Review: Sins of a Dark Age

Early in its development cycle, Sins of a Dark Age (Ironclad Games, 2012-2015) was reportedly going to merge the genres of RTS and MOBA to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Their plan was to follow in the footsteps of Demigod, by dividing players into commanders who play a full-scale RTS, and heroes which play a MOBA under their commander’s supervision and direction.

Each team was to have a singular commander, who decides which troops to build, where to send them, what locations warrant the protection of towers, and which expansions to capture. Commanders would also be able to issue instructions to their team’s heroes, “attack here”, “scout there”, “get ready to defend this”, and the heroes would be alerted to what their commander wanted to achieve.

Despite the exciting premise, Ironclad encountered practical problems when having commanders share a game with heroes, described in this interview with the game’s producer, Blair Fraser. In brief:

  • A hero’s items are permanent once earned, but a commander’s “items” are their buildings, which are vulnerable to being destroyed. When this happens, they are left hamstrung while their allies were still having fun being effective.
  • Heroes proved too adaptable, and made all sorts of typical RTS strategies like ‘rushing’ or ‘teching’ unviable. This greatly reduced the depth of the RTS side of the game.
  • Because all their power is centred on a single unit, heroes proved too difficult to balance against the commander’s global presence. Either the commander has no impact against a concentration of heroes, or the heroes can’t keep up with the commander’s wide distribution of forces.

With these reasons in mind, Ironclad scrapped the RTS-hybrid side of their plans during the beta-phase, and decided to go for an RPG-hybrid instead.

Not many permanent features, but the jungles house too many temporary ones to mark.

Map Layout:

League of Legends was clearly the source material for most of the game’s mechanics. This includes identical building placement and functionality, similar creep camps with equivalents to the blue buff and red buff, and the game’s boss monster Hydra gives team-wide gold and temporary bonus movement speed and attack rate when slain.


Long purple scaly necks are in this season.

Sins of a Dark Age does take leaves from another moba’s book though, by implementing a day/night cycle. As well as altering vision radius, there’s a special type of brush called Moonbloom which only appears during the night. It helps to blend the night and brush vision-affecting mechanics together, reiterating that the night should be full of uncertainty and ganking.


In this image moonbloom extends existing brush, but there are
standalone patches of it as well.

I am not a fan of day/night cycles in general. I believe the rhythm of the game should be dictated by the players, not by some arbitrary clock timer that’s not an interactive game element. Having more interdependent mechanics looks like progress, but I consider this one a bad egg.

Quests:

The flagship feature in Sins of a Dark Age is a rota of temporary objectives that spring up in the map’s jungles. These are called Quests, and both teams may participate in them to earn rewards. Only one quest is active at any given time, and while their order is random in each match, the next three upcoming quests are displayed so that players can plan around them. There is a wait period between their activation, and a timeout on any which have been left unresolved for too long.

soada_8Quests blend familiar mission types from other games with more “lane-pushing” focused objectives. Some of them can be handled by one or two heroes, while most demand a substantial team effort. Only one team can win a quest. Examples include:

  • Necromancer’s Bargain: Five gadgets will spawn in semi-random locations around the map, and may be captured after a short channel time. They generate points over time for the team that owns them; the first team to gather enough points wins the quest.


Capturing a coffin after a short channel.

  • Valkryn’s Watch: Having more heroes than the enemy team in specified area generates points for your team. Gather enough points to win the quest.
  • The Veric Plague: A bunch of rats spawn in the jungle: gather enough pelts to win the quest. Killing an enemy hero will steal a third of their pelts.
  • Slay the Dragon: The first team to kill the Dragon boss which spawns, wins the quest. Players automatically recruit temporary “dragon slayer” troops when passing through their base to help with fighting the dragon.


I… need backup.

  • Path to Ascension: One player on each team picks up a special Chalice which grants bonuses to them and nearby allies. They will then be instructed to visit various points across the map, completing their pilgrimage upon reaching the seventh point.
  • Divine Lost Army: Both teams try to escort a unit from their base to a point on the map; the first to arrive wins the quest.
  • Tower Siege: The first team to destroy an enemy tower wins the quest. Meanwhile, wood elves spawn in the jungle, and killing them grants resources for building a quest-exclusive Advanced Catapult that can hit towers from beyond their attack range.

Players are compensated for their time questing with gold and experience rewards for participation. Completing a quest can earn quest-exclusive items, bonus team gold, and always grants one stack of the Adventurer’s Bounty buff. The first three stacks of this buff are permanent, while the fourth stack lasts for 180 seconds.

  • One stack: +10% damage dealt to lane troops
  • Two stacks: +8% movement speed while out of combat
  • Three stacks: Nearby troops gain 40% magic damage reduction
  • Four stacks: +10% attack power and special power, and your attacks deal +40 pure damage to buildings.

It’s quite clear that once you’ve got a few quests under your belt, the game wants you to push lanes right away, which is an emphasis I agree with. Though, given how long the quests can take, one could argue that using the time to push instead is almost more efficient.

My biggest issue with quests is how slowly they come up. When it’s your core feature, players should be thinking about them constantly, and a six minute downtime just kills that. I would have preferred seeing a constant turnover, with maybe two or three smaller quests running at once, leaving players frenetic to try and complete them on time, or making tactical decisions to concede a quest to slip in some pushing or a sneaky boss. There could still be major quests thrown into the rota to keep things fresh.

Having more than one quest available at a time might risk confusing players, but it would have given players a test of valuation and kept the game’s progress exciting. All the better when quests like Slay the Dragon and Valkryn’s Watch overlap: they take place in the same location!

A smaller map size would have made players more willing to get involved. Having to cross such a large map to reach an objective isn’t fun, even if you have advance notice that you’ll need to do it. Heroes of the Storm seems to understand this well.

While it works in RPGs, the quest-specific item rewards don’t feel like a great idea. Not every player is going to be motivated by getting an item that scouts or helps with pushing. I would have preferred a separate resource awarded exclusively for completing quests, assuming that that quests are constantly available. That resource could help buy higher-tier items that the player actually cares about, and hence better serve to motivate questing.

Ultimately, I wanted to be thinking quests quests quests!, but the pace of the game wasn’t up to it.

Heroes and Items:

The game has a small selection of heroes despite being in development for several years. The designs are all direct descendants of League’s; heroes have innate passives, and some use Energy and Rage resources.

Like League, Sins of a Dark Age has plenty of unlockable pre-game stat padding tied to a player’s account. It’s arranged a bit differently, but that’s not worth going into here. The one addition of note is that some of the passives that players can bring into a match will alter a specific hero’s abilities. For example:

  • Harvest Horn: Serewyn’s Seeds of Renewal ability grants additional Health and Mana over time.
  • Bolstering Shield: Vallamere’s Chivalrous Defense ability grants his target ally additional Movement Speed.

This system has some interesting potential for “modified” heroes, but in practice the passives just add small buffs and aren’t ambitious or pivotal.

soada_14Borrowing from CHAOS Online, heroes have two dedicated inventory slots for consumables, which is a nice quality of life change, but consumables are mostly the same as those in League, and remain a minor component of the game.

Sins of a Dark Age has a more integrated approach to summoner spells, referring to them as Glyphs, and treating them just like hero abilities. They are not selected pre-game; they may be chosen or levelled up just like regular hero abilities, using a separate set of skill points that are awarded on odd-numbered hero levels.

soada_19Due to their long cooldowns, it’s favourable to get a point in both glyphs early to have use of two of them, but it’s also possible to have a maxed glyph by level 5 if a player wants to. That said, glyphs don’t level up like regular abilities. Instead, they behave like Smite’s active items: glyph upgrades can improve one of two possible aspects of the spell. For example, the Portal glyph that allows teleporting to allied towers can be upgraded with:

  • Level 2: Lower cooldown OR Faster channel
  • Level 3: Structure shield OR Buffing minions on arrival

The increased integration is nice and helps smooth out progression over the course of the game. The option to specialise in one glyph early is also welcomed.

Conclusion:

I was disappointed to hear that the RTS side of Sins of a Dark Age turned out to be a failed experiment, since it was an idea with promise, and I’d like to believe we haven’t seen the last of it. Ironclad have shown why it isn’t as simple as tacking heroes onto an RTS, and I can see where they’re coming from. Even a proven RTS like Warcraft III which is designed around having heroes couldn’t be converted without a great deal of effort. I would guess that part of the problem was assuming that League of Legends style heroes were the appropriate choice to blend into an RTS.

The RPG experiment ended up falling flat for them as well. Sins of a Dark Age doesn’t have nearly the depth in heroes or basic gameplay as its competitors, and it needed quests to make the difference. They weren’t up to scratch. Without much else to fall back on, Ironclad ended up releasing a League derivative with minor refurbishments, and brought almost no innovation to the table. Unsurprisingly, the game didn’t find a place in the market, and its closure was announced within a month of launch.

Download: Official Site

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2 thoughts on “Review: Sins of a Dark Age

  1. It’s a shame that the majority of commercial MOBAs seem to be League of Legends clones; it makes the genre too stale. This is why my respect for Heroes of the Storm exceeds my enjoyment of it, since it bothers to try something new. The Warcraft III MOBAs shown on this site, as well as many others, are very fresh and originals, but companies – the kind who will cancel a steadily-improving game that’s not an immediate success – are to scared to try something untested.

    • I agree with this sentiment, but I think developing commercially will have this issue in all sectors. I think a good open source game will come around that pushes the genre out of its safe zone, but for now I wouldn’t expect anything to change.

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