Game review double-header: Styrateg and Age of Fear: The Undead King

It’s been a long time since I last had time to do proper game reviews, and my backlog hasn’t grown any shorter during the interim. So I’m doing a double-header: Styrateg and Age of Fear: The Undead King. This isn’t just to save time; these two games have a lot of similar qualities, and I think it might be useful to discuss them together. Read on to learn about two old school, turn-based, tactical fantasy games that straddle the line between RPG and not-RPG.

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Styrateg, by Rake in Grass, is a bit of a classic. I remember seeing this game on sale under the RPG moniker well before I had even realized there was such a thing as “indie RPGs.” Styrateg was, quite literally, the first indie RPG I was ever exposed to. The funny thing is, until I sat down and did this review, I wasn’t sure that it was actually an RPG.

Styrateg is very much in the vein of the early 90s war simulations I knew as a kid, before real-time gameplay had fully sunk its fangs into the neck of strategy gaming. The combat system in Styrateg is pure turn-based, hex-based strategy of a sort that we just don’t see anymore.

A quick history lesson: many people below a certain age probably won’t know this, but RTSs used to be a novelty. It was turn-based strategy titles that dominated strategy gaming in the early 90s. The Empire series began in 1987, and Civilization was released in 1991. For my part, I remember spending innumerable hours replaying the Battle of Agincourt in Empire II: The Art of War back in middle school. Dune II, the archetypal RTS that set the stage for the genre, first appeared in 1992; Command and Conquer, in 1995. Total Annihilation appeared in 1997. Starcraft, which decisively turned the strategy market toward real-time gameplay for good, wasn’t released until 1998.

Anyway, now that you officially think I’m older than dirt, let’s talk about the combat in Styrateg. Your units come in one of four basic flavors: fighter, horseman, witch and monk. Movement will feel familiar to anyone who has played a Heroes of Might and Magic game; unlike HoMM, however, all of the actual fighting in Styrateg happens on the main map. Characters can be moved in any order. An action point system governs individual character turns, which allows some flexibility during the fighting. Different types of terrain also have dramatically different movement costs, which means that you can protect your flanks with smart positioning. This is important, since you spend most of the game without very many units under your command.

This has all the makings of a strong combat system, but there are a few areas where it falls short. Enemy AI is a weak point. The baddies don’t do a very good job of picking targets for their attacks, and slow-moving enemies can be easily trapped on the far side of a mountain range while you pelt them with fireballs. It is also possible to move back and forth with a mage, sniping enemies with a maximum-range fireball once per turn as they sit there in puzzlement. Maybe the bandits are lazy. Maybe that plague-bearer found a really nice parking spot, and it’s not giving it up for anything. It’s fun to think of reasons why the enemies won’t either advance or retreat out of long-distance attack range; it’s less fun to actually fight against it. Given that spells only cost AP (which regenerates fully every turn), you could use this to essentially break the game if you wanted to.

But that’s only if you wanted to. No one’s making you use the exploit, after all. A bigger problem with Styrateg’s combat system stems not from AI issues, but from matters of design. The combat system, though not based on Dungeons and Dragons, suffers from one of its biggest flaws: it is overly randomized. Attacks frequently miss–but more importantly, when they do hit, the damage they do is hugely unpredictable. Only half a dozen maps into the game, attacks can (and will) deal anywhere from 1 to 17 damage against the exact same target, with no discernible rhyme or reason. Combined with the relatively sparse information you’re provided on enemy unit stats, this renders combat much more of a blind crapshoot than it needs to be.

Developers Rake in Grass say that Styrateg involves “strategy and RPG mixed gameplay.” In a sense, that’s true. You control individual characters, they have equipment, they gain experience and levels, and you can accept and complete quests. However, even with all of that, Styrateg just barely qualifies as an RPG.

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"God damn it, Cedric--we're in the middle of a battle. Stop stacking helms on top of each other!"

Styrateg features very minimal exploration, for one thing. The game progresses straight through a linear sequence of timed battle scenarios. You can’t return to earlier areas or pick alternate routes. In fact, unless you turn off the game’s optional time limit, you can’t even stick around the map you’re already on for very long. It’s just one map after another after another.

Although most of the battlefields have one to two optional quests and/or hidden items, the maps are fairly confined. Anything hidden in the maps is hidden purely by virtue of the fog of war–once you see everything, you’ve seen everything.

Even between maps, there is a certain pervading sameness that hurts the game’s sense of progression. With rare exceptions, you’ll be seeing the same items over and over again. Character portraits and graphics are reused as well.

The illusion of progress is also hurt a bit by the fact that equipment can be stacked in strange and nonsensical ways. One of my fighters, Cedric, ended up wearing two helms for his armor. It sounds nit-picky to say, but this sort of thing makes it difficult to pretend that you’re actually equipping your characters with physical objects bearing physical properties. One gets the sense that one is merely swapping out interchangeable bonuses in an array.

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I hope you like narration, because this is how the entire game's story is told.

There isn’t much dialog in Styrateg; its rather minimal story is driven almost entirely by exposition. It feels a bit like having to periodically read a story book in the middle of battle. With the exception of your hero, you get little sense that your units are actual characters–not that your hero gets much development, either. You do at least get the opportunity to pick your hero’s name and class at the start of the game, though, so there’s that.

Styrateg features pleasant 2D graphics and some really nice music from Psalteria and Krless. The soundtrack gives me the feeling of being at a Renaissance festival; it’s quite enjoyable, even if it lends the game a much lighter tone than its authors probably intended. Also neat is the game’s map editor, which allows you to create your own campaigns and play those created by others. (I wasn’t able to actually find any custom Styrateg campaigns floating around on the internet, unfortunately.)

I’ve expounded at length before on what I think makes an RPG an RPG, so I won’t recite that whole thing again here. Suffice it to say that there are certain qualities that all RPGs have in common, and this one pulls an Indy Hat Roll to squeeze itself in at the margins. Styrateg has persistent characters and leveling, but the game is so linear, its exploration so threadbare, and its story and characters so bare-bones, that it ends up feeling like a pure fantasy strategy game anyway.

The Verdict: 2.5/5. Styrateg is a lightweight confection, enjoyable in short bursts but lacking in depth and content. The game is recommended for those who want some old school turn-based strategy and the absolute minimum of definitional RPG elements.

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Age of Fear is much newer than Styrateg. I’d seen it mentioned before, but it wasn’t until developer Leszek Sliwko emailed me with a review code and the promise of “indie fantasy turn-based strategy” that the game really caught my attention. (What can I say: oftentimes the direct approach is the best approach.)

Like Styrateg, Age of Fear: The Undead King is an unapologetically old-school turn-based strategy game, one which plays like one of those turn-based war simulations. However, Age of Fear dispenses with randomized damage, and brings free movement into the mix for good measure. You can think of it is as something like what Myth: The Fallen Lords would have played like had it been 2D and turn-based with a top-down camera.

Age of Fear’s trick is in unshackling all of its characters from the tyranny of grids and hexes. I was a little concerned when I first heard that the game did this (free movement crippled Nippon Ichi’s ill-conceived Phantom Brave), but Leszek has managed to make it work. It’s easy to see the limits of each character’s movement, including enemies’, and the game’s hand-painted battle backgrounds contain enough texture and unique features that you can recall the limits of different characters’ movement range with a little study.

By the standards of turn-based RPG combat, Age of Fear is quite good. Battles are satisfying tactical affairs, requiring patience and planning. Positioning is of paramount importance in Age of Fear. Characters block other characters (including friendly units), and archers cannot move and fire in the same turn. Thus, you’ll need to spend some time planning your formations and deciding how far to advance before engaging enemies. As you might expect, you’ll want to keep your ranged units well out of the enemy’s reach, but even your melee units aren’t the hardiest. The game provides money to replace fallen soldiers in between battles, but it pays to keep as many characters alive as possible.

Although Age of Fear’s combat is solid, it could stand a few more features to spice things up. I would have especially liked to see terrain effects and directional damage. AoF does a good job of continually introducing new unit and enemy types to keep things from stagnating, but the system itself needs just a couple more variables to really make the most of its free movement fundamentals.

On a pure useability level, it would have also been nice to have the option of clicking an enemy to leave its movement range visible on the screen while panning around and mousing over other characters. You can always click one of your own characters to leave up its move range and then mouse over the enemies, of course, but sometimes you just want to know who can move where while staying out of a particular enemy’s way.

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"No way am I moving into that tree's shadow. You can forget it, General."

Further, although the character movement system is pretty slick, it’s not perfect. Move your units too close to each other, and suddenly they’ll be prevented from moving them around one another. There is also sometimes a disconnect between the terrain you see onscreen and the areas that the game decides are moveable, with invisible boundaries that are impossible to predict simply from studying the map.

You may have noticed that I’ve only been talking about Age of Fear’s combat so far. Frankly, that’s because combat is most of the game. Age of Fear is a lot like Styrateg in that way. Age of Fear is relentlessly linear, its story entirely scripted. Your actions have no noticeable effect on the game besides advancing you to the next battlefield in better or worse shape. Age of Fear has a reasonably well-written story, but as with Styrateg, you will inevitably feel like you’re reading a book in between battles rather than playing the role yourself.

Age of Fear makes slightly better use of its linear episodic nature than Styrateg, however, allowing you to replay each battle you’ve completed as a quick skirmish (where you can play as the bad guys!)

Despite all of the structural similarities between Age of Fear and Styrateg, Age of Fear falls a little short of clawing its way into the RPG tent. Age of Fear features smaller maps than Styrateg and no fog of war, so there isn’t even a minimalist exploration element to the game. Age of Fear features no items or equipment. There is no leveling of individual characters, and all characters are effectively clones of other characters of the same class. This includes your hero, whose name and class are not customizable.

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Despite its lack of leveling mechanics, Age of Fear actually does feature a (very limited) form of character advancement: once a character reaches a certain amount of experience points, it may “evolve” into a more advanced version of its unit type. All units of the same type are still identical, however, and therefore this doesn’t quite achieve the core RPG characteristic of letting you shape your characters over the course of the game.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that Age of Fear is a bad game; far from it. Age of Fear is well-designed and enjoyable. It just isn’t an RPG. In addition to its single player modes, Age of Fear supports both hotseat and computer-to-computer multiplayer games against friends and strangers. If you ever find yourself jonesing for a little turn-based fantasy strategy, you could do far worse.

The Verdict: 3.5/5. Age of Fear is an innovative fantasy tactics game with a unique free-movement system and competent enemy AI. It isn’t an RPG, but people with a penchant for turn-based fantasy combat will certainly find something to enjoy here.

 

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