Game review: Planet Stronghold

Guest Review by Tof Eklund

Winter Wolves’ Planet Stronghold is a hybrid dating sim and RPG, combining elements of two distinctively Japanese genres (visual novel and old-school jRPG) with high-res graphics and an art style that is more influenced by western comics than by manga. It’s a natural synergy, in many ways, as both genres are “turn based,” use many of the same art assets, and the stat, skill, and equipment management of the RPG side “compensates” for the lack of crunchy system in most visual novels.

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"I'm hit! Dupont, lay down some cover fire! Lafleur, aim for its stomach-maw! Rumi, healing, STAT! Oh, and after we wax these BEMs, would you like to go for coffee?"

The obvious question is whether the whole is more than the sum of its parts, both for Planet Stronghold and for this kind of hybrid genre as a whole. Planet Stronghold isn’t the first of its kind, as many RPGs have romantic subplots, and there are other games focused on this very combination (the Cute Knight games come to mind) but it is a high production-value release from an established indie games company.

To answer the other obvious question, no, Planet Stronghold is not sexually explicit. Romance is a large part of the game, and there are some reasonably hot “reward” images, but there’s no nudity or explicit sex.

The bread-and-butter of Celso Riva’s company (Winter Wolves/Tycoon Games) is visual novels, and many of the game’s best moments come out of taking RPG concepts and importing them into visual novel / dating sim genre. One of these is that you can choose your sex and character class. This is commonplace in RPGs but rare in the visual novel genre, where the protagonist’s sex (and personality) are generally predefined to a much greater degree than in any other genre of game. Choice of sex is more than nominal, as Joshua and Lisa Nelson are slightly different in personality, as well as completely different in appearance and in their potential love interests.

You can’t visit the Planet Stronghold forums without running into comparisons to the Mass Effect games, but the development of relationships (friendly and very friendly) is the dominant rather than secondary theme in Planet Stronghold. It’s also more even handed, presenting male as well as female eye candy, rather than following Mass Effect‘s habit of fixating on its female character’s pronounced posteriors while hiding its men in armored spacesuits.

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Equal-opportunity jumpsuits: here, Lisa Nelson and Tom Shatz strut their stuff in painted-on costumes.

Planet Stronghold is also more egalitarian when it comes to gay and lesbian pairings. Mass Effect 1 & 2 feature only straight and lesbian pairings, but no gay men (Mass Effect 3 belatedly corrects this “oversight”) but Joshua and Lisa each have three potential partners, one of which is same-sex, and Joshua’s potential gay lover is possibly the prettiest character in a game full of beautiful people (and I’m speaking as someone who is generally more attracted to women).

The roster of potential relationships is completely different depending on whether you play as Joshua or Lisa, which adds to the replay value of the game. The characters represent a diverse, multi-ethnic cast, with a range of backgrounds and opinions. In general, the characterization is good, though it does fall back on existing archetypes (and occasionally cliches, like the strong woman breaking down and weeping).

You have a relationship meter with every major character in the game, whether they’re a potential love interest or not, and the decisions you make as the group’s commander will generally be popular with some of your crew and not with others. That adds an interesting wrinkle to the RPG (where characters in your party generally go along happily with whatever you decide to do), and to the dating sim (where such decisions are generally one-on-one or a choice between two love interests).

The game glosses over the fact that your romantic possibilities are all with your subordinates (or, in one case, your superior), perhaps not wanting to deal with the problems such power differentials present.

The RPG side of the game isn’t skimpy, presenting four character classes, a bevy of skills and equipment, and no “random” combat, just set-piece battles, many of which can be avoided (at the price of skipping out on scarce XP) if the player wants.

In fact, the RPG side of the game may be too developed, with so many things to keep track of that it can be a distraction from the dating sim aspect of the game. Keeping track of healing items feels like an unnecessary chore, as they’re periodically replenished at the base.

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If you need someone who can explain quantum mechanics while performing brain surgery, Jacob Miles is your man. But if you want his brainy butt to survive, you're better off putting skill points into Armor use than giving him time to work on his third Doctorate.

The game’s most appealing RPG feature may also be its Achilles heel: there are a lot of skills in the game, and any character can advance in any of them, but with skill points doled out in small quantities at level-up (and a neat but intentionally limited on-base training option), developing weak skills is a waste, and putting points into non-combat skills reaps comparatively small rewards, as most of those skills are only used for rare skill checks.

Combat itself is well thought-out, but hardly flawless. Limiting the amount of combat discourages grinding and makes individual battles more important (there is a half-hidden source of unlimited combat for those determined to power-level and break the game’s balance). One of the nicer bits of the system is that each member of your squad/party has an “aggro” rating. I’ve seen this MMORPG-inspired system in other jRPGs, but it feels right here, where soldiers can auto-fire to attract enemy attention (call it “suppression fire”), leaving your scouts (snipers) free to get in kill shots.

The game’s psionic system is double edged: it does a good job of encouraging you to de-buff enemies by making all psionic powers have a chance of success that is based mostly on the user’s power and skill. The only automatic-success powers are the healing and “resurrection” abilities. The problem this creates is that it makes the most reliable use of psi powers healing, which drags out battles and flattens out the strategic possibilites.

In the end, there are better dating sims and better RPGs out there, but as someone who’d like to see more character development and romance in games, I’m encouraged by this fusion of soft lighting and crunchy system. Planet Stronghold‘s combination of the visual novel and jRPG styles is somewhat uneven, but it strikes me as a worthy endeavor.

Winter Wolves is doubling-down on their bet that the dating sim / RPG has legs, with a somewhat racier expansion, Planet Stronghold: Warzone, in progress. Their second hybrid game, Loren: Amazon Princess (paging Xena fans!) is just out, and a third game, called Undead Lily, is in the works.

The Verdict: 3.5/5. Planet Stronghold is enjoyable in itself, but it is most remarkable as a step toward bringing the visual novel and RPG genres together. It has its rough edges, and its biggest draw (that combination) is also its biggest drawback, as it won’t be sufficiently one or the other for some players. It will be interesting to see what Winter Wolves does with the expansion and other hybrid projects.

Tof Eklund teaches Writing for Games in Full Sail University’s Creative Writing MFA program. This review is part of The Sex and Romance in Games Project.

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