Got a hankering for tactical warfare? How about commanding an army of diverse, magical creatures and using an array of powerful spells to wreak havoc on the battlefield? That's what Epic War 4 is all about; an exciting mishmash of strategic defense and action-packed combat on—as the name implies—an epic scale. Developed by Rudy Sudarto, Epic War 4 is the latest addition to the Epic War series, which began in 2008 as a defense-oriented homage to the Bowmaster Prelude style of gameplay. It wasn't until last year's installment in the series that Sudarto revamped the format, ditching the "arrow turret" mechanic in favor more spells, units and customized "hero" progression. In Epic War 4, Sudarto continues the trend by accentuating these hero paths, adding more units, spells and campaign content.
Epic War 4 features a side-scrolling battlefield, similar to some real-time strategy games like Shadez 2. The player's castle is always located on the left side of the map, opposite the enemy. From here, your objective is to push your army across the battlefield to destroy the enemy's castle. Your heroes and units spawn automatically, using a timer mechanic with diminishing returns (the more your heroes die, the longer it takes for them to respawn). Both heroes and units obey simple movement commands like "charge" and "retreat," as well as individual selection for specific unit placement. You can control just about everything via the point-and-click method, or use a series of hotkeys for more efficient commands. Scroll the camera across the battlefield with the [arrow] keys, use [A] to select all, [S] to select only heroes and [D] to select only units. Specific units can be selected using [Q] through [O] on the keyboard, and  to  allows quick access to your spells. To confirm all hero, unit and spell commands, just hit the [spacebar].
Each hero is able to "equip" two units, allowing them to fight in battle. Players begin with one hero and one unit, although each "unit" actually consists of up to a dozen creatures, depending on the unit and its upgrade status. (A unit can be anything from a pack of Goblin Warriors to a single Siege Tank.) Spend gold in the "Upgrade" menu to unlock new heroes, units and spells using the familiar RPG-style progression trees. In addition, each hero, unit and spell can be upgraded up to five times to increase its power (health points, attack power, unit population size and spell power). A defining feature of Epic War 4 is the diversity of heroes and units; they all have varying strengths and weaknesses, as well as special abilities. For example, the Succubus unit is quite fragile, but unleashes a devastating ranged AoE attack. Other units, like Pixies, have defensive abilities that can heal fellow units. Because of this "rock-paper-scissors" combat mechanic, players will benefit from equipping different units between battles, depending on the enemy's army and strategy.
Players also have an assortment of spells that play an important role in influencing the tide of battle; offensive spells like "Thunderbolt" and "Ice Blast" inflict damage and scatter enemy units, while defensive abilities like "Healing" and "Shield" offer precious reprieves from overwhelming attack. There's no "cooldown" period for spells, which are cast using a finite pool of regenerating mana. Remember that similar to heroes and units, spells need to be equipped in the "Arrange" menu after they're purchased. Once equipped, each spell icon is displayed at the top of the screen, below the mana bar. Finally, spells are also similar to units in the sense that you can only equip six of them; once you've unlocked more than that, you'll have to choose the right combination for the battle.
Analysis: Like its predecessor, Epic War 4 emphasizes large-scale, battlefield combat rather than turret/castle defense. You'll still have to protect your base from hordes of enemy soldiers, of course—but the real gameplay is all about massive ground clashes, as opposed to the clichéd defense mechanic of picking off targets from a distance. Epic War 4 features the heated action of real-time strategy without burdening the player with resource management or frivolous, tiered production rules. Automatic spawning means the only thing you need to worry about is when to attack, when to retreat and when to cast spells.
Initially, it might seem a little too easy, as if you can just send your entire army to the enemy's castle, sit back and wait for victory. Indeed, in early levels (set on regular difficulty), that might sometimes be possible. But after the first few stages—especially if you choose "Hard" or "Epic" mode—you'll be in for quite a challenge. To overcome the enemy's army, you'll have to learn when to pull your forces back, the optimal ranking order of your heroes and units, and when to fire off specific spells for maximum effect. One of the worst things that can happen is allowing your heroes to fall; the production of new units equipped to that hero will grind to a halt until it respawns, leaving you vulnerable to an overwhelming enemy rampage.
For all its merit as a fun and engaging strategic defense game, Epic War 4 isn't without its flaws. The controls—as simple as they are—feel "sticky" at times, especially when using the point-and-click method. Even if you play it safe by using [spacebar] to confirm all movement orders and actions, there are some areas of the map where heroes and units sometimes won't respond. The developer neglected to include a handful of simple features like quicker scrolling, auto-saving, the option to speed up gameplay and an indicator for spell duration. Graphically-speaking, Epic War 4 is somewhat demanding because of the sheer number of units and effects on-screen at once. As a result, the character and spell animations are rendered at what appears to be a shoddy, low frame rate—although it's probably the only thing keeping the game from slowing to a crawl on older systems.
Despite these issues, Epic War 4 is a blast to play if you're a fan of the strategy, tactical warfare or defense genres. The new-and-improved upgrade paths provide a satisfying layer of character progression, motivating the pursuit of better units and spells (and eventually, one of several massive "Titans" that demolish everything on the battlefield). The aforementioned "Hard" and "Epic" difficulty modes extend the 12 campaign levels, and four additional "Challenge" stages provide unique scenarios, like the comical "Goblin Madness," with dozens of the little buggers falling from the sky. If you're in the mood for a battlefield warfare game that doesn't involve the oh-so-popular "turret" mechanic, Epic War 4 offers a refreshing, sword-clashing, shield-bashing change of pace.
[Note: The "Blood and Gore" graphics setting can be turned off via the in-game options menu.]
There is one additional playable hero available exclusively at Kongregate.