Checks Out Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire

Whalehammer Games provided me with a review copy of Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire, and as is my wont, I tried it out for an hour or so while recording the results. Here they are!

So, what’d I think?

First, a confession: based on the appearance of the game, as well as the developers’ descriptions, I’d initially miscategorized Tahira as a tactical RPG. Only after playing it for a little over an hour did I come to realize my mistake. You see, characters and their progression are handled in a way roughly akin to the old Bungie series Myth: The Fallen Lords, and consequently, Tahira doesn’t quite pass the RPG test. Rather, it is a fantasy strategy game that feels a lot like a tactical RPG.

The flip side of this, though, is that but for the lack of experience points or levels, Tahira would actually make for a really solid tactical RPG–maybe even an exceptional one. Tahira has a consistent, compellingly dark tone to its story, with a gorgeous soundtrack and dialogue options that add role-playing flavor into the mix (even though I have yet to identify such an option that produces in-game consequences).

The game’s dialogue is sharply written, with doubts about the hero’s ability to lead (and the incredible stakes when leadership is suddenly thrust upon her) developed with sensitivity and humanity. Tahira also gets points for introducing a system of magic that manages to be both unique and genuinely mysterious, something I seldom see in modern fantasy titles.

The only true narrative misstep I spied in the game’s first hour is…well, frankly, the horse. Iba is clearly meant to bring some warmth and levity to an otherwise brutal story, which I appreciate; and I’m even willing to accept that this horse is somehow able to fully understand the nuances of Avestani (or whatever language it is that Tahira speaks). However, if you’re going to put a talking horse into your story, just make the damned thing talk. Having to read lines like “concerned whinny” and “disgusted snort” for fully 50% of a conversation is simply annoying–an annoyance rendered particularly stark by how well-crafted the rest of the game’s dialogue is by comparison.

But enough about writing: let’s get to the gameplay. Tahira’s mechanics are well-designed, with the system built upon a deterministic base. Flanking enemies provides a damage bonus for every unit involved in the flanking maneuver, and it’s possible to both shove enemies around (off cliffs, even!) and stun them. Moving through a unit’s zone of control grants them an attack of opportunity. Moreover, this may be one of the only tactics games I’ve seen that takes the Telepath approach to character movement: allied units block one another if positioned poorly.

The developers clearly took some inspiration from The Banner Saga’s design here–not merely in the game’s gorgeous rotoscoped combat animations, but in the array of stats that you’ll be juggling for your characters on the battlefield. Those stats are health, guard, and will (think strength, armor, and willpower).

I actually prefer the way that Tahira handles the health/guard dichotomy, however. One of my annoyances with The Banner Saga is that it presents the player with a false choice between working down strength or chipping away at armor, when in fact there is an optimal choice that is the same in nearly every circumstance (armor first, then strength). It’s a rules complication whose consequences are somewhat opaque, and which ultimately adds little to the game’s actual strategic complexity. Tahira removes this bit of false-choice micromanagement from the equation–damage works down a character’s guard to zero, and any further damage after that is taken out of the target’s health (with an associated reduction to that character’s attack power). Simple as that. All in all, Tahira features an elegant combat system that manages to be fun and interesting without being overly arcane.

One last thing that I’d be remiss not to mention: the game does not support multiple save slots. Starting a new game will simply overwrite any previous playthrough you had going on on that computer. It doesn’t matter much for me, as I’m the only one playing the game on my computer, but those of you hoping to have multiple concurrent playthroughs on a single machine should be aware that that simply isn’t going to happen.

Update: one of the developers has written in to let me know that the game actually does support multiple concurrent playthroughs, but you have to create multiple profiles to make it happen: “I wanted to clarify one point, which is that the game does support multiple saves, just not multiple saves of the same play-through. There is a ‘Profiles’ menu in the main menu, which lets you switch between five profiles.”

I won’t lie: it does hurt the experience a bit for me that most of my units are generics, and that they’re not actually gaining experience and continually leveling up as I win my fights. But at the end of the day, despite a few shortcomings, nearly every other aspect of Tahira is so well-done that it’s difficult not to recommend. Based on the first hour of play, I’d say that if you like turn-based fantasy tactics, Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is almost certainly worth your $15.

For more info on how you can pick it up, check over here.

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