Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Plan, Execute, Observe

Flamberge is a pixel graphics indie strategy game that has been available on Steam for quite some time now.  Being an early access title, what was there for players to enjoy was pretty barebones (more of a proof of concept than an actual game)...that is until a recent update added a bunch of new content.  While still not anywhere near version 1.0, it does have one interesting feature that helps it standout - turns take place simultaneously.

Usually when the phrase "turn-based" strategy comes up it implies a you-go-then-I-go style of gameplay.  The most common version of this is by teams (examples include XCOM, Front Mission and Final Fantasy: Tactics).  Somewhat rarer takes on the concept are command point systems (Valkyria Chronicles) and unit-by-unit systems (The Banner Saga).  However, the most unconventional way of doing turn-based strategy in my mind has to be the simultaneous-turns method.  Aside from the aforementioned Flamberge, I can only think of three other titles that have ever used this particular approach.

The most recent is Leviathan Warships made by Paradox Interactive (the development studio that brought us titles like Hearts of Iron, Crusader Kings and Stellaris).  This small scale naval combat game gives players control over a few highly customizable ships.  Each round is divided into two parts: a planning phase and an execution phase.  The first part consists of maneuvering each ship by deciding its speed and direction for the next five seconds of upcoming real time.  The player also has to issue firing orders to each of the ship's various weapon systems either by assigning a firing arc or by designating a particular patch of ocean to be bombarded.  Once all the commands are set the player can view the results.  After that it's on to the planning phase for the next round and following five seconds of action.  At the end of a match it's also possible to see the whole battle from beginning to end.

Another, much older game that uses a nearly identical system is RoboSport by none other than Maxis.  It might seem odd for the makers of The Sims to dip their proverbial toes into war gaming, but this was early in the history of that company (before they had really hit pay dirt with Simcity).  Like Leviathan Warships, each round is divided between planning and execution.  However, instead of sea-going vessels bristling with oversized armaments, players take control over a squad of little three-legged robots.  Customization is also a big part of the game with a variety of weapons (including rocket launchers, grenades, mines, and SMGs) available for distribution.  Robots can hobble, gallop or jump around battlefields, as well as set up covering arcs or place explosives in a specific area designated by the player.  A robot can even be told to go "kamikaze" by self-destructing in an attempt to take nearby foes with them.

The last title is a late PSX fantasy game called Vandal Hearts 2.  Unlike the previous two examples this is a single-player only experience.  Also unlike its predecessor, the original Vandal Hearts (which used turn-based gameplay by teams), the sequel has players issue orders to one unit while the A.I. does likewise with one of its own.  Then both units carry out their orders oftentimes resulting in some bizarre situations wherein one or both opposing units will walk past each other and attack the empty space their respective opponent previously occupied.  This process continues until all units on each side have taken an action for the round.  One strategy I have seen suggested is to sacrifice the first move of each round so that all remaining units can focus attacks on foes that have already taken their action for that round.  It's a weird and cumbersome game to play compounded by long dialogue sequences between characters whose portraits don't match up well with their on-screen sprites.  The story is an epic yarn filled with byzantine politics, a large cast of characters and a time-skip wherein the protagonist begins the game as a child fighting giant slugs with a salt sticks only to jump ahead in time at the end of the first act to when he is an adult leading a resistance cell against an oppressive and tyrannical government.  I should mention this sequel has nothing to do with the original game which was a lot more straight forward in terms of storytelling.

Flamberge represents an evolution of this subgenre in that it takes the best from its three predecessors and attempts to innovate and streamline the mechanics.  The story is unfinished, but has potential; arguably, it strikes a good balance between too much story and no-story at all.  Here's hoping this game makes it out of early access in a timely manner unlike so many other titles that are soon abandoned and forgotten after their Steam debut.

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