There are few things as quintessential to fantasy as a genre than dragons. From movies to books to real world mythology, dragons are everywhere. And the definition of dragon is vague enough that it can range anywhere from the eastern flying snakes with legs to the western flying lizards with wings. And what’s cooler than a dragon? No, not two dragons, that was on me. What’s cooler than one dragon but not quite as cool as two dragons? Dragon riders.
Maybe it’s just humanity’s obsession with flying talking, but what could be more awesome than having an aerial dogfight, except instead of planes and guns, you have winged lizards and fireballs?
Century: Age of Ashes understands. It’s the newest title by Playwing, who also make the Instant War 4X Real Time Strategy game for mobile. By contrast, Century: Age of Ashes is a multiplayer team-based dragon battle game available now for free on Steam.
Wingbeats of Dragons
The central conceit of Century: Age of Ashes is, of course, dragon riders battling it out. The dragons you ride are large, powerful, lumbering creatures with an unexpected weight to them that makes controlling them incredibly satisfying. I played using mouse and keyboard. I had originally intended on trying both mouse and keyboard as well as with my USB controller, but I realized right away that the mouse-based steering for the dragon was far too good to justify using any other control scheme. The dragons have very few maneuvers you can easily input. There’s not quick U-turn or rolling to the sides. However, the controls are responsive enough that you don’t need to. The Airbrake and Dash are all you need to pull off some incredibly skillful tricky flying. Ever used a dragon to drift around a corner? No? You should.
Your dragons have two attacks, homing fireballs and a continuous fire breath attack. Both of these attacks work based on their own target locking system. Fireballs for distant enemies, fire breath for enemies who have decided to ignore social distancing. Additionally, your chosen rider has abilities of their own. Century: Age of Ashes uses a class system. As of this writing there are three classes, each with their own visually unique dragons. The classes are probably what you expect. A fighter with more health and aggressive attacks. A medic with a defensive smokescreen. And a sneaky rouge who turns invisible and leaves explosives lying around where anyone could trip over them. Each class brings something helpful to the team, but it is still possible to succeed without balancing your team among the three classes.
The actual game modes are wild and frantic. I was surprised when I moved out of the new players’ Rookie Mode’s 3v3 team death match and discovered that of the three main game modes the game uses for its Ranked and Unranked matches, only one is actually based around killing enemies. The other two each have their own unique win conditions. Spoils of War sets the draconic tone by being all about hoarding gold, with each team competing to acquire more than the other. Usually with violence. The other mode, Gates of Fire, is a mixture of a capture the flag mode and a race, with the flag-bearer attempting to complete as much of the ‘racecourse’ as possible before the other team steals the flag from them. Only the Carnage mode is a traditional slugfest between two teams, and even that has the additional gimmick that doing well places a bounty on your head, encouraging the other team to take revenge for a large bonus.
If you happen to have five friends who also really like dragons, the game features a squad system so you can invite all of your friends together and play as a single team, or presumably both teams in the 3v3 Skirmish mode, though I did not test the friend or squad systems myself.
The game features EXP and leveling as well. Your rewards for leveling up are generally just cosmetics, but you also gain access to new game modes at certain levels. The Rookie 3v3 game mode is reserved only for players of a low level, being replaced by a similar but not level-locked Skirmish game mode once you no longer qualify.
Matches are quick thanks to each round being on a timer. No match will ever go for more than about ten minutes, making it perfect to hop in and play a match or two every day.
Unfortunately, a lack of different game modes and maps holds Century: Age of Ashes back, as you can very quickly grow tired of completing the same objectives in the same handful of locations. That being said, I am confident the developers intend to add new maps at the very least, as well as other content to keep the game fresh. The Bestiary that tracks which dragons you’ve seen marks what ‘season’ the dragon is available in, indicating that there are plans for seasonal campaigns or challenges.
I won’t beat around the bush on this. Century: Age of Ashes is gorgeous. The dragon and rider models are full of detail and visually distinct at a glance. Despite the realistic medieval aesthetic, with large stone towers and brickwork, the game doesn’t feel dark or gritty. Levels are wide open and expansive. There are plenty ways you can fly around the beautiful cities and fortresses. The architecture is stunning, but flying through archways and tunnels isn’t restrictive to your movement.
The HUD is excellent, telling you everything you need to know without obscuring anything you need to see. Enemy health bars are the most obvious example, with a ring around the enemy you’re targeting showing off how much health they have left, if they have a shield powerup, etc. There are also subtle arrows around the edge of your screen to help you keep track of nearby enemies and allies, so you don’t lose sight of them in the middle of some aerial maneuvers. Similarly, objectives are well-marked and easy to track even as player trade who is in possession of the mission’s target as both teams descend on it like a pack of fire breathing sharks.
The dragons have a wide number of beautifully smooth animations that I wasn’t expecting. Small movements and reactions to the environment that really helps sell them as living creatures. Their sound design is equally excellent, with their deep throated growls and bellowing roars.
The sweeping orchestral music really feels right at home in the high fantasy the game presents. Most matches have very little music until the final minute of each round, making the final seconds of each battle even more adrenaline pumping as the music reaches its climax right as the timer hits zero. Outside of matches, the music is subtle but daring, like the calm before a storm, with excellent ambient sounds of your base.
There are also expansive cosmetics and customization options. Customization options are either unlocked when you level up or purchased from the marketplace. Each class has their own sets of gear that can be interchanged to create new looks. Dragons, of course, have a variety of armor that can be equipped to them as well. Naturally, you can also hatch new dragons. While every dragon is mechanically identical, each class has access to certain dragons the others do not. And you acquire these dragons by first getting an egg and then completing a series of bonus objectives in normal gameplay. Once you’ve completed enough objectives, you can take your new dragon out into the field with you.
The Dragon’s Hoard
I feel, as a reviewer, that I have a certain level of responsibility towards the games I review. Century: Age of Ashes is a free to play live service title. It is a game that intends to make a profit off of microtransactions. Enter the in-game marketplace.
Like most free to play games with microtransactions, Age of Ashes uses a mixture of two currencies. One you can earn by playing normally, and one that you mostly acquire by spending real money. This currency can be used in place of the free currency, and there are also several items on the marketplace that can only be purchased with the microtransaction currency.
Almost everything in the marketplace is a cosmetic you can use to customize your characters and dragons, including new dragon breeds you can hatch and ride. Each of these cosmetics goes for the equivalent of a few dollars USD, which is a little pricey for my tastes but your milage may vary on whether you think that price is worth it.
The other main incentive to spend your money are EXP boosters, giving you a percentage increase to EXP earned in a match. I feel it worth noting that EXP boosters give a small boost to teammates as well. As of yet, I have not found any reward for leveling up that impacts gameplay. Leveling up just provides more cosmetics.
Notably, there is explicitly a section in the marketplace for future new player classes to be added. As I have noted previously, Age of Ashes absolutely needs new classes to increase the amount of variance in each match, and by extension, the game’s replayability. If people burn out of the game quickly, it will fail. So the fact that they intend to introduce new classes is a relief, but I can’t help but feel nervous about new classes being expensive. This could turn away new players, or worse, make the game pay-to-win. However, until these classes are added to the marketplace, I can’t make any judgements on the matter. It’s just something to keep in mind.
In addition, there are several packs you can purchase on Steam. These packs go for $20 to $60 USD, and include random cosmetics, both for your classes and dragons and for your profile. These packs also include more EXP boosters and, of all things, roles on the official Discord servers.
As of now, I haven’t seen anything exploitative in the marketplace, but I suggest keeping it in mind when the inevitable season events start.
Playwing have made something special with Century: Age of Ashes. They’ve made a game that really captures the feel of flying around on a magical living machine of death. It’s clear that the developers intend for this game to stick around for quite a while. I can’t properly speculate on whether or not Age of Ashes will have that kind of staying power to keep a thriving fanbase for years down the line. But I can say that it’s done what very few competitive multiplayer games have done. It’s made me want to keep playing.