feature. I only wish that the new Cities of Sigmar range was in, but considering how fragile they’re supposed to be when compared to an Eternal, playing them would just be sad. 

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