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Follow-up acts are hard; follow-up acts a full nineteen years after the first are particularly hard, more so when the first is so revered. King of Dragon Pass was a commercial failure back in 1999, but its utterly daring artistic vision led to it becoming a cult classic with a loyal fan base, including yours truly. It was a unique mix of fantasy RPG, strategy, resource management and Choose Your Own Adventure, lovingly portrayed through hundreds of illustrations and several fat fantasy novels’ worth of text. It re-emerged and achieved success as a handheld game on the iPhone in 2011, which in turn led to the development of a long-awaited spiritual sequel, Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind. I stress the phrase “spiritual” sequel – you can absolutely jump into this without having played King of Dragon Pass. I’ll also mention from the outset that I was given a free copy by the developers in exchange for an honest review.

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Like its predecessor, Six Ages is set in Glorantha, a role-playing world developed by anthropologists and historians in the 1960s as a specific counter to the Tolkien-derived generica that was already becoming dominant in fantasy; a marvellous setting with a rich backdrop of cross-cultural lore, mythology and religion. You’re in charge of a clan of about six or seven hundred people who have recently migrated to a new land, trying to settle in amongst their new neighbours, some of whom are culturally similar to you and some of whom are terrifying monsters.

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You control the clan’s agriculture, trade, diplomacy, military raids, magic, exploration and a dozen other things, plus handle the random events which occur regularly, ranging from things as mundane as legal disputes or a falconry contest to totally bonkers stuff like flying skeleton birds or the ghosts of your ancestors demanding vengeance against their killers. You’ll be presented with multiple options and your advisors (who appear at the bottom of the screen and are active characters within the game’s story – fighting, exploring, ageing and dying) will suggest options you might take based on their own expertise, opinion and quite often their own prejudices or agendas. Six Ages very firmly slots into the category of strategy games in which there isn’t always a right or wrong decision, but every decision you make is impactful: everything is counted in the behind-the-scenes tally of how much another clan likes you or how strong your battle magic is or how displeased the gods may be with you.

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Comparing it directly to King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages comes up shinier in a number of ways. Firstly, the decision to keep about 90% of the gameplay system fundamentally the same – the raiding, sacrificing to the gods, keeping track of cows and goods – is a sound one. King of Dragon Pass was a brilliant game. What made it brilliant was its utter dedication to setting, story and worldbuilding, and all that a fan could ask for is a fresh setting and a fresh story. Six Ages delivers this in spades, while also implementing an interesting fundamental change which long-time players of the game will appreciate: you no longer play as the Viking-esque Orlanthi, but rather their long-standing enemies and rivals in King of Dragon Pass, the horse-centric Riders. What at first appears to be window dressing is revealed in short order to be quite clever: the Orlanthi are not merely distant enemies the way the Riders were in King of Dragon Pass, but active clans dotted across the map, whom you can directly raid, trade with, send diplomatic missions to, etc. In King of Dragon Pass, everybody – even the duck people – were Orlanthi. Six Ages has a more split and more volatile political situation, and it’s a clever move by the developers to put you in the shoes of the first game’s enemy, so to speak.

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There are further mechanical tweaks which greatly benefit the game: more transparency in some of the gameplay effects, for example, with the main screen reminding you when you have things like “raiding omen” (the gods said not to raid this year) or “morale stress” (the people are pissed off you took in refugees). This is a handy reminder if you come back to the game a few hours or days after not playing, and I imagine it’s helpful for new players, considering the game’s steep learning curve. Six Ages is also fully compatible with VoiceOver, which I understand makes it completely accessible for visually impaired players.

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In comparing it to King of Dragon Pass, however – and every fan of that game will – the game does literally come up short in one aspect. I beat it on my first time playing, in about 35 in-game years, and found the main storyline to be both quicker and easier than that of King of Dragon Pass. This doesn’t really matter, given how rich the game is in replay value, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t catch me by surprise; I thought I was only at the midpoint of the game, and I think most veterans would prefer to know beforehand that this is a shorter game than its predecessor.

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Though that brings me to the title, which derives from the developers’ intention to put out six of these games, if this is successful (hence the title Six Ages and why I probably should have referred to this one as Ride Like The Wind). That seems like a ballsy challenge – but given how they took an ugly duckling of a concept back in the 1990s, plunged a half-million dollar budget into it, put out a product with a miniscule team, and eventually not only ported their way to a profit but got enough backing to make a sequel two decades down the line… well, who’d bet against them?

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My overall verdict on Six Ages is fundamentally the same as King of Dragon Pass. If you’ve read this review, looked at the screenshots, got an idea of how it plays and thought “nah, not for me” – you’re almost certainly right. It’s a niche title and not everybody’s cup of tea. If, on the other hand, you find your curiosity even slightly piqued, you should absolutely take a punt on it. It’s $10.00 on the app store, and likely the best ten bucks you’ll spend on a game all year.

 

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