Category Archives: Strategy

REVIEW: STRACO Episode 1

At first glance, you’re absolutely right to feel ambivalent about what STRACO Episode 1 (80 MSP) has in store for you. The developer hasn’t settled on a set genre, and it throws a lot of confusing icons and information onto its HUD at outset, calling its accessibility into question. It may not be all that much to look at, but it does feature some complicated stitchwork, tying together two genres that share equal billing.

And indeed it is hard to approximately label the gameplay in STRACO, as it uses the tenets of tower defense in some missions, while playing as a twin-stick shooter and stressing player control otherwise. The rather in-depth, multi-part tutorial explains the ins and outs (you’d do well to give it at least a glance), but it’s the typical TD staples present, a variety of weapon turrets and repair towers. A separate currency allows you to heal or buy limited-time boosts to your weapons or armor. It can feel overwhelming to start, asking you to become a jack-of-all-trades while keeping a keen eye on the action.

While you can leave your vehicle at any time (I wouldn’t recommend it in a fight) to go on foot or hop into another mode of transport, you can only place and maintain these defenses while in your military-issued helicopter. Each emplacement is a set amount of money, money that must be mined on the map. Don’t concern yourself with the idea; outside of the tutorial, there isn’t a point in the whole campaign where you’ll need to do this (on Normal, anyway).

And as for that campaign, it’s passable. The story doesn’t stretch the imagination, settling on the average invasion arc, unknown enemies, a soldier facing impossible odds, etc., but the plot and text dialogue are frequently bizarre (green-faced villains, comedic AI, zombies, Optimus Phillip, to mention a few) and strangely amusing. It’s also vital to take note of the game’s subtitle. Being episodic, you only get six missions, with ‘survival’ and ‘infinite waves’ options unlocked once you’ve completed it. The writing works in its favor here, leaving me curious to see what the next episode (currently early 2013) cooks up.

It’s strange that it pushes the TD ideas one mission only to abandon it in another, as it doesn’t really require them for more than half the game. And though the twin-stick aspect is decent to allow for different vehicles and ammo types, the aiming is a little loose and there is a delay in when you acquire a target, depending on your directional facing. Small inconsistencies, but mentionable.

Though it’s short and teeters at the brink of blandness visually, STRACO kicks off its adventure with a serviceable introduction. The daunting structure and controls, as well as the multitude of building options, are stripped away quickly, leaving you with a more-shooter-than-tower-defense game that’s left feeling a little uncertain about its identity. It’s enough (and does enough) to satisfy, but hopefully NVO Games can craft a tighter, more confident design for the next episode.

REVIEW: Main Sequence

Main Sequence (80 MSP) is a world-building game. Literally, in that you, the tiniest rock on the block, must swallow other celestial bodies (dwarfs, of course; never pick a fair fight) to biggie-size yourself, thereby and eventually becoming top star in your respective solar system.

Though there’s not much to see in that solar system. Hundreds of balls, some in different sizes, some in color but mostly grays, set against the stark blackness of space. It doesn’t exactly take your breath away (or it does, if you’re not space-suited up), so it helps to have an imagination and / or consider it beyond its looks.

The idea is similar to the Solar games already on XBLIG, or something like Osmos (the Dev’s own admission). You must build your core, slowly and meticulously, launching yourself around the level by ejecting mass (which, fair warning, shrinks you with each shot). That same discarded mass can ‘grow’ the bodies around you, altering trajectories and helping (or hurting) your cause. You can also zoom out (and you should) to gain a better appreciation of the given stage’s scope and moving pieces. It’s equal parts puzzle and strategy.

Games like these tend to attract the more casual crowd, but Main Sequence is anything but a pushover. There is no progression to speak of; all of the game’s ten stages are selectable from the start to allow you a taste of anything you’re in the mood for. Frustratingly, the difficulty rockets upward past the introduction. With dozens upon dozens of planets (or multiple stars and orbits) in every direction, most of which are mightier than you, each boost you undertake becomes a complicated maneuver that can either set you back a few sizes or outright end the game. Tricky gravitational pulls, layered rings of rocks, and planet-sucking rogue stars to contend with are simultaneously impressive to work with and incredibly daunting to witness.

That said, it’s still too limited to draw you in. That’s partially the mechanics (world-swallowing has its charms, though they be fleeting), but mostly it’s the odds that work against you relentlessly. Almost every successful move I made was attributable to luck, impossible to replicate even under the exact same circumstances. This makes for some fun moments and razor-thin misses, but also highlights your seeming lack of control. No amount of skill can help you here. Does that realism reflect the randomness of space and our own existence? Sure does, and it’ll probably kickstart a few metaphysical chats the next time you’re drunk and among friends. Will that same harsh truth lead you to play the game for an extended amount of time? No, likely not.

Only a scientist gets excited by this.

If you’re a strategy nut, appreciate threading an interstellar needle over and over, don’t mind the simplistic visuals but do enjoy a chill soundtrack, Main Sequence might be your bag. If you’re lukewarm on the idea and inherent odds already (probably the vast majority), there’s nothing to see here that you can’t find elsewhere, and in a more stylish and involving package. Boot up a Katamari game if you have one.

REVIEW: Rogue AI

Feels like every time I take on a tower defense or strategy game, I’m putting up a disclaimer before the review, reiterating that it’s ‘not my preferred genre’. I suppose it’s a combination of things; the games’ staid requirements of building and managing multiple tiny units don’t engage me much, and I’m generally average or below at completing them. Rogue AI (80 MSP) has the dubious distinction of amplifying those feelings and doubts from the start. ‘Today Humanity Dies’ goes the box art tagline, but playing as the AI, the reverse seems to be true.

Oh, failure screen. I know you well.

I can’t get pass the first stage that follows the tutorial. That’s not something I’m proud to lead off on, and renders this review essentially incomplete, but even with accounting for my dearth of skill, the game isn’t inclined to go easy on you on the ‘easy’ setting. Billed by the developer to me as ‘a defensive strategy game with a tower defense feel’, you’re not defending so much as surviving, despite having objectives for each stage. And ‘surviving’ (or trying to) seems to be the operative word.

In addition to the campaign, there’s ‘Survival’ mode, which functions as one big arcade level minus the story and objective bits, tasking you to build and hold out against enemy waves. Given that the wave difficulty escalates fairly quickly here (I never survived longer than a minute and a half), I’d hold off really digging into this mode until you’ve conquered or seen most of the campaign. Then there’s the almost inexplicable ‘Suicide’ mode, which is little more than an ego-deflater, throwing insurmountable enemies at you and killing you within fifteen seconds every time, no matter how you deploy. Putting these modes alongside the already-crushing campaign, it’s just not fun.

And all of it is further hampered by the game’s presentation. A tutorial level hands you the basics, that you need minerals and energy to do anything in the game, and a brief overview of turrets and how to defend yourself. You’re then dropped unceremoniously into the fray, left to figure out the rest of the unit and enemy types on your own. Your supplies don’t accumulate fast enough, even with upgraded units, and are spent as quickly as they are earned, making each move you make of the utmost importance. There’s no room for error.

The visuals too, aren’t up to standards. The layout of the screen, as well as the tinier text and icons, shows its iOS beginnings. Despite the developer’s efforts to translate it to a bigger screen, it still looks and feels like it’d be more at home on mobile devices.

Either way, I gave Rogue AI more than enough time to grow on me, but it’s just too basic and otherwise uninteresting / straightforward to draw casual onlookers in. The obscene difficulty is a mark against it, way too unforgiving and hostile to beginners, leaving it with limited appeal, except maybe to very strong adherents of the TD genre. There’s someone out there that will enjoy this game, but it’s not going to be me. Pass.