Hogwarts, A history
In last month's article, a story was told about how important it was to make an emotionally engaging design (aka game loop). This month, I wanted to share some of the inspirational mechanics from other well known tactics games. These are done in form a short mini-review. It would be possible for a full article on each of these games, however, my best attempt was made to capture the highlights and keep the focus on how certain mechanics or features are desirable in SteelPinion.
My personal history in gaming is going to have a massive influence on SteelPinion. It can't be helped, so it may as well be shared! I've transposed some of my personally favorite tactics games of all time into a kind of high level design view. This is to clarify for myself and others, what we aim to achieve more specifically. This will also call out features we would intentionally leave out for the greater good.
XCOM 2 Micro review
At time of writing, this is my favorite game. I have to stay away from it or else I'll just play it for hours on end. From the engaging musical score, to the excellent camera shot effects there is little to dislike about the game. I could live without missing a point blank flanking shotgun fire, or stats scaling problems from mid-late game; But let's hone in on the relevant inspiration:
The tactical aspects of XCOM are top notch, making all F1-F5 keepers. I'd pluck customization (C), procedural level generation (D), and badass battle reports (G) out of the outer game loop. Small mention that the tutorial mission was perfect, but then they just throw ya in the deep end and tell you to "swim". While I personally am okay with that kind of "do or die" start; I'd want SteelPinion to have a lower barrier of entry. Like, at least explain the fact that a truck can BLOW UP AND KILL YOUR UNIT after its set ablaze.
Divinity Original Sin 2 in-progress
This game blew my mind. It almost has everything I want, and its got a few things I don't want. The makers of Divinity are clearly masters in the tactical space; it is easily one of the best experiences I've had. I'd prefer less morbid gruesomeness and better inventory management; but those don't negatively affect the combat engine in the slightest!
An excellent RPG game of this caliber is not done proper justice by my view above. For instance, witty character dialogue and individual story progression is not captured in the slightest here; yet it truly enhances the experience. Divinity being more of an RPG, and less of a military management style game means that there is much less overworld functionality crossover. Regardless of this minimal crossover; some aspects are desirable like contextual loot (G), elemental complexities (F3-F5), and control over party loadout (C).
Triangle Strategy Micro review
Has a Final Fantasy game ever made you cry? Well this game feels just like one of those. The story was very compelling; even the scripted combat maps were exciting and fun. It reminds me alot of Final Fantasy Tactics, only with less customization traded for deeper unique unit progressions.
The tactical combat scratched my old itch for final fantasy tactics. Modern comforts like camera controls, better effects, and superb voice acting, really take it to next level. Lightweight elemental tile effects are neato, but hardly super effective in this game like they are in Divinity; sadly making the elemental dimension of the game ignorable for serious tactics. Controlling the flanking angle (F5) may seem simplistic, but this is something I miss in Divinity and XCOM both. They take a more automatic approach which makes sense in XCOM specifically given half/full cover system. For SteelPinion, I struggle excluding some light story elements with a single player campaign mode (B). Depending on how this year and the next pan out, richer story elements may come along later, yet cannot be an early focal point for SteelPinion at this moment.
Invisible Inc Micro review
Invisible Inc seems to take concepts from XCOM and really improve the tactics under pressure experience. They don't have the "point-blank-miss" problem, but they still punish you hard for failure like XCOM does; making late game imbalanced for some runs. The short campaign clearly marks it as a rouge-like, and prevents the late-game imbalance from being a full on negative trait; since wild balancing is a core feature of a good rouge-like.
Invisible feels like a streamlined game loop. It has less frills and truly isolates high quality tactical gameplay. They take an equipment/item based approach to abilities (A) instead of levels/exp which allows more control over balance. Since the game is so item centric, you may even loot new items/abilities mid-level (F5) and swap em mid-level! I'd be remiss to not touch on the quality procedural levels (C), and the fine grained settings that can be altered before a new campaign begins. Invisible Inc has unique gameplay with the incognita system plus a FANTASTIC art style I just love. It is a challenge to keep these mini reviews as short as possible with great games like Invisible Inc on the roster.
Fire Emblem Three Houses Micro review
I'm new to the Fire Emblem series. Not having internet earlier in life made it difficult to discover old gem series like this. I was both stunned and addicted to the game on my first playthrough. All the character designs spread across the anime archetypes. Then those characters have some role playing interactions and light tactics synergies. The colors of the game are probably my favorite part. The anime shading is just so good! The tactical gameplay has clear potential, but the scripted maps make it fall short of its potential glory. I would have hoped that a series of so many years would have improved in more ways than just graphics... Still, this was a very fun game to play; with lower replay value due to the lack of variability in the encounters.
Fire Emblem has heavy RPG elements like Triangle Strategy which similarly features excellent story telling. Story telling is something that will likely have to be forgone for a time in the SteelPinion universe since there is so much to do regarding balance and customization. Fire Emblem Three Houses has weak customization, and super simple battle tactics. My biggest issue with the battle gameplay is the DeathKnight problem. A classic mode player can't compete with DeathKnight without losing a couple characters; simply because of his overpowered "counter" passive. Even ranged magic/archery at a distance get counter hit by him HARD... The NPC DeathKnight gets to "escape" after you take him down, but your precious units never come back (unless you are on casual mode). DeathKnight encounters force completionist players to grind hard enough to deal with the threat, which then breaks the balance for the rest of the game. Couple imbalanced stats with simplistic tactics, and you end up with near brain-dead progression. It wasn't my intention to criticize Fire Emblem Three Houses so much, since it was very enjoyable. I suppose that there are many elements of the game that just aren't compatible with SteelPinion's vision.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced Micro review
It is hard to remember exactly how many years I played this game... Like, I remember migrating it from a physical gameboy advanced to a jailbroken psp (playstation portable), then finally to an emulator on android phone. Needless to say, this game has countless hours of playtime from me. It was addicting to build up each clan member however I wanted by their merits in combat. This was a slow process, training up each individual unit in fights. The EXP you get depends on how far you are in the story line since the enemy levels are based off that progression. So often times, I would stall the story to build up my clan. The game is rich with lore, quest oriented puzzles, and generated tactical encounters.
While I love this game so much as it is; I'd be remiss to not build something that has more quality-of-life and less grind. Afterall, grinding these days must be forgone for other adulting duties. So there needs to be a balance in real life akin to that found in good tactics games; kinda meta... Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced still goes way beyond most modern games in its customization capabilities; The customization depth is the number one inspiration to take away from here. I'd love the speed of customization and experimentation found in Invisible Inc combined with the sheer number of options in Final Fantasy tactics.
Advanced Wars 2 Micro review
My very first tactical game experience many many years ago, Advanced Wars 2 holds a special place in my heart. Regarding tactical gameplay, few games still match its passive strategic variance. The terrain plays a significant role on the forces that should be purchased, yet unorthodox stratagems can still work out if you use the right CO. Limited customization actually plays as a strength since balance becomes more predictable. Made in 2003, one cannot be too harsh towards its super verbose tutorial methods or lack of customization.
Aside from the global CO specials (F1), pretty much every battle feature is something I really want to see in some form or fashion in tactical games. It may not always make sense for every map in SteelPinion to have capturable zones (F4), but it can be nice for key areas of interest. In some sense, "capture" in SteelPinion is expected to be more of an emergent behavior; not an explicit "gain 1000 currency per turn". Requiring some supply management (F5), is a great way to balance out powerful abilities or weapons. Instead of a dedicated supply truck, I was thinking SteelPinion would have a salvage mechanic that fills that role instead.
Next month, we'll show some of the UI design for viewing various ship customizations.