Being a fan of Open Quest and the d100 system it is based on it was with great interest that I took a look at Age of Shadows in order to see just what they had done with it. The answer, in all honesty, is not a lot as far as the rules themselves go. Apart from a few cosmetic changes here and there you could be playing open quest.
The layout is quite pleasing and oddly eye catching. In an industry where overly fussy layouts and pages with backgrounds and fanciful borders are becoming more and more common, the clean lines and crisp layout of AoS is actually a joy to read. There is nothing to distract you from the joy of the system (and it is a joy), and even the filler art is crisp and appealing to look at. Simple but very good. More companies should take a leaf out of Crooked Staff Publishing.
I'll start by talking about the modifications to the game engine. Divine magic has been trimmed out and battle magic has been tweeked a little bit to become innate magic available only to those with Elven linage. Sorcery is in there, and the hints that it has a tendency to tinge the user with darkness are a nice touch that works well in the setting. I also rather like the rules for manipulating sorcery to increase magnitude, duration, range and so on. This certainly makes magic seem more magical and differentiates powerful magicians from less powerful ones better than a “number of spells or amount of magic points” only system ever could.
Character generation has gone with the Random statistic generation option, which I find mildly at odds with the stated aim of a game that is flexible and allows you to develop the character you want to play with a minimum of restrictions. Still it has an old school charm to it.
I would have liked to have seen more effort put into the languages, rather than a few common racial tongues but to be honest that is such a minor quibble and one so many people will disagree with anyway that it's scarcely worth worrying about.
Not wanting to nit pick twice in one review but being unable to resist it, I do feel it's a shame they have abandoned OQs use of “Saga” to fall back on the industry standard of “Campaign” but again, if this is going to have a bearing on your choosing to pick the game up or not you may be a bit on the overly picky side.
Creatures is where the author is able to cut loose and really show us a glimpse of his vision for AoS. Now before anyone points out that it's largely some fantasy staples and that even the Beastlings are realy just the beast men that have appeared in almost every d100 derived game since Rune Quest, yes, that's true to a point. However, it's what Richards does with them and how he presents them that give you a glimpse into his world and what is to come. On the whole I dislike the good/evil dichotomy of most fantasy as I find it overly simplistic and rather dull, but something about how it is done here evokes classics of the genre like The Lord of The Rings far better than most games. There is just something about it that makes me want to play this game and revel in the very simplistic good vs evil idea I usually avoid like the plague. The flavour text throughout helps. It is surprisingly evocative and far less derivative than I'd expect.
The references to “The Enemy” whilst clearly LotR inspired and something of a fantasy cliché now none the less are oddly tantalising, and the writing style actually makes this not only work, but conjure up a world in a desperate struggle for it's life.
Oddly, despite my usual aversion to morally black and white settings and my preference for harsher, grittier ones I find myself really wanting to take this one for a spin. This is the result of the author having “got it right”, having taken ingredients that are so often used by others and with just the right pinch of seasoning here and there having produce a far superior cake to most the others, to use a food based metaphor (presumably because it's lunch time and I'm hungry).
I heartily recommend this game to you. Give it a try and see what you think, I predict that half of you will go on to buy more products in the range.